Sunday, 27 March 2011

50 Reasons to Smile

It's not often that I wake up with a sigh. This morning, however, it was very much a sigh day.

So today I decided to go out in the search of smiles.

Faced with daily doom and gloom and the pressure of our constantly busy lives, it would be easy to see nothing but the bad things. Never mind glass half empty, reading the newspapers it seems there is no water all together. Or glasses come to that.

But if you look for it, you'll find that happiness, actually, is all around you. Today I spent the whole day looking, wandering between London Fields and Broadway Market. Sat on a bench at London Fields happiness was everywhere. Friends threw frisbies and kicked footballs, families picnicked on the grass, cyclists pedalled past with great big beams on their faces and people read books in the shade. Everywhere I looked there were people scattered like tiny islands of laughter and happiness or solitary stars. Yet all together they made up one glowing constellation.

Newton Faulkner was right when he said that people should smile more. From one day in the sunshine I found 50 reasons to smile:

1) Looking at my calendar and seeing the words 'British Summer time begins'
2) Pink shoes
3) Happy feet
4) Smiling daffodils
5) Green grass
6) Neat houses
7) Neat streets
8) Chalkboards
9) Farm life in the city
10) Great big sacks of muddy potatoes
11) Potatoes in general: roasted, mashed, fried, in their jackets
12) School playgrounds
13) Market stall holders shouting offers
14) Hopscotch
15) Bookshops where I could spend all day and all my student loan
16) The smell of books
17) The feel of paper

18) People
19) Busy streets
20) Loving living in a city

21) Fish and chips
22) Shiny red Ferraris
23) Rusty old bikes
24) Tables and chairs outside
25) Old fashioned pubs
26) Pints of cider
27) Sunglasses
28) Chatting people spilling out of pubs and onto the street
29) The smell of freshly baked bread
30) E5 Bakehouse, a lovely new bakery at London Fields
31) Ben the Baker who made me the best toasted sandwich of my life
32) The toasted sandwich itself: crunchy warm bread, melted cheddar cheese and homemade chutney
33) Flashes of colour
34) The safety of a daddy's shoulders
35) Chubby little children
36) Wandering lonely as a cloud
37) Reading in the sunshine
38) The simple coincidence of reading 'London Fields' in London Fields
39) People who are never forgotten
40) The wisdom of Albert Einstein
41) Benches for tired feet
42) Sunday papers
43) Contented couples
44) Picnics
45) Families and friends

46) Sunshine
47) Afternoon strolling
48) Cupcakes
49) Icing
50) Love Hearts
Newton Faulkner knows best.


Market Day

Borough Market is to a foodie what Hamley's is to a child: colourful, exciting and overwhelming. When I was younger I dreamt of being let loose in a toy store; nowadays set me free in a food market and I am as happy as a child.

Yesterday was my first visit to Borough Market. Nothing could have quite prepared me for the cacophony of smells and sounds, the buzzing crowds of people and the sheer range of mouth-watering foods on offer. Visiting on an empty stomach was a bad move. Weaving in and out of the stalls and people the lion in my stomach growled out for the hot sausages sizzling at one stall, the fresh bread rolls at the next and a slab of chocolate cake at another.

When I pay a visit to Brick Lane or Portobello Road I find myself clothes-watching, my eyes honing in on interesting outfits. Here, however, it is all about food-watching: checking out what everyone is tucking their teeth into to decide what looks the tastiest. A man eating a hot lamb wrap over there, a girl with a slice of triple chocolate cheesecake to my left, a boy with fish and chips behind that stall...

After eyeing up paella, fresh fish, countless cheeses, oat cookies and tasting numerous samples of chutney the lion inside me won. I went for a burger.
My friend Amy and I sat under a blossom tree as all around us families and friends ate their Borough Market feasts. I could have eaten my way around the entire market but I may have had to be stretchered home. It made me think of something my friend said when she came round for Cake Day last week. She had just tucked into her second cupcake and turned to me with a huge smile: "If I were to drop down dead right now you should know that I will have died completely, utterly content."

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Cake Day

Where would we be without cake? Whether a candle-heaped birthday sponge, an elaborately decorated wedding cake or simply an afternoon indulgence, sometimes there is nothing quite like a piece of cake.

Kate Moss declared that "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." She has obviously never eaten a very good cake. Or buttercream icing. Or banoffee cupcakes. Or melt in the mouth chocolate sponge. In short, she had obviously never visited Libby's Hackney Bakery.

Cake may be an indulgence, but it is my firm opinion that everyone deserves to indulge every now and again. After a stressful second term at LCF finished with a frantic few weeks of 16 hour days spent on the computer, I decided it was time to indulge: to get into the kitchen and bake.

For me baking is a deeply therapeutic and emotional process. As soon as the apron is tied around my waist and I breathe in the smell of butter and sugar, I feel myself slip into a blissful state of calm and satisfaction.

