Cake in the shape of …

My son’s class is having a bake-off in aid of a cancer charity, and he has begged me to take part.

This is problematic. I don’t do pretty cake. I do tasty cake – I’ve shown you the brownie and the ginger cake; I also like making lemon drizzle or rice crispie cake (of which more later) or Victoria sponge or rocky road or millionaire’s shortbread. I like making these because I like eating them. I do the kind of cake that makes people say “Well, you can tell it’s home made. Is there any more?”

Occasionally I am called upon to make a cake in a Shape. Children have birthdays and ask for cakes with knights and dragons, or jungle animals, or a tv character. And we sigh, and remember that it’s an honour and a compliment to be asked … and stay up until stupid o’clock swearing we’ll never touch fondant again.

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However, there are some workarounds. Pictured is an example of a “jungle animals” cake as requested by my then-3-year-old. No fondant modelling, just liberal buttercream to cover up the architecture. A number three is relatively easily carved out of two round cakes – practise first using any paper you can find, cut into circles the size of your tins, then use that as a template and use a bread knife to cut the excess away.

Redundant cake. Oh dear.

It was also remarkably easy to slice because it was effectively a big long thin shape. Don’t try to be clever – slice a party cake into a grid, or for small parties send a chunk home so everyone gets some.

Or forget shaping altogether and go for a very few easy models and a bit of imagination. A few Lego men go a long way, as do fondant ants. Oh the ants.

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Since then, though, I’ve learned the trick for Making A Shape Cake: don’t use cake. Use rice krispie cake, greased foodsafe gloves (or greased sandwich bags but that’s more fiddly) and mould while it’s still warm.

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Ingredients

Two bags of dairy toffees, unwrapped (the most laborious part of the make)
One bag of marshmallows
Some butter
Box of puffed rice cereal

Melt the toffees in a large bowl – I used a microwave on one-minute blasts. When they are nearly melted, add the marshmallows and a knob of butter and heat again until all melted.

Quickly mix together, then fold in the rice cereal around 100g at a time, until the toffee mixture is well distributed.

Put on your plastic gloves (or sandwich bags) and rub on a further knob of butter as though you’re applying hand cream. Liberally, all over. Then take handfuls of the mixture and mould into the shape you need. Work quickly and smoothly, and leave to set.

This makes good rock, walls, clouds, etc. You can fondant or ice over the top if you are just using it architecturally, but you need to let it cool first.

*****

My birthday cake? Listen: I have three sons. My next birthday cake is going to be a classic Barbie doll with a ball dress made of sponge and badly-piped buttercream, because I’m not sure I’ll get to make one otherwise. And it’s going to be a bit wonky, but it’s going to be tasty cake, too.

 

Cough cough splutter splutter

Small children wake in the night for any number of reasons, some of which are utterly infuriating.

Unquestionably legitimate

Needing the toilet / nappy change
Needing milk (very small children only; does not include hollow-legs 7yos)
Thunderstorms
Vomit

Infuriating

“There was a noise”
“I think there’s a monster”
“My pyjamas are funny”
“I really love you”

At the risk of invoking Samuel L Jackson, it’s hard to accept Infuriating Wakes when they are remotely avoidable.

“A bit of a cough” is to be expected when a small child has a cold. Something about lying down and the drainage something something gross this is why I am not a doctor.

Smearing a bit of Vicks or similar on to the SOLES OF THE FEET somehow magically relieves the cough a bit. I am a bit of a cynic about “woo” remedies but reflexology occasionally annoyingly does something and this is one of those things.

Note: it even worked on the totally cynical “I will do this to prove you wrong” husband who had been miserable with a cold-cough and within ten minutes of Vicks-ing had fallen into a coughless sleep. HA. VINDICATION.

For the sake of the sheets, put socks on over the Vicks.

Ironing water

There are an awful lot of unnecessary products on the market. As you know, I’m a big fan of products which actually make your life easier (frozen mashed potato, grated cheese, etc) but I am certainly not keen on products which prey on our insecurities, and manufacturers who create anxieties in us by tendering products to solve a problem which does not exist.

