Let’s get on with it – new year swims, birthday cake baking for twins and no more prevaricating

Around the nation people are attempting to tighten their belts around their festive paunches. In this household we’re preparing to let them out another notch for today is the Footballer and Super Fast Swimmer’s 11th birthday and there will be cake for tea. Early Jan is a pretty dire time for a birthday, but at the time back in 2004 I didn’t fancy hanging onto them inside any longer and I was very proud of how long their gestation was. So there’s been more cake baking and icing. They share a cake on their birthday – and have separate ones for their parties. For the second year running we’ve gone down the separate children separate icing route…

Birthday cake

Today I had a long list of things to get done, with baking a reward for achieving some of the bigger and less appetising looking tasks.  There was no time for messing around, coffees or chats at the school gates, so instead straight up to my desk, fingerless mittens on and flask of hot tea at my side. This thermos business is a winner – it means no excuses for ‘just popping to make a cup of tea’ as I have a ready supply of piping hot tea inside it.

This new sense of urgency that’s arrived with the kids’ return to school has really taken hold, and it’s very exciting. I’ve workbooks filling with to do lists. Some of the tasks I’d rather not do, or am apt to dodge, but thanks to the 10 minute rule (set a timer, work on the less attractive job, and by the time the pinger goes you’ll be so into it you’ll complete it) I’m on track.

There was no prevarication either on New Year’s Day when me (donning 2 swimming hats and a costume), a friend and 3 children took to the North Sea for a quick dip. The adults had a proper swim, the kids a swifter immersion. It was beyond invigorating, it was BLISSFUL and BRACING. I can’t remember it being cold, but I do remember wanting to go straight back in afterwards. Here I am post swim with my brilliantly supportive and towel holding husband and a devilish glint in my eyes.

birthday cold swim

There was a smashing opinion piece in The Telegraph about cold water swimming recently which pretty much sums up all that’s good about it, and talks specifically of the hit you get going swimming in cold water. Addicts like me rave about the wonders of it,  how high the cold makes you feel, and how alive you are afterwards, but now  Dr Mark Harper a consultant anaesthetist at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals (and expert advisor to the Outdoor Swimming Society) has researched the impact of cold water swimming on the body and says, in the Telegraph piece, ‘The benefits of exercise and cold-adaptation include better mood and better metabolism (especially with regard to the way the body handles sugar). There is even evidence to support the theory that cold adaptation –which can be achieved through open-water swimming – may actually reduce the overall risk of a heart attack.’

birthday cold

So when I got to Kentish Town Baths and saw this sign I ignored the groans and complaints from the ladies in the changing rooms, made some (probably annoying) very positive remarks, just thought ‘go for it’ and went for it, so  a swim in cool water, followed by a properly cold shower. Crazy? Probably. But boy I didn’t suffer from any kind of afternoon slump today, and I’m well awake and raring to welcome home my just turned 11 year olds.

Baking, butter, brioche and a mug of mulled wine – a day out at the Waitrose Cookery School in London

I went to the Waitrose Cookery School this week and spent a whole day in their temple to baking, clean surfaces and the John Lewis ‘look’. Even the loos were in keeping with green walls and grey doors (but no sign of Monty the Penguin). I have done a large clutch of baking courses this year, and each one has had me beaming. My whole face lights up in anticipation of the things I’m going to get to work (play) with and the new techniques I’ll learn and all the yummy things I’ll be tasting and taking home.

Pause – should you give the foodie in your life a cookery school voucher? Well it won’t be the wrong size or the wrong colour for starters. For seconds, think of all the things they’ll bring back to share with you and the dishes they’ll be baking for you with their new found skills. Pretty much a win-win situation.

A day at a cookery school is heaven. No washing up – that’s done by the ‘washing up fairies’ (see trolley below) and no multi-tasking with emails, packed lunch making, phone calls or laundry. It’s a whole day devoted to the joy of food.

Waitrose Kitchen FairiesWaitrose setting the scenewaitrose kitchen

There are loads of places running courses – I really recommend Konditor and Cook (the most decadent but re-creatable at home cakes and biscuits – London), Cinnamon Square (superb pastry making and more – Great Rickmansworth), Ruby Violet (ice cream heaven – North London) and Blackbird Bread (for working magic with gluten free loaves and running a micro bakery in Twickenham). Prices tend to start at c£50 for two hours. I hope to blog and post pictures of creations from these bakeries soon.

The Waitrose Cookery School off Finchley Road in London is purpose built, with 24 work stations, a demo theatre with flash shiny black cupboards and giant screens, and a break-out area with tables, shelves of cookery books and proper coffee.

Things always seem a bit competitive to start with on these courses, so lots of ‘What are they doing first?’, ‘Does hers look better than mine?’ and ‘Why on earth is he spraying his pecan nuts all over the floor as he’s cutting them up?’ racing through my head. This time it all calmed down quickly as we realised how we could help each other out  – a classic case of teamwork with strangers round our hobs.

lining ingredients up for the stollen dough waitrose slice waitrose stollen Waitrose cranberry dough

We had giant mugs of mulled wine for our elevenses (with what looked suspiciously like bought Mince Pies) and big bowls of creamy and very moreish celeriac and parsnip soup for lunch.

Waitrose mug

We were also shown how to make Fig and Blue Cheese Brioche but I found it a bit too rich, didn’t realise I’d ever say that. I think the filling would have suited a puff pastry better than the cakey texture of brioche.

I came home laden with:

Sesame seed bread – Cypriot style, very easy to tear chunks off and delicious

Stollen twist – cue much OMGs from the kids – an enormous circle of dough filled with marzipan and apricot yumminess anointed with glace icing

Pecan and Cranberry Wreath – with a whole Camembert to bake and place in the centre of

In the spirit of Waitrose’s #bakeitforward challenge I popped over to my neighbour with some of the stollen. (I am afraid it wasn’t the whole thing as we are too greedy and selfish.)