Monday, 25 February 2013

Cheese scones

There is this girl I know - not very well, I just follow her on Twitter - and the thing about her is that she is about to have her first baby, like any day now. And the reason that she is on my mind is that I am so appalled, really AH-PPALLED at the things that people say to her about the imminent arrival of her child.

Anything she tweets, anything at all - "had some toast just now" or "feeling happy today" - gets an avalanche of responses like "Ha ha! Forget eating toast once baby's out. You'll be living off dust bunnies! LOL" or "You'll never feel happy again after you have a baby! Best u know now! Ha ha ha LOL."

I mean what the fuck is wrong with people. Really what the fuck. The only correct response to anyone who is having a baby, first, second or whatever is "Oh that's so wonderful congratulations how brilliant." If the pregnant person actually presses you for more detail, (which they never do), then, and only then, you say "Yes okay look, life isn't really the same again, and sometimes it's better and sometimes it's shit and you wonder what the fuck you've done. But once they hit 18 months everything's pretty easy."

And they look at you like "18 months... 18 MONTHS?!?!" Because they haven't had a baby yet and they don't fully understand how glacial everything becomes. How s-s-s-l-o-o-o-w-w and b-b-o-o-o-r-r-i-n-n-n-g it all is when they are really small. But it's not their fault. And nobody, least of all my acquaintance on Twitter, ever declared or really seriously thought that having a baby was easy, (except Tanith Carey in that thing in the Mail the other day, but she just wrote that for money, like we all do).

I understand the motivation: I get it. When you are the parent of very small children, you are so vulnerable, you are in such a tight spot, so much on the back foot, that there is huge tempation to claw back a bit of an upper hand by laying into those lower down the food chain. You might not be having a glamorous time, your marriage a shambles, your hair neglected and your face a roadmap of despair, but you can - at least! - turn to those less experienced and laugh nastily and say those dreaded words "Just you wait," and feel briefly victorious before going home and spending the evening chipping Weetabix off your surfaces and sobbing into a tumbler of gin.*

The "just you wait" thing barely happens second time round. People keep their distance. Although there is a little bit of a thing where people say "With the first one you can carry on pretending that life is sort of normal but with the second one you just give in and it's all about survival."

And I'm like, I'm sorry - at no point have I ever with Kitty pretended than "life is normal". We live, still, as if we are under siege. (The deputy books editor of the Evening Standard, Katie Law, once said to me "You get your life back a bit once your youngest is three," and she is right about most things, so I believe her.) I can't see how having a second can possibly make me leave the house less, have less fun, curtail my freedom more.

It'll all be familiar. It'll be the difference, says my husband, between driving somewhere unfamiliar, and then driving back home. It'll be the easiest time I've ever done - I'm going to chew up the next three years and spit them out. Bring it on.

While I wipe the foam from my chin and repent my hubris, please turn your mind to cheese scones. These are a thing my friend Becky B makes all the time, as she says that she always has all the ingredients - and she has a very good point: in a tight spot when only something homemade will do, these will save your skin without, probably, having to dash madly to the shops.

This is not Becky B's recipe, but they are nice all the same.

Cheese scones
Makes 6 biggish ones

225g self-raising flour
40g butter at room temp or as close as possible
a pinch of salt
some milk - about 150ml
2 large handfuls of cheddar - reasonably strong - grated on the fine whatsit of a box grater

Preheat the oven to 200C

1 Sieve the flour into a bowl (or just dump it in and swizzle with a whisk)

2 Cut in the butter and rub together until it is crumb-like

3 Add the pinch of salt and 3/4 of your grated cheddar. Now incorporate this together using your hands, trying to distribute the fine strands of cheese evenly through the flour.

4 Now add a long sploosh of milk and mix in with a knife. Then add another sploosh and you ought to start being able to gather the mixture up into a sort of dough.

5 Turn this out onto a floured surface and roughly shape into a round. Don't worry if the dough looks a bit scratchy, just make sure it is at LEAST 1in thick (use a ruler because I guarantee you don't know how thick this is). Scones don't rise much in the oven and so you need a scone to be reasonably thick before it goes in the oven or you'll get some miserable little pancake. Cut out your scones, re-roll and cut until you've used up as much of the dough as possible.

6 Arrange on a greased baking tray and finish off with the rest of the grated cheese piled on top of each scone.

7 Bake for 15 mins

*In their defence - "just you wait"ers are often the most helpful, solicitous and kind once the baby is actually out.

