Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Toffee Apple Disaster.

So, its Half Term and I have lots of time on my hands - lucky me. I came over all Martha Stewart today and decided it would be marvelous if I wrote a magnificent post on how to make Toffee Apples. How hard can it be?? And I could take the delicious Toffee Apples to my mum's house to share with my triplet nephews.

First Job ... stick sticks in apples

My first job was to stick my sticks into my apples. An easy job, but finding the sticks proved tricky. Bewildered faces met me at every turn when I went into various supermarkets to ask for Toffee Apple sticks. You would have thought I'd asked for some sort of instrument of torture...

But in my Earth Mother mode I was not daunted. I would make my own damn sticks from Mother Nature herself. I grabbed my clippers and went outside in the rain to chop twigs of the appropriate size. Good work Mrs Secret Housewife!!

Then came the other ingredients ...

400g of sugar

150ml apple juice & 100ml maple syrup

And a teaspoon of cider vinegar ...

The next bit I was a tad nervous about. I would go as far as to say that I was scared. I had to slowly melt the sugar in a sturdy pan without burning either it or myself in a horrible sugar scalding accident. I have read that you don't stir the sugar, you just watch it and shake it lovingly occasionally. So I did.

When it had melted I added the maple syrup and apple juice and cider vinegar, letting it bubble and boil for 7 minutes...

bubbly sugary stuff

And that, dear reader, was when it all went horribly wrong.

Drop little bits into a jug of cold water, they said. And the little bits will solidify into lovely crispy toffeeness.... Well not in my house they don't.

Eventually I thought that I would dip the apples anyway. I mean, how long can a girl boil sugary stuff before she keels over from exhaustion? So I dipped the apples and put them to set on my newly bought baking paper. (Non Stick... I hope)

And before my very eyes most of the sugary sticky stuff slid majestically down the apples to form a delicious pool of ... stuff on my tray.

There may still be some sort of hope. There is a chance that in the next 5 years the toffee will set to a crispy crunchy delight, but I am not overly optimistic. Still, at least I tried and I hope that, if you attempt or have attempted Toffee Apples you are more successful than me.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Halloween Face Painting and Ghastly Lychee Eyeballs.

Not long now until Halloween... Halloween is one of those nights that wasn't too much of a big thing when I was a child. We didn't go trick or treating and I really don't remember the shops being full of orange and black merchandise as they are nowadays. As my boys grew up Halloween seemed to become more and more popular and it became a bit of a tradition to dress up, go trick or treating and make Halloween type food.

Now my boys are "big" they don't trick or treat, but we do enjoy getting our house ready for the little ones who do come around. We are lucky where we live in that there is a sort of unspoken etiquette that surrounds the whole Halloween thing. If you are happy for people to knock and collect sweets you put a pumpkin on your front step, lit with candles or tea lights. The odd freaky spider or web will help people know that you are ready. Children come round in groups with their parents and they don't usually visit past the age of about 9 or 10. Also, people don't come round past about 6.30 pm or 7.

I know some people really don't like Trick or Treating, and I can totally understand their feelings if they have had bad experiences, but we have been fortunate enough to be visited only by excited groups of little witches and skeletons who chorus Happy Halloween and politely thank us for their packet of sweets. Its rather a nice community event.

A ghoul and the monster pumpkin we grew on our allotment!

This year I have been asked to face paint my friend and her teenage daughters who are going to a Halloween party. They have given me photos of how they would like their faces painted and I am excited to paint them! I shall put photos of them on here when they are done! Last year I painted my son and his friends ...

I find painting these ghoulish ghastly images very enjoyable! You can really let your imagination go wild!

Similarly I love making Halloween food ... a real favourite is my Halloween Eyeballs ...

lychee eyeballs for Halloween

All you need is a tin of lychees ( stoned ), some blueberries and some raspberry jam. You just spoon some of the jam into each lychee and then pop a blueberry in the lychee hole. The jam spills out like blood and they generally look pretty disgusting, They taste delicious though! Sometimes we have some for trick or treaters who are brave enough to try one! Not many are!!

So ... that's what we do at Halloween. I've posted a little early this year in case anyone is looking for Halloween recipes and wants to have my Eyeball idea. I'm looking forward to doing my face painting and seeing what other people get up to. I hope you have a very Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Ballet Class as an Adult Beginner.

Yesterday I went to my first ballet class. Well ... I say first ballet class, and it is as long as you don't count about 4 classes 45 years ago. I had always wanted to be a ballet dancer. There is something about the way they move, the shapes they create, that mesmerizes me. I have spent hours drawing and painting their feet in pointe shoes ...

And now, at the age of 50, here I am, in little pink leather ballet pumps standing at a barre attempting to tease my feet into various positions with toes pointy and chin aloft!
I am so thrilled to be doing it! The teacher makes the class fun, but its hard. She tells us what moves to make in French ... none of which I can remember right now! But I enjoyed it so much. 

