As usually happens these days, life got in the way of my grand plans to blog holiday guides, but I am determined to keep going when I get the chance and inspiration strikes. Please forgive my intermittent appearances here, and I hope you enjoy it when I do show up.
So. Somehow we ended up travelling a lot last year, between Cologne, our honeymoon (of which more later) and this bonus trip to California for a conference. Well, he was attending the conference and I just tagged along for the fun! We were staying in Anaheim so of course we had to visit the original Disney parks, Disneyland and California Adventure Park. They were as magical as ever, and we especially liked Cars Land and Paradise Pier, which is like an old seaside resort complete with a rickety old-fashioned rollercoaster.
While in Anaheim we took the opportunity to travel around the state a little, so look out for future posts on our mini road trips to the coast and the desert. CA really is an incredible place, and I wish we’d had more time to explore. We only had one short day in Los Angeles itself before catching our flight home, and if I’m honest I think we did it all wrong. Typical tourists, we headed to Hollywood first and hopped on a tour bus, only to spend the next few hours feeling uncomfortable with both the blistering heat and the extreme contrast between wealth and poverty. One minute we were supposed to be ooh-ing and aah-ing over Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive, and the next we were heading along the Walk of Fame surrounded by groups of homeless people.
After the bus tour we ventured downtown and that was when LA really came alive to us. The incredible architecture, the juxtaposition of old and new, the wild variety of areas from the financial district to Little Tokyo to Union Station – the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen, it’s like an art deco temple – everywhere we turned there was something else to see. If we ever go back we’ll skip Hollywood and spend all day downtown! If you’ve been to LA, do you have any tips to help us avoid the tourist traps in future?
My grand plan of sharing all our holiday photos when you were planning for this summer in the midst of deepest, darkest winter didn’t quite come off, did it? I have photos queued up and still want to share our highlights, hints and tips from our various trips last year, but for now life and work and light nights keep getting in the way. I have been doing a bit of baking though, and couldn’t resist sharing this cookies and cream chocolate layer cake with you. It looks impressive but is surprisingly simple, and chopping-things-up-and-chucking-them-on-top is my new favourite cake decorating technique!
The original recipe calls for 4 layers, the one photographed has 3 (I dropped one on the way out of the oven) and the recipe below is for 2, which I think makes for a much more sensibly sized cake, and is of course quicker to make. The chocolate layers are beautifully moist and not too sweet, and the oreo icing is rich and creamy. I’ll be making this again!
Cookies and cream cake (recipe adapted from BBC Good Food)
1. Sieve 200g plain flour, 8 tbsp cocoa powder, 2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda, 280g light brown soft sugar and 1 tsp salt into a large bowl and mix well.
2. Measure 200ml buttermilk (my local supermarket didn’t have any so I substituted with normal milk and a tbsp of lemon juice, left to sit for 5 mins before use), 100ml coffee, 150ml oil and 2 tsp vanilla extract into a jug. Add 2 large eggs and whisk until smooth. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and whisk until well combined.
3. Grease and line two 20cm cake tins with baking parchment. Pour the cake mixture evenly into the two tins, and bake in a preheated oven at 180C / gas mark 4 for 25-30 mins until risen and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Cool in the tins then turn out onto a wire rack. Be aware that the cakes are quite soft and fluffy so take care when turning out.
4. To make the icing, beat 125g soft slightly salted butter with 150g sieved icing sugar using an electric hand whisk. Sieve in another 150g icing sugar and add 140g full-fat cream cheese (don’t be tempted to go for the light option – it doesn’t have the same consistency so you’ll end up with runny icing) and beat again until smooth. Whizz 5 Oreo biscuits in a food processor until fine crumbs, then add to the icing and mix together until combined.
5. To assemble the cake, sandwich together with a good layer of icing and then cover the top and sides with the remaining icing. For a quick but effective decoration, top with mini marshmallows, crushed Oreos and broken chocolate buttons (or whatever else you have in your store cupboard!).
If you’re anything like me, these long dark winter days turn your thoughts to holidays. Once all the lightness and brightness of Christmas has faded everything feels a bit glum, and I need things to look forward to. January and February are times for hunkering down and making plans for sunnier times. With this in mind now seems as good a time as any to finally share some of the fabulous trips we took last year, which might help you with your holiday planning for 2016!
First up is a wintery visit to Cologne, where we welcomed in 2016 and thankfully avoided the awful attacks which took place in the city on New Year’s Eve. It was a crazy place to be on Hogmanay though, with crowds of people lining the river and setting off fireworks left, right and centre! It was quite a spectacle but I found it really frightening, and would have been much happier watching from the safety of our hotel room.