Saturday, 23 February 2013


There come moments in life when you have to be realistic about who you are and what you are actually like, rather than nursing febrile projections of what you hope and dream that you are like.

The first time is always when you hear a recording of your own voice. It is always traumatising. Always more high pitched and posh, or common, or flat, or regional or just otherwise terrible than you can possibly have imagined. One of the reasons I left my job on a newspaper was that I had to listen back to my stupid stupid buggery awful voice on recorded interviews.

There are many other moments after that, but that first moment of being confronted with the reality of what you sound like is always terrible.

I had another one today. I was beside myself with excitement at having a piece in the Guardian's Family section. I love the Family section of the Guardian nearly as much as I love Style, so being in it RIGHT THERE THERE I AMMMMM more than made up for Kitty's massive and terrifying nosebleed + 103F fever at 4.30am.

But then I opened the Times Magazine to see a piece they had on the "world's best food blogger", called Katie something; What Katie Ate, is her blog. She is beautiful and thin and her food looks fucking amazing. There was a glowing intro written by my husband's editor at the magazine, which contained a slightly disparaging comment about "mummy" food bloggers.

I looked back at my picture in Family. I looked a bit fat. My hair needs a cut. I turned to see that Kitty was still staggering around the kitchen in her blood spattered pyjamas because she screamed every time I tried to take them off to get them soaking in Napisan. I thought about my clumsy, unchic blog, my stupid shit photos, my total lack, generally, of style and I felt really quite ill.

I have recovered now, by telling myself that this is just one of those times where you have to confront the reality of who you are and what you are capable of. This blog is almost entirely a response to food blogs like What Katie Ate, which are so professional and beautiful and chic and purposeful. I can never, ever be like that or do that. So I do this.

That's another reason why I decided to go against most of what I stand for and feature a click-through to Lakeland at the top right hand corner of this blog. I love Lakeland. It's not the height of glamour, but it is useful and I happen to know an editor at Vogue who reads the Lakeland catalogue in bed at night.

So that explains what that Lakeland thingy is doing on my blog. I'm sure Katie doesn't have anything like that on hers, (I am literally too scared to look in case it gives me a nervous breakdown), but I've decided that I am that person. I am a Lakeland advertiser. If you click on the little picture and buy something off the website then I get 7% of your basket. And Lord knows all that germicidal soak we're getting through these days isn't going to buy itself.


Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Chocolate nests for Easter

I don't know why this photo has come out blue

It occured to me the other day that I might be a tiny bit of a control freak. I arrived at this conclusion while thinking the other morning about why is it that I hate being pregnant quite so much.

Because I suspect I hate being pregnant an uncommon amount - I think I hate it and find it more onerous and tedious than other people do. I think I hate it out of proportion to its actual discomforts and indignities.

And I think that I am this way because if you are inclined towards control freakery, pregnancy is like a worst nightmare: your body runs off in all directions like an errant toddler and does all sorts of things you would never allow in real life: it gets fat, it won't sleep, it twitches and jumps about at all hours of the day and night, it becomes tearful and exhausted for no reason, it is forgetful and irritable and slow and late. It does things that a control freak simply cannot laugh off or feel philosophical about.

I was initially rather pleased and smug at this self-diagnosis. Control freakery implies to me a level of organisation and "sortedness" that, as a control freak, I find wildly appealing. But control freaks aren't always successful. My friend the writer Olivia Glazebrook, (her excellent novel The Trouble With Alice is available on Amazon), once said to me "so you're a perfectionist?" and I laughed and said "I can't be a perfectionist- my house is a mess". And then she laughed (we were quite pissed) and said "You can be a perfectionist without having a perfect life."

I didn't really understand at the time, but what she meant was that seeking to control things, or to be perfect, is a psychosis, a sort of madness: and like the lunatic who likes to believe that he is St Jerome, (but isn't and will never be), just because you seek control and perfection, doesn't mean you get it.

It is the action of planning to control or seeking the illusion of control that control freaks need - not neccessarily the end result. It's why I stockpile butter and cleaning products and toiletries: buying and storing them is to me more important a ritual than the actual fact of them being there. And it's why although the last time I was pregnant I planned my hospital maternity bag down to the last can of facial spritzer, I failed to execute it in time and was left post-partum with no clean underwear, no nursing bra and no hairband. And no, needless to say, facial spritzer. I remembered the iPad, though.

