Friday, 28 June 2013

RECIPE: Vanilla and raspberry cake with chocolate icing

We recently celebrated my little sister Holly's 18th birthday with a black tie dinner for a load of her friends. Naturally, my main responsibility was the cake. For weeks in the run up to the party I suggested cakes to the birthday girl, and we finally settled on one: two layers of moist vanilla sponge dotted with tart tangy raspberries, sandwiched together and covered with fluffy chocolate buttercream icing. Chocolate and raspberries is a winning combo, and Holly wanted to go for a bit of a shock factor. It may look like a plain chocolate cake from the outside, but just wait till you slice into it... and BAM! Excitement of the evening right there.

It's almost my chocolate and raspberry sponge reversed. What fun. Holly and I love vanilla sponge with chocolate icing. We're not sure why. I think it might be because our prep school used to give it to us at tea, and that was always a great day - my fave, quelle surprise. I know school dinners get a bad rep, but this cake was epic: simple light sponge with a good thick layer of fluffy icing. And I always picked the pieces with practically an inch of the stuff. I was the record holder for amount of cake eaten in one sitting - Seven pieces. How I wasn't obese is anyone's guess. Hopefully they still make the amazing cake and my record stands.

But back to this cake. I was thrilled that everyone at the party seemed to love it, despite being full to the brim with all the food we'd consumed earlier in the evening. I have to say, it sure tasted better the next day when I wasn't in a food coma.

Using a vanilla pod instead of your usual vanilla extract gives the sponge that much more flavour, and the five eggs give it a delightful yellow colour. If I was still at uni, the chances are I would've used frozen raspberries, but mother dearest insisted on using fresh - your youngest child is only 18 once I guess. I have to say, it is best to use fresh raspberries if you can - the texture and taste is just that much better.

Ingredients - Sponge:

250g unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
250g golden caster sugar
1/4 tsp salt
seeds scraped from 1 vanilla pod (slit it open lengthways with a sharp knife and scrape the seeds out with a teaspoon)
5 large eggs, cracked into a jug
85g plain flour
100g natural yogurt (I used fat-free as it's all we had)
250g self-raising flour

3 tbsp semi-skimmed milk
about 30 fresh raspberries, plus extra for decoration

slicing the vanilla pod open

150g unsalted butter, softened
300g icing sugar, sifted, plus extra for dusting
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp cocoa powder, sifted

one sponge, pre-icing (and delicious just like that!)

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C and grease and line two round 20cm tins. Using a handheld electric whisk, beat the butter, sugar, vanilla and salt together until pale and fluffy, then pour in the eggs, one at a time, giving the mix a really good beating before adding the next. Add 1 tbsp of the plain flour if the mix starts to look slimy rather than fluffy. Beat in the yogurt.

2. Mix the flours; then, using a large metal spoon, fold them into the batter, followed by the milk. Spoon the mix into the tin and dot the raspberries evenly on to the top - don't worry about pushing them down too much as the cakes will rise up around them in the oven. Bake for around 40 mins or until well risen and golden – a skewer inserted into the middle should come out clean.

ready for baking!
3. Once out of the oven, go round the sides of the tins with a knife. Leave for around ten mins in the tins before turning the cakes out to cool fully on a wire rack.

4. Make the icing: beat the butter until pale and fluffy with a handheld electric mixer then add the vanilla and the icing sugar, half at a time, beating well in between each addition. Add the cocoa powder and beat for a good five minutes until light and fluffy.

before icing the top and sides
5. Cover the top of one cake with a thin layer of icing, place the second cake on top and then cover the top and sides - not easy, I know, but persevere. It's hard to get a smooth finish, but a good trick my mum taught me is to dip a knife in a glass of warm water and gently spread it over the icing, swirling it back through the water often so as not to take off any of the icing. Mum's always know best, don't they? Decorate with raspberries and a light dusting of icing sugar.

