Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Spice Cake

Last week (OK, last month now) we had our autumn Coastal meeting, a gathering of the WI's that are generally in the area near the coast. It was our turn to provide refreshments. We were asked to provide short bread, mince pies and fruit cake, traditional Christmas fare. Home baked goods were welcome but our President took the view that most of us were too busy and decided to provide store-bought goods. I didn't mind, but decided I would bring my fall back Christmas cake: spice cake.

To my amazement, two ladies from other WIs and a friend from our own asked me for the recipe, going on about how much they liked it. I was sure I'd typed it up for a blog post at some point, but I couldn't find it anywhere. So here is my email to them, sent the next day before I forgot. I try never to say I'll do something and then not do it.

Ladies - 

I'm sending you the spice cake recipe as promised. I hope it makes sense (I don't really follow the recipe). I'm really flattered you liked my cake. I don't consider myself much of a baker but I do enjoy having a go now and then.

Zucchini Spice Cake
Betty Crocker's Cookbook, 1987

2 cups all-purpose flour*
2 cups finely chopped zucchini (about 3 medium)
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup chopped nuts
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup water
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs

Heat oven to 350 F (180 C). Grease and flour rectangular pan 13x9x2 inches. Beat all ingredients on low speed, scraping bowl constantly, until blended, about 1 minute. Beat on medium speed, scraping bowl occasionally, 2 minutes.

Pour into pan.

Bake until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 45-50 minutes. Frost with Cream Cheese Frosting if desired.

15 servings; 265 calories per serving.

*If using self-raising flour, decrease baking soda to 1/2 teaspoon and omit salt.


That's the official recipe, but I've never followed it. I find it is quite a flexible and forgiving cake. For example, I've never made it with zucchini / courgettes, always with pureed fruit. I save my elderly-but-not-spoiled fruit in the freezer and make a large batch of these cakes as Christmas presents. Last night's cake only had one cup of sugar and no nuts. It had two large eggs and a heaping tablespoon of soya flour and a tablespoon of water to substitute for the third egg. I used a 9x9x2 inch pan and cooked the cake in my fan oven for 45 minutes, then for another 10 minutes when the initial toothpick came out wet.

Last night's cake had 1 3/4 cups of pureed cooking apples (fresh from a friend's tree) with the remainder of the 2 cups made up with pureed banana (out of my fruit bowl, not the freezer). I just use a stick blender on finely chopped fruit. I've used every kind of fresh, frozen or tinned fruit over the years. I think it is the spices that make this cake what it is, that and the high moisture content.

In addition to substituting soya flour and water for eggs (some of my cakes have had no eggs at all), you can substitute up to half the fat in most baking recipes with pureed fruit, making them a bit healthier. I never put nuts in my cakes, but sometimes substitute a cup of raisins. Nuts are expensive and not everyone likes them - or raisins for that matter. If I happen to have some fruit juice I have been known to substitute that for the water. These cakes freeze well, though of course warm from the oven is best. I normally sprinkle the top with icing sugar, I don't have much of a sweet tooth myself, but last night's cake was bare as I ran short of time. 

I've never used a mixer for these cakes, I just stir the ingredients with a fork, generally, making sure it's all well mixed. I'm sure that if one followed all the directions to the letter it would be a miraculous creation, but that's not what was served last night.

Hope your cakes turn out well!

NB*-:  Remembering that a friend was counting calories last I saw her, I calculated the number in the cake I made her for Christmas. Half of this recipe plus about a teaspoon of icing sugar came to 1372 calories.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Christmas Card

Feel free to laugh at the poor execution of my crafted Christmas card, it makes me giggle as well. Still, I like my idea and will pursue it in future.

My craft group at Linskill decided that rather than write out a dozen-plus paper cards, we would each make a card and then trade. I had an idea that went something like this:

Years ago, Lucy gave me a basket of odd items and a book wrapped in some sort of red gauzy fabric. It was a book about a dozen uses of stuff like cat litter and aluminium foil (a couple of the odd items). I wanted to stitch a message on the red sheer stuff and have a white (A4/letter size folded in half) paper insert on which to hand write my message. It would be tied together at the fold with a ribbon. 

I envisioned this new style of card where the recipient would untie it, replace the paper insert with a new message and either return the card next year or pass it on to someone else. A slightly more personal touch, save a few trees, less glitter, more recycling. (I'm guilty of glitter selection, liking a bit of glitz at the holidays; I've vowed to do better).

However, I do recognise that one of the central themes of modern Christmas traditions is Conspicuous Consumption and this is so contrary to that principle it will never fly. Still, I enjoyed trying to make this card.

Only I couldn't find the red stuff. It's here somewhere, but in a very 'Safe Place'. So I picked up a bag Meriel had given me. Someone had sewn a bunch of large sheer bags and filled them with contributions of knitted items to our knitting group. Meriel handed out the bags to several of us.

It met the sheer criteria, it already had a seam, and I happened to have two sheets of red paper in my drawer. So that was plan 2.