Control freaks are often some of the most ineffectual people there are. Not to get too self-important about it, but Gordon Brown was a famous control freak and couldn't get anything done. We are like dogs chasing our tails. It's really quite sad.

All this self-knowledge doesn't stop me from trying. Making lists, hoarding, planning, doing everything in advance: it's soothing. It soothes me in the place of a repeat prescription of benzos.

But I have let go of certain things. For example, when Kitty is ill, which she is now. She has come down with a thing she had last year, which involves a high fever, red sticky eyes, luminous magenta cheeks, a stupendous amount of neon snot, resistance to infant analgesics and a lot of midnight wailing.

This would have traumatised me beyond belief this time last year, so insanely uptight am I about nothing getting in the way of my sleep. In fact, recalling Kitty's selfsame infection last year, I am staggered, in hindsight, at how mean I was about her having to stay in her cot, even though she was weeping and holding her arms out to me and saying "Mummmmeeee". My own mother, not a control freak in any way, was appalled by this. "Why don't you just tuck her up in bed next to you?" she said. My mother never, ever comments on my parenting - she only ever says "Kitty looks well" or "that's a nasty cough" - so she must have been shocked.

I didn't want to put Kitty in bed with me because I was crazy (DESPITE THERAPY) and I thought that if you have a baby or toddler in bed with you even once even for half an hour, they will be in bed with you until they are 25.

But I was wrong. I had Kitty in bed with me for three nights when she was ill last year, I didn't feel nearly as bad as I thought I would, and the minute she was better she went gladly back into her own bed and slept like she always had. It made me understand that there is just no room for absolutism when it comes to children. You have to be flexible. When they are very ill or very scared it's different. There are exceptions.

So now when Kitty is unwell we all three of us just knock about all night, drifting from one bed to another, in and out of rooms, my husband and I silently handing our hot, weeping child to each other as some shared internal timer tells us that a shift has come to an end, giving each other the odd pat on the shoulder. It's fine, we're fine. She'll get better at some point. Sleeplessness will age us, yes, but it won't kill us.

That doesn't mean that there isn't ample opportunity for benign control freakery in my life, like my passion for accessorising Kitty's experience of national holidays.

Kitty has been talking, for a while, about an Easter egg hunt, as this is a thing she has seen on Peppa Pig. Having children gives you a new perspective on the winter: cold wet weather is so particularly ghastly when you have a toddler that you feel as ravingly joyous at its conclusion as ancient farmers on Welsh hillsides must have done 200 years ago.

And Easter really means winter is over - so this year, we are going to go nuts. I am going to have an Easter table centrepiece (fashioned from blossom twigs and hung with decorated eggs and festooned with ribbons) roast lamb on whatever day you're supposed to have it and the most glorious Easter egg hunt you've ever seen.

And these chocolate nests, a forgotten thing from my childhood that I saw in a book. I do love Mini Eggs - with their dusty, pastel speckled shells they really do look like little wild birds eggs, don't they? Or am I just a credulous townie?

Anyway, you don't need a recipe. Just melt some milk chocolate in a bowl over warm water, then sprinkle in cornflakes, turn the flakes in the chocolate until covered (add a handful of raisins for extra pizzazz) then decant into fairy paper cases and dot with mini eggs.

If I can just get myself together to actually do all this and not miss the whole of Easter because I am too busy planning Kitty's amazing bucket and spade summer holiday, we'll be laughing.


Monday, 11 February 2013

Another chocolate cake

My husband has been away filming in Canada for the last week and I have surprised myself by not having a nervous breakdown and not having to go and live at my mum's house.

I really am surprised about this, I am usually absolutely terrible at being by myself, which is strange for someone who is mostly so antisocial and so unfriendly. I always think I will be much better, much more at peace if I were alone. But then that time comes around and I find myself adrift, mad, starey-eyed, jumping at small noises, unable to feed myself or get anything done. Give me one hour alone and I will give you the world. Give me all day and I will fall to drink and despair.

Anyway I have started thinking in the last few days that in fact being a single parent might be alright. People go on and on about how hard it is - but why? You can do whatever the fuck you like with your kids, you don't have to think about anyone except you and your children. You can go about looking an absolute fright. There is hardly any laundry, you can watch whatever you like on tv - or sit about painting your nails all night. People absolutely kill themselves to help you out and ring you up going "How ARE you?" and then you can have a 45 min conversation with them because no-one has had to pause a telly programme while you yak away.