6. Add a candle, sing happy birthday and feed to a group of happy teenagers.


Thursday, 27 June 2013

A Day at Wimbledon 2013 - what it's like to actually be there

The view from our seats on No 1 Court
As I sit in the kitchen and write this, Wimbledon is on the TV in the background. For two weeks of the year, it always is in our house. Sharapova's grunts, Sue Barker's commentary and that delightful noise when a tennis ball is struck by a racket have always been the soundtrack to the start of my summer holidays. I'm not a huge sports girl, but I do love Wimbledon, and I do get jolly into it. The finals are almost too nerve-wracking for me to bear (Federer vs Murray 2012, I'm looking at you.)

One of the reasons I adore Wimbledon is because it's so delightfully British, and everyone knows I adore anything and everything patriotic. That said, I'd never actually been to Wimbledon myself. Not until two days ago, anyway. And oh! what a marvelous day I had!

Going to Wimbledon is special, and it's about more than just the tennis. There's so much going on that you just don't see on the TV. A day at Wimbledon is an amazing day out, and so I thought I'd write a little post about my day and let y'all know what it's really like to actually go to Wimbledon.

My first impression upon entering the park? WOW. It's incredible. And huge. The whole place is beautifully landscaped - perfect purple flowers everywhere, sleek buildings covered with pretty ivy (oh, how I gazed up at the members in their special snazzy zones), lots of cute benches, picnic areas and archways for strolling under. And the whole place is spotless. It feels really special as soon as you walk in, regardless of which entry gate you choose.

Only in England, eh?
As I already had my ground pass ticket (which was complimentary as my AWESOME cousin, Liam, is a ballboy - more on them later), so I didn't even have to queue to get in. I barely queued all day. Not even for the ladies' loos. There were loads of loos. Always a good sign.

That said, there were queues for the various eateries, and boy, were there a lot of eateries. It's amazing really - pizza, froyo, fish and chips, noodles, sandwiches, strawberries and cream (of course), burgers, hot dogs, Champagne, Pimms (natch)... and they're just some of the offerings from the "Tea Lawn" where you can grab something to go. There are also caf├ęs, bakeries, a buffet, a diner, a food court, a food village and tons of snazzy restaurants.

Mum had told me before I left that Pimm's at Wimbledon is £8 a cup. I'd thought she was wildly exaggerating. She wasn't. It was £7.50. Ouch. I'm jolly glad mum encouraged me to take so much of my own food with me (stuffed into my poor but conveniently capacious Mulberry) because a) it's really expensive in Wimbledon, b) I didn't want to waste time queuing, and c) door-to-door I was out for 14 hours so plenty of food was needed!

snazzy restaurants
As much as I would have loved a glass of Pimm's to add to my Wimbledon experience, the opportunity to fill up my water bottle for free at the fountains around the park appealed far more to my thrifty student nature. However, the prices didn't stop, oh, just about everyone else treating themselves to Pimm's though. Surprising, but YOLO, I suppose.

The majority of the visitors to Wimbledon, if one was to judge books by their covers, seemed to be the types who could afford an £8 glass of Pimm's. The people-watching really is fantastic though. If you get lost or want a sit down, you could be entertained for hours just by watching the other punters coming and going. Well, I could anyway. It's so interesting. I was also very impressed by the style-stakes - there were a lot of extremely well-dressed ladies and gents around. Hopefully I was one of them...

Union Jack nails unintentionally matching my outfit

Speaking of clothing, all the Wimbledon staff look impeccable in their uniforms. I love the Ralph Lauren polo shirts of the ball-children (that's the ball-boys and ball-girls, obvs), as well as the smart blazers and general ensembles of the umpires and lines-people. I do have one qualm though - down to the ankle, I love the umpires' uniforms. But then the white socks with those cream shoes? No no no no no. Rachel does not like this. But I forgive them.

My friend Paddy, rocking the shop assistant uniform
Everyone working at Wimbledon is delightfully friendly and well-trained - from the shop assistants to the security guards. Best of all though, undoubtedly, are the ball-children (and I'm not just saying that because my cousin is one of them.) When you're actually there, court-side, you notice what they're doing much more. These kids are INCREDIBLE! They do everything with military precision, and their focus is intense.

The ball-children run around the courts almost as much as the players themselves, picking up, throwing, rolling and catching balls with such impressive accuracy. And because they do it all so well, they almost blend into the background, unnoticed, which isn't really fair.

