Macaroons & Margaritas

Sometimes, life is just too short to make everything from scratch – and you know what? Often people don’t even notice…

On Sunday, thanks to the virtue of a time difference that lends me a two day birthday, I was justified in celebrating my birthday the night before its official date. I decided to make it an occasion for cocktails and cake, because, quite frankly nothing says birthday (or potentially even Sunday) than cake and cocktails.

Yes, I made some cake from scratch – there were ginger biscuits (the recipe of which I will post next time I make them as they were meant to include dark chocolate and I forgot) and my very special brownies; plus slightly cheating mini tarts (well, ready-rolled pastry is quite a big cheat I guess). There was a carrot cake that may have originated from a Sainsbury’s packet mix – but I was very honest when it was complimented. Then, there were French style raspberry macaroons…

Anyone who knows anything about baking knows that these things (which are hugely popular at the moment) are rather complicated and thus, it was with some interest that I discovered packet mixes for a variety of flavours in Carre Four – the local supermarket when at Chateau Duffy. Given as I return to Limoges next week, I thought it was worth testing the mix so I’d know if it was worth buying others.

If you’re familiar with the Betty Crocker style mixes, you’ll know that the usual method is as follows:
Open packet; empty into bowl; add eggs/liquid; mix with electric whisk; pour into tin; bake…

With the macaroons this was not the case. My method went something like this:

  • Locate translation of package instructions. (Found here 3 months ago).
  • Make jam element of package in saucepan, carefully ensuring it didn’t burn.
  • Separate 2 eggs and place whites in mug. 
  • Get electric whisk ready.
  • Discover macaroons need to begin their bake in a cold oven. 
  • Realise oven won’t be cold until following morning.
  • Put eggs to one side.
  • Accidentally wash up mug containing egg whites.
  • Sleep.
  • Separate another 2 eggs.
  • Whisk whites with electric whisk, ensuring bowl is completely dry.
  • Add mix. Combine.
  • Drop teaspoons of mixture onto lined baking tray.
  • Bake. Realise they’re going to spread too far.
  • Cool with oven door open. 
  • Sandwich macaroons with jam.

See, when it comes to French packet mixes, nothing is simple. But, aside from the mixture spreading in the oven, they worked rather well. Another time I’d bake each of the two trays separately as they were rather different in quality at the end. They certainly looked pretty in pink…

The other cheat came in the cocktail element of the evening. There was no cheating as far as the G&T’s and Pimm’s were concerned, but quite a considerable amount of it with the frozen margaritas. 
Ah yes, frozen margaritas! A Texan discovery that has been dreamed of since. Lacking a slushee maker, I had to come up with an alternative method. My solution owed something to a Texan suggestion – that you pre-mix the margarita (they sell such things in pouches in Walmart, not so in the UK), pour it into zip-lock bags and freeze it. Because the alcohol won’t actually freeze, it simply goes slushy – which is the precise consistency you want. On discovering a pre-mixed bottle of margarita in Sainsbury’s, I decided this was the way to go. I mixed it with a small quantity of soda water to ensure that it froze, and left it for 48 hours. The arrival of my guests provided two extra ingredients: Agave Syrup and festive straws. With this, adequate frozen margaritas were created. They may not have been perfect, but they were enjoyed by all…
I should point out that Baby J was only participating in the festive straws element of the cocktails. 
We did not serve him booze… 
Here’s to more cheating, more macaroons, more frozen magaritas and most of all, more birthdays! 

A jubilee surprise – or two

I love a good surprise, thing is, not everyone appreciates them. In our family, it’s well known that our Dad is not a fan. [Christmas Day 2000, my Dad receives a copy of ‘How to train your puppy’ and a dog lead, indicating that his wish to own a labrador is finally being fulfilled. He spent the rest of the day asking my mother worriedly if she was sure…] However, our Mum is a fan – I still delight in the memory of my surprise visit over to Belfast nearly four years ago.

Birthdays are meant to be full of surprises, but mostly they’re restricted to presents. Mum certainly had her fair share of those – Dad did well with a spa day for her imminent trip to Oz, while the daughters excelled themselves with a monogrammed purple leather satchel (she thought we were psychic!). But there were two other surprises that took a fair amount of sororal networking and organisation…

Firstly, the birthday cake. Now, you’d think a birthday cake would be a logical thing to organise for a 60th birthday party, wouldn’t you? Not if you follow my father’s logic of thinking, apparently. Mum was organising the bulk of the festivities (Dad doesn’t really do parties) but refused to organise the cake (understandably). We ascertained less than 2 weeks before the big day that no cake had been ordered – the reply to our email asking if there was one said “do you think she wants one?”. People ALWAYS want birthday cake!