Not that I haven't missed my husband. The house is dead without his machine-gun laughter, internal tussles, professional feuds, industrial gossip and home improvement schemes; it is too quiet without him clattering down the stairs in that particular way, ("DDDRRR DDDDR DDRR... DUD-DUD-DUD-DUD-DUD-DDDDDDUNT"), and too massive without him appearing suddenly round corners and through doors, shoulders first - an unstoppable wall of ancient sweater and curly hair and chatter.

No, it's not that. It's just that I just thought that on top of missing my husband's presence, the very fact of being alone would be terrible, but it hasn't been.

But, obviously, I'm being stupid. Being single is exhausting, let alone being a single parent. And I forget all the boring shit that my husband shields me from: tax returns, insurance, bills, car administration, other men, paid employment. If I had to do THAT all by myself, what with my weak veins and fear of paperwork and I would die writing and screaming in 48 hours.

This is without even mentioning that Kitty has been in both good health and in an uncommonly co-operative mood for the last week. She even stopped insisting - the day Giles left for Canada - that she be carried the four flights upstairs to bed. I won't go as far as to say that it was "as if she knew" that I just couldn't do it, because Kitty's empathy is still pretty nascent, but I'm certainly grateful for it.

There is no reason for me to make this chocolate cake, I'm simply curious about it - it was the cake that I was going to make for Kitty's birthday but then changed my mind. And I have time on my hands today as it is bloody snowing again, so we are confined indoors.

James Martin, whose recipe this is, is for me the culinary equivalent of Kim Kardashian or Emeli Sande: I don't really understand who they are or why I keep hearing about them, but I have accepted their place on the planet with resigned weariness.

This cake is actually very similar the birthday cake I made, but it was much easier. The critical difference is that this gives you a flat, tray-bakey cake, rather than the echt high birthday cake shape you're really after.

A Chocolate Cake by James Martin

For the cake
200g plain chocolate. Mr Martin recommended I use one with low cocoa solids, but I didn't have any, so I just used Waitrose plain cooking chocolate, which was 75% solids. On reflection, although the cake is good as it is, it would have been better to have used the plain Waitrose Belgian chocolate that Mr Martin specified. So do that.
***NB I have subsequently made this cake with milk cooking chocolate and it has been absolutely delicious, so you can do it with confidence***

200g butter
200g light brown sugar
200g self-raising flour
100 ml sour cream
100ml hot water
2 eggs, beaten
5 tbsp cocoa powder

 For the icing
100g plain chocolate
170g can condensed milk - I could only find a 390g tin, so measured 170g out on some scales.
100 g butter

Preheat your oven to 160C normal oven and 140C fan oven
Grease and line a 22cm square cake tin

1 Melt the chocolate, butter and sugar in a pan with the hot water. Put it on the smallest burner at the lowest heat and just wait for it to melt. It might take 20 mins. Be patient.

2 Sift together the flour and cocoa powder into a bowl

3 Once the chocolate mixture has melted, set it aside for a few minutes to let it briefly cool and then whisk in the soured cream and then the eggs.

4 Now add the flour mixture to the chocolate in large spoonfuls, mixing to combine after each one. When it has all been incorporated, pour the mixture into your tin and bake for 55 mins.

***If you would like to achieve a nice, square flat surface for decoration then take the cake out of the tin when it is cool enough to handle (and not fall apart, which is what hot cakes and biscuits like to do most) and cool it properly upside down on a cooling rack. If you just turn a cake upside down that has been cooled the right way up, it will balance unattractively on its domed top.***

5 For the ganache icing, put all the ingredients into a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of water. The bottom of the bowl must not touch the water. Now put the pan on your lowest burner set at the lowest heat.

Recipes always instruct you that the water must be "barely simmering". I say it need not simmer AT ALL. It just needs to be hot. Just think about how easily chocolate and butter melts in your hand, let alone in hot water. This sort of thing splits in the blink of an eye, so it's worth just letting it melt really slowly while you read some bit of the Sunday papers that you missed first time round.