Let’s talk about “Ironing Water” such as this Comfort example. £1.40/L to “make ironing more enjoyable! Bring fresh, outdoorsy fragrance to your ironing, while smoothing away creases and protecting your iron from lime scale.”

WHAT THE ACTUAL.

Steam irons are a fabulous invention which actually solved a problem – getting a garment just damp enough so that the steam generated by the hot iron would relax the cloth just enough for the weight of the iron itself to smooth it. But of course in hard water areas introducing any water to a heating element results in limescale build-up, so you can’t just pour tap water into the iron’s reservoir unless you’re happy to buy a new iron every year.

So it becomes desirable to find a source of softer or preferably even deionised/distilled water with which to fill one’s iron. One method is to move to Cheshire or Lancashire, but you may consider that an overreaction. An alternative is to use a dehumidifier (we have this one which at the time of writing is half price on Amazon) and use the resulting collected water.

BUT OH, you cry, THAT WATER DOESN’T SMELL OF ANYTHING PRETTY.

I refer you to my earlier remarks about “problems which do not exist” in the first instance, but if you insist … Rather than spend money and precious finite resources hoarding Comfort Vaporesse from the house of Unilever, there is a very simple solution to this problem which is almost certainly already in your house, or will be very soon.

When you buy a bottle of laundry detergent or fabric softener, there will be some blurb somewhere advising you under no circumstances to reuse the bottle, particularly for food/drink purposes. If you’ve ever drunk from an empty shampoo bottle (don’t judge me) you’ll recall the “taint” of the product on the plastic leaching into the water.

The taint is our friend today.

Next time you finish a bottle of laundry detergent or fabric softener, don’t throw it away. Don’t recycle it either, or even rinse it. Instead, throw the entire bottle and its lid (separately) into your next laundry load. In most cases the smears on the side of the bottle are enough for another load.

Remove the squeaky-clean bottle from your laundry before you move towards a tumble dryer or washing line, and fill it with water: tap in a soft area, or distilled from your dehumidifier, or poured out from a bottle of drinking water if you’re desperate (it seems that Aqua Pura at 24p/L is the softest available on the high street at around 27ppm). The water will take on the taint of the detergent/softener from the plastic bottle.

When you pour that water into your iron, the steam generated will smell vaguely of the detergent/softener you have already used to clean the clothes, refreshing the smell rather than adding another layer.

There’s an elephant in the room, which is of course that I have assumed ironing is a Thing Of Importance. Frankly, though, if you’re even considering buying Ironing Water with your weekly shop, you think so too. If you don’t iron, maybe you’ve read this blogpost with a kind of horrified fascination, and stroked your non-iron wardrobe with an affection bordering on obsession. Either way, you win.

The sun has got his hat on

The weather certainly took me by surprise.

I’m of the complexion politely called “English Rose” or more accurately “blue”. So a few days after the hail and sleet, when the sun came out over Cheshire, I was completely unprepared for the UV.

Aaaaaand this happened.

ouchy chest

Fortunately, our youngest is not yet potty-trained, so I used some of his nappy rash cream and the painful sunburn was gone overnight. As if by magic!

My teeny hand is frozen

This post has been part-written for a while. The weather took me – and a lot of other people – by surprise. So although this might seem unseasonable, trust me that it will be useful when it’s really chilly again. So, May, probably.

There are some babies who will not wear gloves. I have had three. The eldest refused gloves until that -17 degree winter we had, when he was old enough to reason with. Yeah, ok, old enough to bribe.

What did we do in the meantime?

Sock gloves.

The child’s own socks, or a size up, all the way up on top of the jumper sleeves but underneath the coat. The elastic creates friction between the fabric layers something something science something physics something and they can’t pull them off.

For extra credit, apply multiple layers, eg long-sleeved vest or t-shirt, sock one, jumper, sock two, coat, actual glove (for appearances’ sake).

Here the youngest at the zoo modelling his sock gloves. The sulky expression is because of hating to have his hands covered. Unlucky.Featured imageFeatured image

Polish the porch

I mentioned in a previous post that I am not the world’s best housekeeper.