That night, around 11.30pm, I fired off an email to two of my mother’s friends in Belfast asking for help. Within half an hour, we had a response from both of them and a potential cake contact. To quote Mim’s Facebook status the following morning: ‘Mim loves that urgent cake-related emails get instant replies.’  Within a few days we had an excellent cake maker on board, in fact, the baker of cakes for Mum’s favourite Belfast cafe. It was collected under false auspices and went down a treat at both parties. [Yes, my mother had two birthday parties on the same day…she wasn’t going to be outdone by the monarch.]

Yes, I failed to get a photo of the birthday cake.

The other surprise was person, or people, related. Amongst the invitees to the parties were our former next-door neighbours in Gloucester. They sadly declined, on the grounds that they were off to Verona later in the week and Belfast’s a long way from Gloucester, which was fair enough. However, in the month leading up to the big day, a plan was hatched – I was to meet Juliet and Doris at Birmingham International and take the same flight over on the Sunday morning and they’d return with Mim the following day. Dad knew, so that room arrangements could be made, but Mum had no idea.

Arriving from the airport, we sent Doris up to the front door while we hid behind the car. A squeal from Mum alerted us to her reaction – she genuinely couldn’t believe her eyes! Bless. (We tried to persuade Doe to greet her with “I heard there was cake, and lots of it.” but I think she was too overwhelmed.) It really was the icing on the cake of a very special day – and illustrated just how duplicitous we Clutterbucks can be…

Guest of honour – using her first ever ‘proper cup’ (with extended pinky) 
and enjoying a triple-layer cream scone.

For the love of shoes, friends and birthdays

I’m not sure what it says about a fun day out when I come home with almost more photos of my feet than the day’s activities. They were clad in pretty shoes, but really, it wasn’t the main point of the day…

This was an accidental photo, but I rather like it.

Peering over the edge.

In hindsight, this was an unwise camera angle.

Check out those Nora Batty ankles. 
I love M&S opaques, but somehow I don’t have quite enough leg for them!

On reflection, the impetus was probably my love of reflections generally, combined with some rather pretty shoes, a lovely location (in central Birmingham – what a surprise!) and my general love of prancing. Oh, and the fact that it was a birthday day-out and the birthday girl has a tendency to keep people waiting. Not that we minded, it gave us an opportunity to prance, photograph and pose…

Ok, so I did some posing…
That’s the Ikon Gallery – well worth a visit.

The birthday girl did eventually emerge from the gallery, and we all had to pose.

All those photos with people in them? They were taken by the lovely Vicar Wendy (occupier of the country’s most luxurious curate residence). Like I said, I just took photos of shoes and water… 
[Oh, and in case you’re wondering – the shoes? A sale bargain discovered in Solihull’s Topshop last summer, so unlikely to be found anywhere these days.]

The dangers of surprises

Surprises are tricky things. Some people just don’t like them – like my Dad (it’s a good job the last surprise I sprang on my parents was aimed more at my mother than him…), and other surprises have to be done in the right way in order for them to be appreciated properly. For example, when surprising me with a weekend in Paris, my Mum & sister sensibly gave me a month’s warning so that I could plan my trip (I love surprises, but I like planning travel itineraries even more). I adore surprises – it’s why I have an Amazon wishlist, so people don’t have to ask what I want as a gift (yet still ensuring that it’s something I actually want). Surprises are definitely something I’d love to have more of in my life.

Birthday surprises are particularly tricky. Make it a total surprise and you run the risk that the recipient will think that everyone’s forgotten them and make most of their special day utterly miserable. A recent addition to the 30 Club was given a surprise of this variety, but luckily they’d twigged that something was up – otherwise I’d have feared for the consequences. This past weekend saw another 30th surprise, but I was worried for a different reason – the birthday girl seemed very keen to ignore the day, what if she resented the sudden appearance of several of her closest friends?

In the end, it was a fabulous day. The plan was well orchestrated by birthday girl’s sister – all we were doing was joining her family on an already planned day out involving the Lord Mayor’s Show and fireworks. (Well done London for putting on such a spectacular event in honour of Jenni’s 30th!) Jenni was suitably shocked and there were squeals and tears – all in all, it had the desired effect.

Should you ever be in London on the second Saturday of November, I highly recommend catching the Lord Mayor’s procession. It’s a eccentric bit of London history (it’s taken place for over 800 years) and involves all the classic bits of English pageantry that tourists assume happens all the time – marching military bands, people in odd clothes, gold carriages, plenty of horses (also in odd clothes), floats carrying scantily clad women, oh, and Stephen Fry…

To quote Gill (whose Dad took this photo): “IT’S STEPHEN FRY”
(He heard, turned round and waved – bless him.) 