6 Leave the ganache to cool for 20 mins and then spread over the top of the cake. I found that there was about 50% too much ganache in the end, so you could reduce the quantities if you wanted. Bear in mind that ganache doesn't look very nice even when cooked correctly - it goes sort of gluey and looks a bit split at the best of times, so don't worry if yours doesn't look luscious

7 Decorate at will. I love the look of these millions of tiny sugar balls all over the top - like a cake you'd get in a very old-fashioned bakery.

Now eat the whole thing all by yourself. After all, there's no-one to see.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Luxury potato

There is a time in life that all mothers dread. It's worse than childbirth, because it goes on for longer, it's worse than breastfeeding, because it comes out of the blue. It's worse than looming housework, because housework can at least sometimes be soothing in its mindless repetition.

It's when your toddler drops their afternoon nap. Because right up until they are about two, or even two and a half (or even three if you're really lucky) the little suckers go to sleep for up to two hours after lunch, allowing you to do whatever the FUCK you want. I mean, you can't leave the house, but those two hours are yours, yours, yours and no-one can take them away from you.

The minute your child nods off at lunch also pretty much marks the end of the day because mornings are the hardest work with toddlers. As soon as they're a-bed, you've got two hours to do WHATEVER!!!! and then in the afternoon you can both just doss around eating fingerpaint until bedtime.

It's hardest on the mother if the child has been doing this nap strictly, in its bed, for 2 hours exactly, pretty much since birth. If you've been more relaxed about it, letting the child nap in a buggy while you sail off to, I don't know, Westfield or something on the overland the transition to no nap is less horrific - you are used to being flexible, you are used to just dealing with every day as it comes.

I am not like that. I am not bendy, like a willow - I am rigid, like an oak tree. Or maybe just doomed, like the ash.

It's not like I didn't know that Kitty was going to drop her nap. In fact, I'm surprised she's kept it up for this long. But now we find ourselves in a mid-nap-dropping slippery patch. She still needs to have a little kip but she won't pass out in front of the telly and won't go to sleep in her cot. She will only now nod off in the car, or in her buggy.

Which means I have to go out, somewhere, at about 2pm, so that she will sleep between 2ish and 2.30ish.

As the end of the nap loomed, I dreaded this. But in actual fact, it is oddly freeing.

(And I am lucky - some toddlers suddenly do a thing where if they nod off for even 2 minutes after lunch, they won't go to sleep until 9 or 10pm at night. Though that could well happen to Kitty I suppose.)

A thing that mothers who choose to be very strict about a routine sometimes complain about is that you are confined to the house, you can't really ever go out for lunch and you have to rush back from whatever you are doing in the morning so that the child doesn't fall asleep on the way home and thus ruin completely your two hours of peace. You are in a gilded cage. That's been me for two years.

So today, for example, as it's nice and sunny I'm quite looking forward to bundling us both up and going for a very relaxed stroll somewhere - because there is no more relaxing walk to have than when you are pushing a sleeping child in a buggy (and that child is supposed to be asleep). Maybe we'll go to Primrose Hill? Maybe we'll go to Hampstead? North West London is our oyster.

In other news, my husband is away in Canda until next week, which means that Kitty and I are even more loose, twisting in the wind really, with nowhere much to go and nothing much to do. We can eat our dinner in a fancy restaurant at a moment's notice. Or just come home and eat crackers in front of the telly in our pants. Not that my husband ever prevents this sort of spontaneity, you understand, just that it is somehow less likely.

I saw my husband off on his chilly cross-Atlantic adventure with a luxury baked potato, which is a baked potato loaded with sour cream, caviar, chopped egg and spring onions. Not expensive caviar, just lumpfish caviar from the deli fridge at Waitrose - although we did once do this with really expenseive stuff and drank champagne with it; possibly one of the best dinners of my life.

I only learnt how to bake potatoes properly in the last two years or so - I'd never really done it before. What you must do is bake them at the absolute highest temperature that your oven will go for 1 hour - not at 180 for 1hr 15 or 200 for 45 min or any such nonsense. FULL HEAT, 1hour.

Then split, butter, sour cream, caviar (one little pot is enough for 2 people) I boiled egg chopped finely, some spring onion. Whether or not you have champagne too is up to you in that moment. Because, sometimes, there's nothing quite like just winging it.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Celeriac slaw with goat's cheese "croutons"

Every so often, I like to remind my husband exactly who is boss in this little domestic disaster we call home. I think he thinks it's him. And that's fine. Most of the time, I like to encourage him to think that it's him. I don't like to tell him exactly how long it would take him to die of starvation, unhappiness and the inability to locate his shoes, or keys, or wallet, should I suddenly vanish.

