Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Challenge Number 31 – Make and ice Charlotte a birthday cake

Challenge Number 31 was originally to take Charlotte on the North York Moors railway, but after the Snowdonia meltdown debacle, I decided that making such a trip could turn out to be an expensive and stressful waste of money. Besides, there were too many challenges on the list involving trains. The idea was to do something nice for Charlotte in Yorkshire, and so what could be nicer than baking her a cake at home for her 2nd birthday?

I’m a complete birthday cake novice, and I’ve never iced anything other than occasionally pouring a citrus glaze over muffins. So this challenge was also about acquiring an entirely new skill, one which will hopefully serve me for several children’s parties to come. I found some cake decorating books in a charity shop for 50 pence apiece to get some recipes, tips and ideas. I had in my head a park theme, since we spend half our lives in Rowntree Park, whose duckponds, woods, willow trees and swings serve as our garden.

The whole process was a steep learning curve, from understanding the difference between vanilla essence and vanilla flavouring, to how long our oven takes to bake enormous cakes without burning them on top and leaving them raw in the middle, to how to make buttercream icing, to how to sieve apricot jam, to the different tastes of different coloured shop-bought ready-to-roll fondant, to how long defrosting and icing a cake actually takes when you’re trying to fit it in around a hectic toddler schedule and only have your exhausted evenings free.

This point about defrosting was because I had baked the sponge cakes a couple of weeks in advance and stored them in the freezer. This was to avoid a last-minute rush and (potential) last-minute disaster and subsequent trip to Waitrose to buy a replacement. I used a Victoria sponge recipe my aunt had told me about, which featured in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall/ Fearlesslyeatsitall’s Guardian column a while back. The recipe’s quantities are based on the weight of the eggs used in the bake. However many eggs you use, you weigh them in their shells at the start, then use exactly that quantity of flour, sugar and butter. The theory being this gives you precise and perfect proportions. In this case, for each layer of cake, I used 8 eggs (beaten into the creamed butter and sugar individually), and 483g of the other ingredients, with a teaspoon or two of vanilla. It was scary putting the cooked sponges into the freezer without being able to taste them (I wasn’t ready to cut them up at that point because I hadn’t quite finalised in my head what I was going to do), and it was only once they had defrosted and I’d carved the top layer into the shape I’d decided on that I could have a mouthful and breathe a sigh of relief. The cake was, in a word, yum.

The icing process demonstrated my general scatterbrained cack-handedness, but next year I will be so much more confident and won’t forget crucial things like covering the sides in your carefully sieved jam before you have actually plonked the rolled-out icing on top of the cake. I covered as much of the cake with buttercream as possible, to stick the sponge segments together and create a topping, but didn’t make enough buttercream to do the sides as well, and had run out of icing sugar by this point to make any more.

I used ready-coloured fondant icing, but the ducks, pond and paving around the pond were all constructed by me. I managed to write Charlotte’s name in black icing. The flowers were shop-bought and attached with gin (a tip from a friend) to create a seal. The swing and slide are obviously inedible and a part of a Happy Land play park set from the Early Learning Centre, but the cake would have looked pretty feeble without them. So not too many fancy frills, and no proper piping – like the trip on the North York Moors Railway, these will have to wait for another year.

I used the cake trimmings to make a trifle, plus an extra cake with buttercream icing. (I’d bought some more icing sugar by this point.) The icing was coloured purple by me and covered with Charlotte’s favourite word of the moment, “sprinkles”. This was just to prove I could actually make coloured icing of some description by myself.

All that was left to do was light the candle and sing Happy Birthday, a song which invariably makes Charlotte wail in dismay. Daddy had to help her blow out the candle, but the swing and slide eventually distracted her from the accompanying music. At last it was time for the tasting. The guests at the party on Sunday (family from both sides) appeared to be truly impressed. It’s about the only food I’ve ever cooked for Charlotte that she has wolfed down and asked for seconds of. I am very proud of myself. And now I more or less know what I’m doing, hopefully next year’s cake will be even better.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Challenge Number 18 – Have a crazy hair-cut/colour

Now, don’t hold your breath on this one.

My friend Sarah set me this challenge. I think it comes under the guise of “You’re getting old, so go wild and show abandon.” A couple of other challenges on the list fit into this category. Sarah added, “It’ll always grow out.”

Lottie's ringlets
I come from a family of curly hair. Friends just laughed when they spotted a row of my cousins at my wedding. Charlotte thankfully has inherited the curly gene, as I wouldn’t have a clue what to do with straight hair. I say “thankfully”, but truth be told, I grew up hating the fact that I had curly hair. And I hated hairdressers. Partly because my parents would only pay for me and my brother to go to the cheapest place in town (an old lady perming salon), partly because my mum thought it would be a good idea for me to have my long ringletty locks all lopped off into a crop at the age of ten (though to be fair she did splash out for me to have it done at a “trendier” hairdresser’s called, hmm, Scarecrows) and partly because once I hit puberty, my curls just turned into a dried-out frizz ball. Any hairdresser that I saw had no idea what to do with me. Apart from one, when I was eleven, where my aunt took me as a special treat before I was bridesmaid at her wedding. The hairdresser told me over and over again what wonderful hair I had, and made it look – well, a very 1980s Lady Di kind of nice. I was still so much in shock at this that I passed out during the marriage service and had to be revived by my mum flapping her order of service in my face and stuffing my mouth full of orange Chewits. As a result, in the official photos, I am ashen pale, and look like I’m wearing orange lipstick. Which kind of detracts from the hair-do.