I know the tennis players are in their zones, and they can't exactly stop to mind their Ps and Qs when asking for their towels, but I really don't like the way some players treat the ball-children. I saw one Spanish female tennis player (who shall remain un-named) having a right go (in Spanish, no less) at a ball-girl who didn't quite pick up from a mere glance that said player wanted her towel. It's so unnecessary. Obviously the ball-children have been trained not to respond, but I don't half feel for them.

The impressive organisation of the ball-children reflects the general organisation of Wimbledon as a whole. I think one of the things that makes Wimbledon so unique is its lack of advertisements around the courts and the whole park. Aside from Slazenger and Robinson's written on the umpires' chairs, there's nothing else. I think that makes it all seem somewhat classier.

I was lucky because the weather was largely sunny and warm when I visited. After getting the tube to Southfields, I made the short walk to the tennis club. It's great as everyone is going to the same place, there are tons of helpful stewards and signposts, and - most amusingly - there are loads of people selling everything from homemade burgers to frappuccinos from their front gardens as the crowds stream past their houses.

We walked round the park (me in awe, taking it all in) first thing upon arrival, and then found a match to watch. As ground pass holders, we couldn't go on to the show courts, but the rest of the courts have seats open to everyone. People come and go often enough that it's not too tricky to find a seat either. As I sat on the frow (that's not just a fashion term, right?), in the sunshine, so close to the action, I was in bliss. (Managed to top up my tan, didn't I? Cheeky.)

It doesn't even matter if you've never heard of the players you're watching (I hadn't) - the standard of tennis is so high, and being so close you really appreciate the skill and the power of the players. I loved it.

A bit later, I went for a stroll round the park. There's so much going on, from watching the big screen from Henman Hill/Murray Mound to browsing the souvenirs in the shops. (Obviously I got excited walking past the press centre too.)And let me tell ya, there are some cracking offerings in the shops (all online here too.) I myself was most tempted by all the chinaware (tea addict, WHUUUT) and some of the bags. Classic me.

I loved the Strawberries and Cream tea sets (£30)
Throughout the day, I happened to bump into a surprising number of friends. Always lovely, isn't it? Best of all though, was running into my friend Kate towards the end of the afternoon. They had tickets for the FRONT ROW of NO. 1 COURT and as they just so happened to be leaving when I ran into them, Kate kindly let me have her tickets. I know. Such a babe. Lucky me!

So, we dashed on to our new amazing seats, barely believing our luck, and got to watch both the Berdych vs Klizan match and Lisicki vs Schiavone, which was an extra un-scheduled match - we really were lucky. I particularly liked Lisicki as she smiled at the ball-children. A smile costs nothing.

Although the show-courts tend to empty at the end of the day, the atmosphere on No. 1 Court was just fantastic. Everyone cheered, gasped and oohed at the best rallies, and we all clapped in the build up to the result of a challenge. It was a lot of fun. I honestly think tennis is one of the best spectator sports out there.

This board is updated as the results come through
The whole day somewhat reminded me of my trip to the Olympics last year, and I feel so lucky to have gone - thank you, Liam! I left Wimbledon at around 8.30pm along with what seemed like most of the other visitors, exhausted but so so happy. The combination of incredible tennis, beautiful surroundings and sunny weather sure do make for a good British summer day out.

If you ever get the chance, I implore you to go, even if you don't think you're much of a tennis fan (you will be by the end of the day!) Quite frankly, I want to go back every day for the rest of the Championships! Feel free to send tickets...

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Inspiring, Interesting Interview No. 1: Tanya Goodin, Pioneering Digital Entrepreneur

Welcome to my Inspiring, Interesting Interview Series. Over the past few years, I've had the good fortune to meet and work with some incredible people. They've all inspired me, and I hope you find these interviews as thoroughly fascinating as I have. First up, say hello to a total superwoman...