I made a mock up of triangles and lettering on the computer and pinned that to the inside of the bag. I cut fabric triangles to size and pinned them to the sheer fabric to align with the template underneath. So far so good.

The fabric was very slippery and shiny and in spite of being pinned the triangles shifted a bit, which is why the tree is a bit wonky. So it looks homemade.

That is as far as I got for quite a while. We learned that Bill was going to have a pacemaker (it's a week past the surgery and he's fine - downstairs Hoovering at this very moment), the washing machine broke and had to be replaced, the car broke down and wasn't worth enough to fix, my good friend was in hospital with stomach problems (if they keep in you hospital here it has to be serious), my WI needed attention, we had to do our Christmas shopping...all the usual, and then some.

The day of the craft group meeting, I saw Meriel at the knitting group that morning and told her this card might or might not happen. I also needed to do the quiz I'd promised so the ladies could experience taking a citizenship test (I should write about that some time, eh?).

When I left there (my first excursion in the new-to-us car!) I ran into another friend (and another drove past) and so was delayed getting home - not that I minded.

I figured my silver star was a dog's breakfast because the thread caught on everything. I worked on it until I decided I couldn't make it any better (and certainly not any worse) and then moved on to the words. I would come back and see what else I might do with the star if time allowed (it didn't).

I set out to stitch the lettering with embroidery thread. My initial plan was to do chain stitch with yarn, but that seemed too unwieldy. Turns out it was all unmanageable. The fabric was so sheer as to be invisble, which made placing stitches tricky. I couldn't find anything that would write on this plastic stuff. The best outcome was to lick a white dressmaking pencil (v. hygienic and I don't want to know what is in the pencil), but even then the letters were only visible with a dark backing and if you looked at it sideways to avoid the sheen which was astonishingly blinding. One can't possibly refer to the letters as embroidered - it is more that I scribbled on the fabric using thread.

I moved away from the window to sit underneath a bright lamp, hence the glare. Then I decided I just couldn't see well enough with contacts and reading glasses. My nearly blind eyesight is still the sharpest at a distance of 2 inches, even if it does put me at risk of stabbing myself in the nose. It wasn't possible to keep the background pinned to the fabric and have adequate control of the needle so at that point it all became a bit free-hand, which is why the Merry looks like it had several Christmas sherry's. 

I replaced and removed my contacts several times, I can't remember exactly why - but nothing to do with sherry or any other alcohol. I think alcohol is nearly as incompatible with crafting as it is with driving; I just don't go there.

And the reason there are tension lines that cause the fabric to drape like the skin on an old woman's thighs is because I didn't use an embroidery hoop. And perhaps because I myself was a bit tense, trying to get it done in time. 

So, it got presented in an empty Christmas card box and no doubt the recipient, a member of the Embroiderer's Guild, will be in awe of this creation. I can see Leslie shaking her head with wonder that I would dare put this forward. (Actually she's a really lovely lady and she would just smile, show me her most recent breath-taking project, offer to teach me to make beautiful things and bring me another bag of her scraps).

For all its short comings, I'm happy with my first attempt at an eco-friendly (er) Christmas card. It's no worse than my kindergarten level efforts on Paint.

Happy Christmas everyone - and Best Wishes for 2019!

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

100 Years of Food - 2000s

2000 - Chocolate

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who finds it hard to believe the 2000s are 'history'. In fact I still think the 1990s were just a few weeks ago. 

Apparently it was in the 'noughties' that everyone got excited about chocolate. In the old days Brits wanting a bit of chocolate would pick up a bar by Cadbury called Bournville that was only 35% chocolate. Turns out this chocolate bar is named for the village near Birmingham where the Cadbury family first set up business.

I'm hopeless at sweets, having grown up largely without them. If someone says something is like a Mars Bar / Bounty / Snickers, I'm really none the wiser. I have eaten any and all of these at some point, I'm sure, just not often enough to make a memory-dent in my brain. I think I can say with some certainty that I've never heard of a Bournville (I didn't even know how to spell it).

Sue had collected some higher percentage chocolate bars ranging from 70-90% cocoa solids. The dish she made for this era was  a pan of chocolate brownies with prunes (from Green and Black 70%). It was nice enough, but I'm not that fussed about chocolate. so I cut my brownie in half. I brought the other half home for Bill.

Do you remember life before we even considered the percentage of cocoa in our chocolate?

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

100 Years of Food - 1990s

Things got a lot better in the 1990s and the dish they made for this decade is one I would definitely try. Just typing this reminds me I came across in 1995. Britain was a different place then to now. My very first impressions were that the women's shoes were ugly (all black and chunky, they made me wonder if socialism meant ugly shoes); people talked about the US a lot, largely in positive terms - business models, memories of American soldiers handing out candy (mind these were ideas I picked up eavesdropping in public places); the future of the NHS and of the welfare state didn't seem in danger; no one thought anything one way or the other about membership in the European Union, though I do remember when the Euro happened and we stuck with the GBP. Never mind, that was then. This is about September 2018 when I attended a lecture/ meal at the Northumberland Federation of the Women's Institute.