But as for the rest of my childhood hairdressers, they always prodded at my dandruff and scab strewn scalp and held up my curls at arm’s length, before cutting them all off and blasting me with a hairdryer, therewith trebling the size of the frizzball. I got so sick of this that I refused to get my hair cut for two years in my teens, before my mum eventually relented to let me go to the poshest place in town, Crouch and Haskins. (Though it was known locally as Crotch and Foreskin.) They had to hack off half a foot of split ends. Thereafter, things improved. I learned that curls don’t need a hairdryer ever. Or even a hair brush. Which actually makes life pretty easy. By 1989, a decade of bad perms had meant that some decent frizz-taming products had come onto the market at last. Like, er, mousse. But every little helps.

A brief moment of straightness in 2000
Nowadays I generally manage the curls pretty well, and I wouldn’t be without them. They are very much me. I did have my hair straightened once in London and it made me look so different that my father walked straight past me at Waterloo station, but within hours, the curls had fought back, so I never bothered again. Other than that, I’ve kept more or less the same style for years, with variations in length depending on forthcoming weddings, being pregnant (which made my hair wonderful) and my thyroid disease (which can make it fall out in handfuls).

I found some excellent hairdressers during my years in London, but seldom found them again whenever I tried to return. They were always part of London’s transient society, people from Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Finland, who had found a job that gave them a passport to travel, and hardly ever stuck around for more than a few months.

When we moved to York, I just picked the one salon that used the Aveda products that I now swear by and thus adopted a perfectly nice but not especially good hairdresser. I’ve never loved anything she has done to my hair, but I haven’t hated it either. But she was always so sweet and friendly that I felt I couldn’t go to anyone else in the salon. This whole tale is a story of my Britishness. I can’t be assertive about what I want or what I think about the end result, yet it’s my head that a haircut has to sit on until my next trim. A hairdresser holds up a mirror to the back of my head and I always say, “Mm, yes, that looks a lot better,” just as I always tell a waiter serving me a meal that I’m loathing that it’s “very nice, thank you” when he asks me if everything is OK.

And this carries on into my “crazy hair-cut/colour”. At my last haircut, I explained to my hairdresser about my 40 challenges and what I wanted to do, and booked an appointment for a couple of months’ time so we could complete the challenge. The week before the appointment, she rang me to say that she had opened her own salon, so could I go there instead. As she was no longer going to be using nice organic Aveda but rather very 80s-sounding Wella, I should at that point have run a mile, but instead just meekly agreed to switch venue as requested.

My main aim was the crazy colour. I’m nearly 40, but am lucky enough to not actually have to dye my hair, so never really have. I had a misdemeanour with lemon juice when I was 22 which left me very blonde for a few months, and also had a brief spell of purple a couple of years later after getting drunk with my university housemates. Otherwise I’ve just been brown. So I decided to go for a new experience and have some highlights. Crazy highlights. As Sarah said, they’d grow out.

Technically, this could be described as a crazy hair-do

The day of the appointment arrived. My hairdresser showed me her palette of colours and I pointed to the more exciting ones on display. But then she said “Leave it with me” and went off to mix up some bowls and cut up some foil. It was only when she’d painted half my head of curls that she told me the colours she was using. Red, orange and...brown. "Brown?" "Brown?!" My hair is sodding "brown" already. What is “crazy” about "brown"? When did anyone ever get excited by or stop traffic with "brown"? What’s the point of paying someone 70 quid to dye brown hair "brown"?

The salon was very nice, and had special massage chairs at the sinks. She also had some 43-year-old Woman’s Weekly magazines to read, which were highly entertaining with their doll’s clothes knitting patterns and plentiful adverts for cheese. But I won’t be going back. I asked my hairdresser to make the angle of my current bob a bit more exciting. She just cut it all the same length. The red and orange she’d chosen just turned out the colour of old man’s boot polish and - I realised to my horror - a very close match to our front door. Plus it very quickly washed out, which I don’t think it was meant to do. Apart from the brown, that is. Oh, right. That’s because it was BROWN...IN...THE...FIRST...PLACE! And the dye has made my hair so dry that the frizz has returned, and this has remained, even though the colour has largely gone. I can’t moisturise it out enough.
In perfect harmony with our front door

Sigh. All in all, an expensive waste of time, and I don’t have the budget to give it another go. But I tried. Charlotte, rightfully, seems to have inherited my mistrust (in her case manifesting itself as abject terror) of hairdressers. (Though history is also repeating itself: I take her to an old lady perming salon.) May she always scream “No, no, no!” and never mutter “Yes, that looks very nice thank you” if she doesn’t like the end result.