Cologne is a fascinating city though, with loads of museums (sadly most are closed on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day so we only made it to a couple, of which the Roman museum was the clear highlight) and a brilliant public transport system so it was really easy to get around. Cologne was badly hit in the Second World War with 80% of the city destroyed by the bombing, so it is a curious mixture of old and new architecture. The entire skyline is dominated by the cathedral, the Kölner Dom, which really is a sight to behold. Some of our favourite views were from the KölnTriangle, a modern skyscraper with a super fast lift up the 28 stories to a viewing platform. Best not to go if it’s been raining though, as the protective glass gets a bit fogged up.
We arrived on 30th December and the one remaining Christmas market was beautiful, with some delicious food options as well as the obligatory glühwein, a large ice rink and even some curling lanes! We had a great time there and kept gravitating back to the area. I understand that in the run up to Christmas there are eight markets in Cologne, which must be spectacular. The city was still decked out with lights and trees and the traditional bars were full of garlands and baubles, along with their teeny tiny beer glasses and grumpy waiters! We were travelling with a vegetarian and were a bit worried about food options for her, but we found the menus to be more accommodating than expected, and especially enjoyed dinner at Gasthaus Brungs and lunch at WIPPN’BK.
We only had a few days in Cologne and felt there was so much more to see. Have you been? What are your top tips?
I’m back as promised to share some of the DIY details of our wedding day. I am so determined to get this done before our honeymoon that I’m finishing it on the eve of our departure! This post comes with a warning: if you’re not planning a wedding you might not find any of this information useful or interesting. I won’t be offended if you just scan through the photos and go on your way!
Knowing how carried away I get just hosting a house party, we decided early on to focus our DIY efforts on a few areas, and to try to make it as manageable as possible to cut down on stress. We almost managed to stick to this plan, but it still got pretty full on in the last month or two! One way we succeeded in minimising stress was by borrowing the bunting with which we festooned the boat from lovely friend, whose mum had spent hours sewing metres of the stuff when she was getting married. It looked beautiful and saved me hours of sewing.
We ordered our invitations from Two For Joy on etsy and worked with the designer to personalise them. We were really happy with the end result, and I then used the colours and style as inspiration for our on-the-day stationery, using free fonts from DaFont. Clockwise from top right you can see the invitations, then the programme and menu cards I designed (trying to do all of this in Microsoft Word was so frustrating – I would highly recommend using Publisher or Photoshop if you are planning to DIY your stationery). As a fun activity / alternative to a traditional guest book we scattered blank postcards (free template found here) and pens on the tables. We used printed.com to make thank you cards with one of our wedding photos and the ‘Oh happy day!’ which had become a bit of a theme. Finally you can see the wee RSVP cards which came with our invitations, complete with beautifully printed return envelopes. My top tip for RSVP cards is to write the guests’ names on the cards before sending them out, so you don’t get any confusing blank responses, and it’s clear who is being invited. We included an info card directing people to our wedding website (designed from a template on weebly) which had loads more info and an RSVP option for people who aren’t so great at getting to the post office.
I bought loads of map print wrapping paper for the table plan and ended up making lots of little paper boats as extra table decorations, as well as the strings of mini bunting for the cake (for which this washi tape technique was super handy). We weren’t too fussed about floral centrepieces, so instead bought white lanterns from Ikea and LED tealights from ebay, then tied giant gold balloon numbers to them. This was also helpful because the tables were re-arranged between the afternoon tea and BBQ to make room for dancing, so the giant numbers meant everyone could find their table again quite easily. We had balloons of our initials too which we took to the island with us to decorate the abbey, along with loads of LED candles provided by Historic Scotland. As it’s a historic monument there’s a limit to how much you can decorate, and you have to take everything over on the boat. I was super excited about the balloons but in reality they were a bit of a pain as they tended to spin around rather than all facing the right way at the same time! In the interests of avoiding last minute stress we ordered them from a local company who inflated and delivered them on the day, so at least we didn’t have to worry about faffing around with helium canisters ourselves. Similarly, because we had the reception at a hotel they were able to deal with the crockery hire so we had all these lovely plates and cake stands and tea cups without any effort on our part.
As well as dealing with the big things, the hotel were able to help us out in so many other ways. Due to a refurbishment they had loads of spare picture frames and happily let us take them away and turn them into our table plan and photo gallery. Ebay was ideal for getting all the little crafty bits and bobs we needed, like bakers twine and mini pegs, and I found a great deal on film for his old polaroid camera, so we had a guests’ gallery complete with little prompt cards saying things like “keep your kilts on” and “show us your selfie face” which I printed at home. The resulting photos are hilarious and are a brilliant memento of the day, along with the postcards which seemed to bring out everyone’s creative sides! We bought a personalised wooden postbox on Paper Stories UK on etsy at the last minute (having previously tried to put together a cheaper flat pack one and somehow completely screwing it up) and it was so much fun going through all the messages and drawings in the couple of days after the wedding.