But once in a while, I like him to see things plainly.

Like the other day, he asked me what we were having for dinner. And I said, as cheerfully as I could (because it is one of my slight cop-out dinners) "A spanish OMELETTE!!!" I said it in the exact manner that Kitty suggests that we all go and watch Peppa Pig. ("I know! I know! Less WATS PEPPA PIIIIIIIIIIG!?!?!")

"Oh," he said, "can I not have any potato in my half? I mean, I like potato, but it's not much use to me steamed and then hidden in egg."

"I see," I said. And then that evening as a punishment, almost worthy of Mrs Twit, I set about making him a dinner containing all the things I know hates - celery, walnuts, dill - a recipe for which I just happened to have handily torn out of a magazine, although I'm afraid I don't know which one. I thought it was delicious.

So here we go -

Beetroot and celeriac coleslaw with goat's cheese "croutons"
Serves 4 as a light lunch.

(Sorry I have added that assholish "croutons" thing because it's actually just cheese on toast, but whenever I see that sort of ludicrous marketing caper on a menu it makes me laugh so much that I have vowed to use it here at least once.)

This is an awful lot easier if you have a food processor with a grating attachment, but I did it all by hand and it was perfectly okay and I am pregnant and in a terrible mood so you've got no excuse really.

for the slaw
1 small celeriac
2 sticks celery, de-strung and chopped
2 apples, skin on
2 small raw beetroot, peeled
handful walnuts, chopped

for the dressing
1 large tbsp greek yoghurt
small bunch dill, chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp dijon mustard
1/2 tsp white or red wine vinegar
salt and pepper
the juice and zest of 1 lemon

for the croutons
1 stick baguette or a petit parisienne
2 packs rindless goat's cheese

1 Grate the celeriac and apple and put in a bowlful of cold water with half the lemon juice, to stop it from going brown.

2 Grate the beets and mix with the chopped celery. Then drain the apple and celeriac well and add.

3 Mix together the dressing ingredients and mix into the veg - scatter over some dill leaves and walnuts to serve.

4 Slice the bread on a dramatic vertical and lightly toast one side under the grill, then load the other side with goat's cheese and grill for a few minutes

To his credit, my husband took it all like a man and has not made specific requests about dinner since.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A Birthday Cake

A small personality flaw both my husband and I display is haste. We fuck up otherwise simple tasks just by going at them fast, angrily, drunk, twenty minutes before we have to leave the house.

There are people in the world who do not do this. They plan everything out, get all the bits out of the box, remove all the plastic, smooth out the instructions, turn off their phone, put Classic FM on and proceed with great care and thought until the thing is done to a craftsman's standard.

I find these sort of people quite annoying. I am usually hovering in the background shrieking "Just shove it all in and turn it on! It'll be fine!"

Occasionally great haste doesn't mater. You CAN do something in eight seconds flat and it works out well. I have never planned a piece of writing, for example, and neither has my husband. We both attack our keyboards in a great fury, writing as if we're running after a bus on which we have left our wallet, phone, keys and firstborn. It's always worked okay for Giles. I admit that I am more of a work in progress - but what I will say is that any variance in quality in my writing never has anything to do with how long it took me.

But anyway, because about 70% of the time, great haste doesn't do you any damage, it's never been a flaw I've sought very hard to correct. But in cooking, especially cooking things for the first time, that great haste can get you in the most serious amount of miserable shit. Haste and a new recipe do not work well together - an awful lot of stuff ends up in the bin, down the sink and you are left exhausted, eating mousetrap and crackers for dinner. Be as hasty as you like with something you've done a thousand times, but you rush a new foe at your own peril.

Like this birthday cake, which I made for Kitty's 2nd birthday party this weekend. The base was a chocolate cake from Edd Kimber's excellent book Say It With Cake. It is a terrific cake: it is plain, but delicious and not too sweet. I was very concerned that it would have a too grown-up, almost bitter flavour (due to all the 70% cocoa solids specified),but it went down very well with the six children under six at Kitty's birthday tea.

The cake is also nice and solid, so takes icing and decoration well - and it keeps brilliantly and is completely edible for days afterwards, unlike a bloody sponge, which crumbles to dust within 24 hours and is fit for nothing but the bin.