An Oxford graduate, Tanya Goodin is founder & CEO of award-winning digital marketing agency Tamar. Based in London since 1995, Tamar has been at the forefront of its field for 18 years and now has offices in Cape Town and Shanghai too. Tanya is a real internet pioneer and has always had a keen eye for the next big thing: she developed enterprise websites before ecommerce existed, optimised for search engines while the google founders were still in school, and discussed the crucial role of user generated content before Facebook even had a business model. All that and she always looks immeasurably glam.

Tanya was a finalist in the Blackberry Outstanding Women in Technology in 2008 and a London regional finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007. She is always on the ball when it comes to new social media trends, and was named one of Revolution Magazine’s Top Tweeters in 2009. I follow her; I can vouch for the fact that she’s great. Tanya kindly took the time to have a chat to me about social media, starting your own digital business and being a techie woman:

Hi Tanya! Tell us a bit about what Tamar does.

We're a digital marketing agency so that means we use digital communication methods (all online, no TV or print) to help brands sell and communicate with their customers.

Did you always know you wanted to start your own business?

Always! I was that classic child selling homemade lemonade from a table outside my house at 5 or 6 years old and flogging off old clothes and toys to neighbours to make money. I knew I was fascinated by the business world at a very early age, no idea why as no-one else in my family was.

Setting up a new company is always scary, but was it particularly nerve-wracking to do so with a digital agency at a time when the Internet was still kicking off (Tanya founded Tamar just five years after the internet was invented!)?

Not so much nerve-wracking as intensely frustrating. In the UK no-one really GOT the internet at that stage and so I spent rather too much time on educating people WHY  it was going to be an amazing new communication medium when I really wanted to be moving on much more quickly to WHAT it could do for them and HOW to do it. It felt like everyone took FAR too long to catch-on in the early years. I probably launched about five years too early looking back now. But once I saw my first website (in about 1993) I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do.

Do you think it's harder or easier to set up an online company now?

It's still an easy business area to launch in from a capital and expenditure point of view. You really do only need a laptop and broadband connection to launch a business, you don't need a huge pot of investment capital. But in some ways it's a lot harder, coming up with a new and unique business idea now when the market is SO crowded with great businesses is tough. When I launched, the fact that I had an online business at ALL was amazing to many people. It didn't really matter what we were planning to do, we stood out just because we were THERE. Which was good because in the early days I really didn't have a clue what we were doing.

How do you think social media has changed the way companies build their brands online?

It's been a great leveller and it's taken power from brands and handed it right to consumers. The days when a customer complaint could be hushed under the carpet and dealt with via a discreet apology letter are gone. Now every element of a brand's business and the way they deal with customers can be blown right open for the world to see. It does mean consumers have become very powerful, they can make or break brands. And it also means brands have to learn to be more open, transparent and, that awful Americanism - 'authentic', about the way they do business or risk being found out. It's been a power for good, I strongly feel that.

What are the online trends we should be looking out for?

The Internet started with text on a screen, it's been about WORDS for a very long time, but the moving image is now taking over. As the lines between work, play, education and entertainment become blurred we're all going to be watching a lot more video online. People are sadly forgetting how to write as a result (I'm an English graduate, I care about this stuff).

The trend of everyone being the custodian of their own 'brand' will continue. If you're starting out now in the world you need to find and register your own domain name and networks and keep a close watch on your social 'footprint' from an early age. My generation could make all our growing-up mistakes in private (thank goodness). Your generation won't have that luxury. Things you do now can come back to haunt you in 20/30 years. Think very carefully about what you do online as a result.

Social media is going to continue to develop and go in new directions that we've never even thought of. Brands like Pinterest and Instagram are bringing a dimension to our lives that we never even anticipated a few years ago. I feel it's making us all a lot more creative, we're all content curators and photographers and editors. It's only going to get more exciting.

Do you think it's harder for women in the typically male world of technology? Have you faced difficulties as a woman?

The beauty of the online world is that it's 'sex irrelevant'. I can honestly say it's never been a disadvantage to me being a woman in digital. It may even have been an advantage as in a very male-dominated world I've always stood out a bit. I actually thing technology is very female-friendly as an industry, it enables the kind of flexibility of working that benefits you if you're juggling a business and a family. It's been a GREAT industry for me to be in and I'm really keen to encourage more women to consider it.