The dish for the 1990s was a Thai stir-fry with prawns (I called them shrimp*). Sue reminded us to 'de-vein' these little creatures. I think along the lines of gutting fish, since that black vein is their digestive tract. I can tell you it is worth the trouble - prawn poo is sandy and muddy tasting yuck. 

Her recipe included lemon grass, red chillies, ginger, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, garlic, and coconut milk. When these are combined they made Red Curry Paste. Sue said used Blue Dragon Curry Paste instead. The stir fry included oil, grated ginger, garlic, spring onion, red pepper, mangetout  (what they call snow peas over here), prawns deveined and cut into strips (!? they must have been pretty large), simmered in coconut milk and served over rice noodles and bean sprouts. It smelled wonderful and tasted even better. 

No photo of the dish itself, but over here on the plate the Thai stir fry is at 6 o'clock. Which just happens to be when I start cooking dinner these days. 

*Turns out there is a difference between prawns and shrimp. They are different species, but they are cooked and taste the same.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Year of Style - December

You probably never noticed it, but it has long bugged me that my Year of Style posts were incomplete. I've no idea whatever happened to the original December post but here is the final post for that series; only seven years late.

  • Prioritise. Don't try to accomplish too much at this time of the year. Postpone what is not essential until next year.
  • Too much to do? Don't worry about everything at once. Just concentrate on the next thing on your schedule.
  • Go head, make a mess with wrapping paper. It creates a festive feeling. (Nice to have permission for the inevitable).
  • Though it's cold and windy, walk with a large easy stride. You'll stay warmer, look taller and have more fun. Don't let the weather cramp your style. (I'll think of my Grandpa exclaiming to my shivering mother about how 'fresh' the air!).
There. Mission accomplished.

Saturday, 8 December 2018


O.M.G. The last comment I published here was in the Autumn of 2016. For some reason I didn't see any more comments "awaiting moderation" for ages. I figured either no one was reading or that Blogger had changed something that made it impossible for people to comment. I couldn't figure out how to fix it, if so. I felt for a long time that I was pretty much talking to myself here, except for the occasional mention from someone in real life who said they liked something here.

I haven't made this blog a priority for some time, using it more as a journal for myself or to put things on to share with a number of people. So it has slowly cranked to a near halt.

And just now I've found a whole slew of comments dating back for a couple of years! Sorry to have ignored you all this time!

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Grandmother's Birthday

I didn't forget, I just couldn't figure out where to squeeze it in and there were no new thoughts immediately springing to mind. So this post remembering Grandmother's (good heavens, 120th) birthday is late. 

The thing is, she is never very far from my mind. When catching up with comments with Jean from Delightful Repast, I was reminded of the time Grandmother made a cherry pie and offered me a piece. I wasn't a fan of the sweet / tart filling and said no, thank you, what a shame that I couldn't just eat the crust which was my favourite part. She said something like, Well then, honey, just you go ahead and eat as much of the crust as you like. I remember the guilty but delicious feeling of breaking off the buttery, crispy edges, decorated with the tines of a fork, all the way around the pie. It was heaven. I remember it as one her best proofs that she loved me. (She could be quite cranky and critical at other times, but she treated me better than most I must admit).

Grandmother and my cousin J.J. - who just turned 50!

Just this morning Bill and I were reminiscing about the various heating systems in the houses where we had lived. He grew up dressing in the mornings in front of the gas fire in his parents' bedroom while his dad went down and got the coal fire started in the kitchen.

My parents' house had an open gas fire in the bathroom - as did both my grandparents' houses - but the rest of the house was heated by two floor furnaces, one in the hall and the other in the dining room. Mom and I both had cross-hatch marks on most of our shoes from standing on the furnaces.

I lived in two houses with central heat, but never one with central air conditioning, unless you count the swamp cooler in Salt Lake City. Our house here is heated with hot water radiators. 

I remember the floor furnace in the centre of the open plan living / dining room at Grandma and Grandpa's house (I still have the key that Grandpa used to adjust the heat). But I cannot remember how either of Grandmother's houses, on 31st and 34th Street, were heated. I know that both had gas fires under a mantle in the living rooms but I can't recall ever standing on a furnace at either house. I'll have to ask my Uncle Pat if he remembers. 

I think of Grandmother when I do my family history, when I open my wardrobe and see her brooch, when I sit on her love seat or at her dining table, when I make cornbread dressing for Thanksgiving, when I debate with myself whether to hold my tongue or speak out, when I hear hymns she used to hum, when I think I'm tired from standing all day, when I bake pies, when I consider buying shape wear, when I remember collecting pop bottles to cash in at the convenience store across from her house, when I remember tap dance lessons with Uncle Bernard, when I feel rebellious at rules applied to old ladies, when I think about how to treat myself with respect in hopes it will encourage others to be respectful as well. 

Grandmother was definitely a role model for me in both bad (she was never very smart about money) and wonderful (she was never anyone but her own true self) ways. How can I not remember her for the rest of my life - hopefully until she'd be at least 150!?