I don't think I am a natural ballerina, but I love the feeling of holding in my tummy, lifting up my core and holding my legs just so. I don't really care what I look like on the outside. On the inside I am Darcey Bussell, Margot Fonteyn and Tamara Rojo leaping for joy!!

As for the fitness side of it I think I am going to end up with thighs of steel because they certainly hurt like Hell after the class yesterday!!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

MurleyDance 'Hail Britannia' 2014 ... A Review.

When I was a little girl I wanted to be a ballet dancer. There was something about ballet that touched my soul... the beauty of shape, the elegance and precision of en pointe dancing, the  way the dancers brought the music to life through the movement of their bodies. I didn't ever become a dancer - that's another story - but I do love to go to the ballet. Last night I went, with my friend, to a performance of Hail Britannia by the MurleyDance Company.

We were both very excited to be invited to the Shaw Theatre on the Euston Road to watch this young dance company's touring show Hail Britannia - a celebration of  aspects of British Culture. MurleyDance were only formed in 2012 and since then they have appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe and as part of Resolution! at the Robin Howard Theatre in London. They are London based and led by David Murley. Their vision is to fuse classical technique with theatricality.

Last night's performance consisted of four pieces, danced by the fourteen dancers of MurleyDance. Hail Britannia began with Shaadi, the story of a young Indian couple preparing for and going through their marriage. I loved this piece! It was vibrant, both in colour and dancing exuberance! Not only did it show an Indian marriage in Britain today, it used a mix of music from both cultures. Opening with the colourful strains of an Indian song they then danced to both Brimful of Asha and I'm Getting Married in the Morning. The effect was a joyful fusion of Anglo/Indian celebration and we loved it!

photo courtesy of @MurleyDance Instagram

Anaish Parmar did a great job choreographing this piece and we were both excited at what was to come. The dancers were all obviously technically very skilled so we were looking forward to the following three parts.

Next came Wayward Kinship, choreographed by Richard Chappell - the story of the relationship between Thomas Becket and Henry II. This was a very different piece. It was very dark, very atmospheric.

photo courtesy of MurleyDance
Richard Chappell is only 19 years old and when you consider his young age this piece was very good. I really liked the emotional interaction between the two male dancers in their red and purple velvet. Not only were their costumes striking in their simplicity and impact, the shapes they made in their dance were beautiful.

dancers in rehearsal courtesy of MurleyDance

rehearsal photo courtesy of MurleyDance

The only thing I would say to the negative was that the space at the Shaw Theatre was not really big enough for the ambition of the dancing here. The dancers were not able to really let loose and so their steps were, at times, a little confined. 

Now for the third piece, Frisky Claptrap, choreographed by David Murley himself. Its premise was the journey of three backpackers on trains around Britain and the eccentrically named towns they visit. Well... what can I say? If I am going to be honest this was such a disappointment. It was more like a sixth form sketch, with very little dancing and a lot of ridiculous slapstick and innuendo. It was rather self indulgent and a waste of the talents of this ambitious young troupe.

Moving swiftly on ... we were shown the Highgrove Suite. This was a ballet performed to The Highgrove Suite, a piece of music commissioned by HRH The Prince of Wales to celebrate his gardens at Highgrove House. This, again, was choreographed by David Murley and it revolved around the journey into womanhood of a young girl.

photo courtesy of MurleyDance

I particularly liked the mother and daughter in this piece. The dancer playing the mother was elegant and precise, capturing the emotional pain she was feeling perfectly. The daughter was a lovely dancer. If the dance had revolved purely around the three or four main characters then this would have been beautiful, but for some reason there was also a flurry of backing dancers tip toeing around the main scene for no discernible reason. They didn't add to the piece in any way and I found myself questioning why they were there. Again the stage seemed too small for that many dancers and their movements suffered from the confined space.

Of course, a fledgling company cannot pick and choose their venues and so they are bound to perform on smaller stages, but perhaps this should be considered when choreographing? I love the ambition of this company and the sheer enthusiasm with which they approach their aims. They are clearly a talented group of dancers with a strong desire to fulfill their aim to create a fusion of ballet and theatre. It is early days for MurleyDance and although I'm afraid I didn't feel my soul touched this time, I think that in the future they have the potential to be great. I am really grateful to have been invited to see them dance (I was kindly given complimentary tickets) and will watch out for them in future.

If you fancy attending the remaining performance of Hail Britannia they will be in Cheltenham on Saturday 25th October.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Afternoon Tea at Laura Kate, Welwyn .... vintage deliciousness.

My friends and I just came home from a lovely afternoon tea in the village of Welwyn. I have been to quite a few afternoon teas over the past year and have written about them on my blog - The Conrad St James, The Milestone, The Ampersand  all lovely posh places in London. Today I thought I would try a rural tea in leafy Hertfordshire.