This doesn't come without its dangers. Apron on, I also become very vulnerable to overwhelming bouts of broodiness. All of a sudden my hormones run riot and I become consumed by fantasies of abandoning my career, living in a cottage, having ten children and baking for them every day. It is often a struggle to leave the tantalising image of my Cath Kidston clad cottage and brood of chubby children behind and to return to reality.

Nonetheless, baking is, and always will be, an important part of my life. When I left home my baking equipment was packed away safely in my suitcases headed for London. I just couldn't conceive a whole term spent without the stress relief of baking and the beauty of cake.

The prospect of a uni-free day in mind I set yesterday aside as a day of celebration. Celebration of the joy that is cake.

This celebration in mind I stocked up on the ingredients and invited my friends around to help...

We may have been baking in the tiny kitchen of my flat in Hackney, using an old oven that struggles to heat up like a teenager struggling to wake up in the morning, but that doesn't mean we couldn't bake in style. Cue a dainty plate of cucumber sandwiches to keep us going as we worked.
I think one of the reasons I love making cakes is how happy they make people. Try arriving somewhere with a tin of freshly baked goods and you will see people's faces light up in a truly dazzling fashion. For truly happy cakes, however, you need happy ingredients and nobody does it quite like the Happy Egg Company.
A herbal tea in hand, we set to work.
We started with a batch of banana muffins. This meant mixing the standard cake recipe that thanks to our mothers, we could each recite like the alphabet, with some freshly mashed bananas and a splash of vanilla essence.
Next for preparing some decorations that we would use later. Melting white chocolate with pink food colouring I then piped hearts onto cling film covered chopping boards. After a few hours in the fridge they make solid chocolate shapes that can be gently peeled from the cling film and used as decorations.
There were debates in the kitchen about which kind of icing to use. Buttercream? Thick royal icing? In the end the dilemma was solved with the simple question, "What would Hummingbird do?" and we opted for generous dollops of the Hummingbird Bakery's cream cheese frosting.
The day's baking wouldn't have been a success, or anywhere near as fun, without the assistance of my happy helpers: Imogen, Amy and my 'baking' playlist playing happily on my ipod. We made a good team.
If the saying is true that our taste buds are really in our eyes, then red velvet cupcakes must surely be the most delicious cakes around. As I mixed, fuchsia folds twisted and swirled beneath the spoon and made my heart glad.
The finished cakes were no less vibrant in colour, much to my delight. I had never made them before but my friend gave me some excellent advise: cook them for a little longer than you would usually want to and they gain a dense, velvety texture and a more intense colour.

If you could describe a cake as sexy then the red velvet is the firecracker of all cakes. Or, as my friend put it as she bit happily into a still warm cake, "like passion in cupcake form."
Outside the kitchen window spring was working its magic on the streets of Hackney. We decided to honour spring with our next cake, a yoghurt and lemon drizzle cake as fresh and light as the breeze coming in through the window. We used Yeo Valley's recipe that can be found on their pots at the moment; the yoghurt gives the cake an amazingly springy texture. Then I added the finishing touch: a sprinkling of daisies. (Warning - best not to eat them too. Although, if you really want to, glaze them with icing sugar and allow them to crystalise first.)
Banoffee pie is one of my favourite things in the world, and banoffee cupcakes are just as good. I cut some of our banana cupcakes into three layers and sandwiched them with caramel, banana slices and cream cheese frosting. Literally like biting into three layers of heaven.
No cake day would be complete without a fail-safe chocolate cake. After cooking the gooey mix in three different sized rectangular tins I sandwiched the layers together with melted dark chocolate and crushed maltesers before drizzling with hot white chocolate.
From 11 in the morning until 6 in the evening, we measured and mixed and whisked and decorated. I had spent 7 idyllic hours chatting and baking with my friends. Finally the moment had arrived. It was time to sit down and eat.
It may scream 'student', it may be cramped and it may not have the fanciest equipment, but yesterday afternoon my flat in Hackney was the place to be. I was sat with my friends, and laid out on the table in front of us were strawberries dipped in white chocolate, some plates and forks, and a mountain of freshly baked cakes.

I don't think I can describe how happy baking cakes makes me without sounding a little bit insane. Sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by so many beautiful cakes was an overwhelming experience to say the least. Maybe it was just a sugar high, but I suddenly felt all my worries disappear in a pink puff of smoke. After eating and congratulating ourselves with appreciative "mmmm"s and "wow"s it was off to the pub for the perfect end to a delicious day.

Cake Day was a random, fabulous day of sugary extravagance. "That was just the perfect, perfect day," said my friends as they left, arms laden with cake-filled tupperware for their flatmates and families.

"But, but... the CALORIES!" I hear some of you cry. Yes, yes, I know, the dreaded 'C' word.

Life is short, and I for one would rather enjoy the simple pleasure of a life brightened with cake, than the meaningless satisfaction drawn from a smaller number on a clothes tag.

Yesterday was quite possibly one of the happiest days of my life. I'll stick to my cakes thanks Kate.