What advice would you give to wannabe digital entrepreneurs?

Just DO it. I didn't spend hours working out a finely-honed business plan and debating all the pros and cons when I started. I went with my gut instinct that it was the right industry for me and jumped right in. I made up a lot as I went along, and you have to be prepared to make swift u-turns and go off in another direction if something isn't working, but I've never ever for a moment regretted running my own business. It's been an incredibly rewarding path to have trodden and even after 18 years I'm still excited every morning at the thought of what the day will bring. How many people in the corporate world can say that?

Thanks Tanya!

Monday, 24 June 2013

The 5:2 Diet: Pros, cons and my top tips

For the past few months, the 5:2 Diet has been the diet on everyone's lips (or not, as the case may be on fast days.) Don't know what it is? Read my post Weighing Up the 5:2 Diet here. Still yet to give it a try? Check out this great infographic from Holland and Barrett:

I've tried the odd fast day here and there over the past few months (check out my post "Trying a "fast" day on the 5:2 diet" here, often before or after a few days of intense gluttony, and I've definitely discovered some tricks that make it easier. Here are my top tips:

1. It gets easier as the days go on, so try and bear that in mind if on Day 1 you feel like you're DYING!

2. I (and I know I'm not alone here) have found the rest of the day is easier if you wait as long as you can before having "breakfast". I don't know why, but it is. So if I'm doing a fast day I usually wait until around noon when I'd have some berries with fat-free yoghurt. And they sure do taste good!

3. VEGETABLES ARE YOUR FRIENDS! (Carbs not so much.) Seriously though, a lot of veggies are ridiculously low-cal, so you can eat a surprisingly large amount. Low-cal veggies: cauliflower, green beans, mange tout, asparagus, peppers, couurgette. Higher-cal carby veggies: butternut squash, sweetcorn, peas, parsnips.

4. Drink a lot. And I mean a lot. It keeps you full. Some people may not condone it, but I live off diet fizzy drinks, sparkling flavoured water, squash and tea.

5. If you're a pudding person (like me), and used to having something sweet post-dinner or before bed, try and save yourself a few calories to do so. Otherwise your body gets confused and you will get horrible munchies. My suggestion? Sugar-free jelly pots. They're about 3 calories per pot. No joke. You could eat a ridiculous amount of those on a fast day (although I imagine you'd feel extremely sick as a result.)

Anyone agree with my findings or having their own tips to share? Let me know!

Saturday, 22 June 2013

RECIPE: Buttery flower shortbread biscuits (with jam and nutella fillings!)

A few days ago, a rather exciting looking parcel came for me in the post. Now I don't know about you, but I never get post - if I do, it's usually from Natwest - so this was very exciting. Thanks to the lovely Lucy at The Ideas Network, I opened the package to find a set of 6 Colourworks Flower Cookie Cutters from Cargo - and aren't they cute?

totes adorbs
My pretty utensils
It'll come as no surprise to hear that I love bright kitchen utensils, so these cookie cutters are right up my street. They also made me realise that I very rarely bake biscuits that require cutters. Cakes, traybakes, cookies... No problem, toutes les semaines. I suppose I make spiced biscuits, gingerbread cookies and Pfefferkuchen at Christmas, but these lovely cutters prompted me to do a spot of summer biscuit baking. And so, flower shortbread biscuits were born.

A generous slather of nutella
Shortbread is such a classic Scottish treat, so I decided to embrace the Scottish blood I've inherited from my dad and whack out a batch of my own. Not content with just doing basic biscuits though, I (naturally) challenged myself a little more by making my own jammy dodgers. Or nutella-y dodgers, as the case may be.

The sandwiching is a lot of fun
Buttery and crumbly, subtly sweet and a little salty, moreish and melt-in-the-mouth, these biscuits are really rather yummy, if I do say so myself. Delicious as they are, but extra special when made into jam/nutella filled sandwiched biscuits. I made an array of both. And seeing as I couldn't choose just one filling, I used strawberry, raspberry and apricot jams and nutella, in separate biscuits, that is. You can use whatever you like though - I think dulce de leche would be scrummy. Using a range of fillings means they look delightfully colourful on a plate too.