We chose Laura Kate in Welwyn. It is a tiny Tea Parlour set on the High Street, seating about 16 people. We thought it would be interesting to see the sort of tea available, especially as the Laura Kate tea costs £14.95 - half of the cost of most London teas.

We arrived to friendly smiles and were shown to our table. The shop is pretty, mainly white with fresh pink roses and displays of their delicious cakes - all made on the premises by the team.

Our waitress took our orders for tea. My friends had English Breakfast Tea while I ordered Peppermint Tea. They both arrived in pots, loose leaf tea, which, during the course of the afternoon, were refreshed frequently. Delicious! There was a good tea menu, offering the teas we had alongside Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, Chamomile and more.

Our tea stand arrived and the contents were explained to us. We had previously been asked whether we would like to choose the flavour of our cupcakes or be given a surprise. Being quite courageous types we went for the surprise option!

I loved the quirky tea stand - made of stiff cardboard and so pretty! When we booked (booking is essential) we were asked about our dietary requirements and they took note of my friend being a vegetarian. Everything is served on quirky vintage plates with funky cups and saucers too.

We began with the sandwiches ...

Beef with horseradish, egg mayonnaise, cucumber & cream cheese, brie & cranberry.
They were all delicious, on soft, soft fresh bread, but I think my favourite was the beef ... or possibly the egg ...!!

Next we moved onto the freshly baked, warm scones. It is a fact universally acknowledged that scones should always be served warm from the oven, and I was very pleased to see that these were!

There were two scones each, served with lashings of clotted cream and raspberry jam. The waiting staff were incredibly attentive and friendly without being intrusive. We were asked if we needed more jam or cream and although there was enough of both we were feeling rather greedy and asked for even more.

By the time we had eaten our scones we were starting to feel a tad ... well, to put it bluntly ... stuffed!

And yet we still had the top layer to go ...

Banoffee shots

Millionaires shortbread bites...

 Raspberry white chocolate, chocolate, vanilla cupcakes.

I have to admit that we simply could not finish our cupcakes, but the lady serving us noticed this and offered to wrap them for us so we could take them home. They were brought back to us wrapped in cellophane and ribbon. How lovely!

We spent our afternoon laughing and chatting, totally relaxed and having fun. The afternoon tea at Laura Kate is absolutely delicious! All the cakes are baked on the premises and everything we had to eat and drink was beautifully presented, wonderfully fresh and scrumptious!! I have to say that the tea was one of my favourites, coming in second after the Conrad's Festive Tea. Everything from the welcome to the service and, of course, the food was really super. I highly recommend, if you are in Hertfordshire, that you make a booking for tea, or just pop in for a cuppa and a crumpet ( Marmite provided!) or a homemade cupcake. 

And, just in case you are wondering ... we paid full price of £14.95 for our tea and were most happy to do so!

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Gallivant Hotel ... quirky retro by the sea.

You might have read my post a few weeks ago about our friends wedding at Camber Sands. I thought, with Half Term coming up, that you might want to see where we stayed. Its a lovely little hotel called The Gallivant.

Our friends had organised their wedding around the hotel and had both the ceremony and their reception there. It has obviously, in the past, been a little seaside motel, but the current owners have styled it beautifully - very beach chic - and it is a little gem of a place.

It is located just over the road from the stunning golden sands of Camber.

Each of the rooms are clean, simple and very comfortable.

photo courtesy of The Gallivant

There is a certain retro feel to the place, with quirky touches here and there like a beach bag and a large honesty larder in the corridor, packed with everything from artisan popcorn to flasks of milk for your tea and coffee.

We stayed two nights and the breakfast was delicious! I chose pancakes with maple syrup and bacon while my husband went for the full English. Both were freshly cooked and absolutely scrumptious.

One of the things I really loved was the thoughtful extras. For example the Recovery Station at breakfast, which we obviously did not need as our bodies are our temples ...

The Recovery Station - photo courtesy of The Gallivant

I thought it was funny to offer vitamin c tablets and "make your own" Bloody or Virgin Mary kits for breakfast at a wedding venue.

I think that the only down side to this charming hotel would be the lack of experience staff wise. The staff we came across were all very young and all very lovely. Everyone, without exception treated us with a friendly smile and couldn't do enough for us. However, I heard a few of them talking amongst themselves about the lack of staff and about how ridiculous it was that they be expected to cope with the number of guests present. Breakfast seemed a particular area of difficulty.

I always think that any complaining done infront of guests is rather unprofessional.

And yet this was an understandable failing and one that did not bother us as, as I have mentioned, the staff were great. Perhaps a bit of training is needed - things like never going back to the kitchen with empty hands... taking orders on a pad rather than trying to remember them ... 

I would definitely go back to The Gallivant. Its situation was brilliant - less than 5 minutes walk to the beach and the food was really delicious. We slept well, ate well and felt really at home. If they iron out the tiny issues of inexperience they will be fabulous.

photos courtesy of The Gallivant