We were rather late to the party, passing through the Strand as people began relax after the parade, but passed the Royal Courts just as the Lord Mayor arrived so got a glimpse of the main piece of action. We also caught some of the procession on its return, as we made our way to Pizza Express and phase two of the birthday celebration. On our way to surprise the birthday girl, we also came across a surprising roadblock: 
Did you know the MET have regulation board shorts? 

The other element of the Lord Mayor’s ‘thing’ is a fireworks display over the Thames. Unlike the New Year’s display, you can get an excellent viewing point simply by turning up an hour before it kicks off. We were right in the middle of Waterloo bridge, meaning that we had a totally unobscured view of the fireworks exploding from a barge in front of us. There are a few things you ought to be aware of though:
  • Coffee places near the bridge get very busy immediately prior to the fireworks. Nipping off for hot beverages 45 minutes before the display may sound reasonable – in actual fact it means you’ll get stuck in an abnormally long queue and then get prevented from crossing the bridge due to the crowds that have congregated in your absence.
  • Old ladies can have very sharp elbows and few manners. While trying to preserve space for the beverage-getters, we had to see off a few potential invaders. In most cases the ‘saving space dance’ and loud talk of the returning friends “who were here first, but have gone to buy tea” sufficed, but one particular lady could not be deterred. She pushed, poked and prodded – nearly knocking over Jules in the process – and was generally rather annoying. [We weren’t utterly heartless though. Once it became clear that they weren’t coming back, we let her in – but she could have asked nicely and said thank-you though.] 
  • Standing on a bridge leaves you rather exposed to the elements. It was windy and this meant that not only was it chilly, but the fireworks were blown in our direction – slightly nerve wrecking. 
  • Birthday biscuits are an excellent firework accompaniment. 
  • People will always get carried away with taking photos of the sparkly things, especially if their camera has a firework setting… 

On the left, my firework setting; on the right, Gill’s ‘proper’ photo.

The loss of the beverage-getters had one advantage, it enabled them to purchase something without which no birthday would be complete: champagne. (Ok, so it was cava, sue me…) Of course, for al fresco champagne drinking, one needs appropriate receptacles and what better than some Starbucks red cups? 
It looks like I was a little dubious of the ethics of the situation…
(Or, wondering if anyone would notice that I’d somehow acquired two cups.)

Happy birthday Jenni! 

Belated birthday brilliance

My 30th birthday has really been the birthday that keeps on giving. In the last couple of weeks I’ve acquired two birthday gifts that are quintessentially me – I have excellent friends.

The first of these was actually a bonus birthday/moving house gift from the lovely Annabelle. Ordered months ago, it had arrived late so she’d given me a lovely baking themed present instead. But the tardy present was (is) genius…

What are things I like? Well, jewellery would definitely be up there, especially earrings. What else am I passionate about? Punctuation. Can you combine the two? Why yes, it seems you can:

If you’d like your own punctuation, you can buy them from Nerd Goddess on Etsy.

Those, my friends, are mix and match punctuation earrings – semi-colon, question mark, speech mark, exclamation mark and…the all important apostrophe. Now whenever I have the urge to correct someone’s apostrophe usage, all I have to do is place my earring in the correct location. Marvellous.

The second gift arrived on Sunday, when my favourite Gloucestrians paid me a flying visit en route to helping their eldest move house. For weeks we’d been trying to fix up a meeting as they were very keen to give me my present, which intriguingly couldn’t be posted. When I was handed the parcel it was soon clear why – it was large and picture frame shaped, so presumably cumbersome and delicate. Unwrapping it, I discovered this:

In case you can’t read it, it says:

Lizzie likes… [Yes, they count as family, thus I’m “Lizzie”.]
Singing with the choir. [That’s a given.]
Yummy cupcakes. [Ditto.]
Chalet School books. [But of course.]
Travelling. [Hell yes.]
Flip Flops. [True, but now they kill my ankles.]
Church on Sunday. [And any other day.]
Glee. [Well duh!]
Paris in July. [Paris whenever really.]
The Greenwoods. [Like is an understatement.]
Ben Fogle. [Ahhhhh….]
Wishing she could still be a Brownie, even though she’s 30. [Running in-joke.]
How impressive! Turns out they’d only had to consult family on two items – favourite food and favourite celebrity crush. (My sister apparently suggested Colin Firth initially, which is odd as I don’t think I’ve ever professed an ardent liking of him – not that I’d say no, obviously. Ben Fogle is genius and true, the only alternative would’ve been Alan Rickman.) They really are the best gift givers on special birthdays – on my 21st I received a film poster style painting of my life (‘The girl from Tonga’…) – and they put a lot of thought and effort into it. Bless them.
So, once I finally get some special picture hooks later this week I’ll be able to adorn my new room with my new art. This and my specially commissioned Dave Walker cartoon will obviously have pride of place.