It's a little fiddly and time-consuming, but really rather therapeutic. Of course, you could whip up a batch more quickly and easily by doing basic biscuits, but where's the fun in that? Having pretty cutters (just like pretty cupcake cases) really can make all the difference. I love the "home-made" look of baked goods, and I'm no pro when it comes to food presentation, but sometimes when food looks good it then tastes better as a result.

Flower-shaped biscuits are just perfect for summer, and these cutters worked brilliantly. Despite being plastic, they cut through my dough without a problem. Having a range of sizes is really useful, and they're dishwasher-safe too, hoorah!

Shortbread and strawberries is a classic summer treat, maybe with a smidge of cream on the side, or perhaps try sticking a little piece of shortbread into a bowl of Eton Mess. Yum! Even the aforementioned Scottish father enjoys these shortbread, and he doesn't like anything sweet. I kid you not. What a nutter. So yeah, Scottish seal of approval YAY!

What a pudding.

I modified Fiona Cairns' recipe from her lovely Bake & Decorate book. It's hard to say how many biscuits this makes though, as it depends on the size of your cutters and how many you choose to turn into jammy sandwiches. Can you ever have too much shortbread though? (I think not.)

I think they still look good with jam poking out the sides

200g unsalted butter, softened (use my tip to quickly bring your butter to room temperature!)
80g golden caster sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
200g plain flour, plus plenty more for dusting
100g cornflour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp per biscuit jam, nutella, dulce de leche etc
icing sugar, for dusting

I imagine Paul and Mary would have something to say about this. Not sure what, but hey.


1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla until pale using a handheld electric whisk. Sieve the flour, cornflour and salt into another bowl. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the butter mix, mixing briefly after each addition until it binds together. Don't be alarmed if it seems relatively wet.

Perfectly soft - my finger tip leaves a mark.
2. Before you get your hands messy, lay out a large piece of clingfilm. Flour your hands and gently knead the dough until just smooth (don't overwork it.) Add more flour if it seems extremely wet. Scoop the dough out of the bowl as best you can and wrap it in the clingfilm. Pop the dough in the fridge for half an hour to make it easier to roll out.

Out of the fridge and ready to roll. (Ha!)

3. On a floured surface and with floured hands, knead the refrigerated dough to check the consistency - add more flour if it needs it. (If you roll it out and then can't lift your cut shapes off the surface as the dough is too sticky, you'll know you need to add more flour and keep working it until it comes together better.) Roll the dough out to about 3-5mm thick with a floured rolling pin. Don't be afraid to keep adding flour as you go. You need a lot of the stuff. Go crazy.

4. Using the cutters of your choice, start cutting your flowers. To make the jammy sandwiches, make sure you cut two flowers of the same size, then use a smaller flower to cut out the middle of one of them. Obviously you still bake the cut-out centre (mum, the sis and I love the bite-size flowers!)

Using a spatula to place the cookies on the baking tray.
5. Lay your flowers on baking sheets lined with baking parchment. I found the best way to do this was to gently use a knife and a spatula to lift them off the surface. Don't worry if they slightly fall apart, you can stick them back together on the baking tray (and who wants perfect biscuits anyway?) Leave a little space in between each, but they don't spread much in the oven.

Warm out of the oven
The chances are you'll need to do them in batches and re-roll the dough at least once to make the most of it. Don't be throwing the cut-out bits away now! If the dough gets too dry, add a smidge of water to your hands and re-knead.

Freshly baked
6. Bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes. Leave to cool for a few minutes on the baking trays, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.


Apricot is a winner
7. Once cool, it's assembly time (if you're making sandwiches)! Spread your chosen filling on to the base flowers and sandwich together with the cut-out ones. Don't press down too hard, as they may crack. Dust with icing sugar and you're done! Deeeee-lish.

If ya fancy making your own like mine, buy your own Six Piece Flower Shaped Cookie Cutter Set for a mere £4 here. They also have heart, stars and loads more adorable shapes on offer. Tempting much?
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