The drawback is that it is not a dump-and-stir, there are various different moving parts, which require your attention for a few hours and must not be combined with drunkenness, childcare of the under 5s or a pressing need to be somewhere soon. It is not hard, you understand, but you do need to concentrate.

So here we go

For the cake
30g cocoa powder
50ml strong hot coffee (I used instant, which was fine. If you are very touchy about caffeine for children, just use hot water or decaf)
50ml hot water
200g butter
200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids - I used Green & Blacks cooking stuff)
300g soft light brown sugar
4 eggs
175g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder

For the chocolate buttercream
NB - I baked the cake in one tin, rather than in 2 sandwich tins, so this quantity of buttecream was too much. If you are baking this in one tin, rather than two, I'd say to halve the buttercream quantities, or at least reduce buy a third.

100g dark chocolate, chopped
175g butter at room temperature
75ml double cream
375g icing sugar
a pinch of salt

1 Set oven to 180 and then grease/line either 2 x 20cm shallow sandwich tins or just one deep 20cm tin. Square or round, doesn't matter.

2 Put the cocoa in a little bowl and pour over the hot coffee AND hot water and mix it to a sort of creamy liquidy consistency and then set to one side.

3 Set a heatproof bowl over a pan of water on the hob - so just not a metal one. The bottom of the bowl should not touch the water and the pan ought to be on the lowest setting of your smallest plate or burner. Now pile in the 200g butter, cut into chunks and the chocolate, chopped.

Now just leave this alone. Don't turn the heat up, even if it looks like it's not doing anything for ages and ages. Butter-and-chocolate splits incredibly easily and when it does, it's completely unusable. I have seen otherwise excellent and competent cooks split butter-and-chocolate so it's not just me being a bellend. So just let it sit there melting very slowly. It might take about 20 mins but that's just too bad. You can stir it round a bit at the end just to encourage it to melt entirely.

An unsplit chocolate and butter mix

4 Whisk the sugar and eggs together until pale. Pour in your melted chocolate and butter and whisk to mix.

(NB do not bother to wash up this bowl now - just scrape it clean with a spatula because you might as well use it for the buttercream later)

5 Sift the flour and baking powder over this mixture and fold together until the flour has disappeared. Now stir in the cocoa mixture that you set to one side at the start of this little adventure.

6 Either divide this between two tins or put it in your one big one.

7 Two tins will take 30 mins to cook but one big one took nearly an hour. Start off with 40 mins and then keep testing with a skewer every 10 mins thereafter. Balance a sheet of foil over the top of the cake if you worry that your oven is too vigorous and that the top might burn.

8 To make the buttercream, melt the chocolate in your already-used heatproof bowl using the method described above. In a separate bowl whisk the butter for a few minutes until it is approximately "light and fluffy". Pour in the double cream cautiously and whisk all this together.

9 Add the icing sugar, one large tablespoon at a time. I have never found a way of doing this that doesn't leave your kitchen looking like a rock star's dressing room - you might be more clever about it. Add the pinch of salt and continue to beat until it all looks like buttercream - about a minute or so. Now pour over the melted chocolate and beat a bit more. Quite hard on the old arms, this, if you are using a hand mixer.

Rock star dressing room? No, my kitchen while buttercream is in progress

10 To put this together, you can either sandwich the two halves together with the buttercream or just slap the buttercream all the way round one big one. Leave the buttercream to set for a bit on the cake before you lay the icing over.

11 I have never used this Playdoh-like icing (sometimes called "sugarpaste") before, and I assumed it would be a nightmare, but it was quite straightforward. I bought one pack of white pre-rolled stuff, which was brilliant and one pack of ready-to-roll stuff, because I wanted to knead some food colouring into it.

Kneading food coloring into ready-to-roll is actually pretty easy BUT I found rolling it out in order to lay over the cake not so straightforward. It's possible that it was because it was a bit warm from having the colour kneaded into it and needed to be chilled before the final application. I found some icing sugar dusted on to my worksurface helped.

So you just splosh or scatter over food colouring and knead the icing like you would knead dough

Decorate at will.

Anyway so like I said: not a cake to do in a hurry, but excellent for any birthday girl or boy of any age.

NB: all decorations for this Peppa Pig cake came from Waitrose - including wafer daisies, sugarpaste, food colouring and sugar butterflies. Peppa Pig herself is a fridge magnet that came free with a magazine.