That was an understatement. I vastly resent adulthood for requiring me to have standards. And as I trundle through my thirties I realise I do have standards. A tidy room is nicer than an untidy one. It is easier to find things that have a place to live and do in fact live there. I do prefer the look of an ironed top to that of an unironed one.

But. But. But.

All of these standards require action, and that’s really hugely unfair. I should somehow be able to reap the benefits of responsibility and adulthood without the boring labour involved. Introducing into my personal space four male persons with less high standards <understatement> sometimes seems like a huge error.

Friends joke about a commune, to which we will one day escape, to drink wine, read books, and eat cheese, mostly. There will not be messy children or husbands in it. We might employ a dishy gardener, but not one who talks.

In the meantime, in my non-commune, and despite labour-saving devices a fifties housewife could barely have dreamed of, there is approximately fifty-eight megatons of housework to be done all the chuffing time. Laundry, cooking and washing-up are the main time-suckers, but floors come close too.

Anyway, I have reached a kind of equilibrium now, so that when people drop by unannounced I am not completely humiliated, and when I want it to be clean-clean it doesn’t take a hundred years.

However, sometimes someone gives me notice that they’re popping round and I want the house to appear to be clean-clean when in fact it’s only not-humiliating. The tips and hacks for that illusion can be summed up in the blogpost title: Polish the Porch.

Yes.

Take your most strong-smelling polish, and your cleanest microfibre cloth, and go to the porch/front door. Polish the walls around the door. When your guest arrives, they smell polish, and their brain is tricked into thinking the whole house has been dusted and polished.

<picks self off the floor after falling down laughing>

Other hacks in this category include floor wipes. But for the ultimate lazy floor solution, tune in next time.

The Great Outdoors

My husband and I used to camp a lot when we were first an item – indeed the first time I met a large group of his friends was in a field full of tents, and they had thoughtfully strewn soft porn inside his tent for me to find.

In those days camping was a cheap (often free) source of accommodation when we wanted to go gadding about round the country, and our equipment was extremely basic. Nutrition was mainly found in pubs or in the off-licence, so the presence or absence of suitable sleeping bags was largely unnoticed.

Fast-forward a decade. I am writing this on my smartphone in the dark in a tent with two children snoring and one, well, not quite asleep yet. It is three-quarters dark and we had fish & chips for tea. We are also less than five miles from home.

This is a trial run before our Great Adventure in the summer holidays. We have forgotten (at least) bin bags and ketchup. We had practised putting the tent up before we came – and it only nearly ended in divorce – so today it was a smooth operation. All the anchors and guys are pegged and I have even hung up the fairy lights.

Oh, the fairy lights. These were recommended to me by the seasoned campers of Mumsnet. Camp it up, they said. Nothing could possibly be too naff, they said.

Incredibly, they were right. Admittedly the man of the house (man of the tent?) vetoed the gnomes I wanted, and left behind the mini Victoriana lanterns. But oh, the fairy lights. The tiny green LEDs, like Christmas tree lights, turn out in context to be very subtle and understated even though they are strung on the outside of the tent. The little red ladybirds on the other hand are just right, and I love them. They go with the flickering of candlelight and the funny little metal mug and the VERY NOISY GEESE and the way the flysheet shivers in the breeze.

It’s ten past nine, and feels like midnight. Google told me you can’t take too many fleece blankets, and oh yes that’s true too. I’m cosy and content.

I’m too old to rough it, especially now that I can’t mitigate the cold, hard ground with six rum and Cokes and a cheeseburger. My chair supports my back, I can stand up straight in the tent, and I’ve brought the teabags I like best.

Hints and hacks? Well, solar-powered fairy lights FTW, obviously. But what’s really amazing is how long we have been here with not much to do (and no telly) and how utterly engrossed the children have been. They are CAMPING and there are tents and caravans and other children. There are trees and even a railway line within sight. We planned to bring lots of stuff for them to do but ran out of car space. And it hasn’t mattered (yet) because CAMPING.

Ask me again in the morning, obviously, when the airbed’s gone down and the children wake with the morning chorus… but this is lovely. Just lovely.