The biggest DIY task we undertook was making the funfair games, thankfully with a lot of help from my dad. The vision was that we would have an afternoon of fun, like a day trip to the seaside. After a lot of pinteresting we settled on making a coconut shy, tin can alley, hoopla and photo board, using ready made giant jenga and hiring a bouncy castle. My dad made the frames for the games then we painted and decorated them by stapling on striped fabric and painting the signs and details, and I made some beanbags with leftover fabric and split peas. We bought chalkboard paint and chalk pens (more ebay purchases!) and I spent hours tracing the lettering into place and going over it with the chalk pens (thanks to this tutorial). It was laborious but this technique made it much easier, and I am ridiculously proud of the results.
The other big DIY projects were of course the cake, but you already know all about that, and the ceremony. We spent a lot of time with our minister working out what to include, what to promise, and what to say. We wrote our vows together after lots of discussion about what marriage means and why it’s important to us, and we carefully chose readings and songs to reflect that. There was one poem which I really wanted to include, but ultimately decided to use in my speech rather than during the ceremony. I love it so much I just have to share it here too; it just so perfectly sums up my feelings about my Mr, and our marriage.
A Vow, by Wendy Cope
“I cannot promise never to be angry;
I cannot promise always to be kind.
You know what you are taking on, my darling –
It’s only at the start that love is blind.
And yet I’m still the one you want to be with
And you’re the one for me – of that I’m sure.
You are my closest friend, my favourite person,
The lover and the home I’ve waited for.
I cannot promise that I will deserve you
From this day on. I hope to pass that test.
I love you and I want to make you happy.
I promise I will do my very best.”
At the end of the day, this is what’s important. I love details, and themes, and crafting, and bunting, and I wanted all of those to be part of our wedding day, but by the end of the process I was so tired of trying to make everything perfect that those things really didn’t matter. What mattered was him and me, exchanging promises and rings, and everyone we love being there to share it with us. I hope all of our planning and preparing and DIY-ing helped everyone to enjoy the day, but even without all of these details we would still have ended up husband and wife, and that would have been enough.
Second photo taken by me, all other photos by Eric-Rene Penoy
As we head off on our honeymoon soon I thought I should get the wedding recaps rounded off, mainly so I can spam you with lots of photos of sun, sea and ice cream once we get back! I should admit that when we first got engaged I announced that I would not be making the cake, as wedding cakes are always stressful and I would have quite enough to worry about in the days before the wedding, thank you very much. But as time wore on I couldn’t quite bring myself to spend hundreds of pounds on something I knew I could do for a fraction of the cost. So I came up with a plan to make the process as stress-free as possible: cakes made and frozen in advance, plain white fondant, paper decorations, and no stacking. The heatwave in the week before the wedding did make it a bit tricky to manage the buttercream and fondant, but no amount of planning could have changed that! The wooden toppers reading ‘Oh Happy Day!’ and ‘Hooray!’ were a Christmas gift from a friend, and the paper boats were a last minute addition to both the cake and the table decor.
After much humming and hawing I settled on the cake flavours: my best madeira cake with fresh raspberry filling, a chocolate madeira with chocolate buttercream, and a rather exciting gin and tonic tier. Using this recipe as a starting point – the flavour was great but the texture was all wrong – I played around with various combinations until I was happy. In the end I made another madeira flavoured with gin, lime and juniper berries, and topped it off with gin buttercream.
Gin and Tonic Madeira (makes a 6-inch round cake; this page is handy for adjusting quantities if you want to make a different size or shape)
1. Cream 175g unsalted butter and 175g caster sugar until light and fluffy. In separate bowls, lightly beat 2 large eggs and sift 250g self-raising flour.
2. Mix half of the beaten eggs into the creamed mixture, followed by a third of the flour. Repeat once, then add 2 tbsp gin, zest of 3 limes, juice of 2 limes and 40 ground juniper berries before mixing in the last of the flour.
3. Prepare your cake tin by greasing and lining inside with baking paper, and wrapping the outside with several layers of newspaper. This stops the edges of the cake from cooking too quickly. Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and bake at 160 c/325 f for 40 minutes until cooked through.
All photos taken by Eric-Rene Penoy
I’m interrupting the wedding-focused programming to tell you about this week’s big challenge, just in case you’ve been living under a rock (or don’t follow me on instagram!). We have run 5 miles a day for 5 days to raise money for LoveOliver, a charity close to my heart as it was set up in memory of my best friend (and bridesmaid)’s first baby boy, who was born with a rare and aggressive form of cancer and passed away just 24 weeks old. This July Oliver would have been turning 5, so we have been asking people to High-5 LoveOliver, which funds research into childhood cancer and supports families affected by it.
Having been a bit caught up with the wedding planning, all of a sudden it was July and we hadn’t worked out how we were going to High-5! In a moment of madness I decided that a running challenge was the way to go (in spite of having a long standing hatred of running, and never having run more than 5k in one go). I discovered that it was a 5 mile round trip from our house, across the Forth Road Bridge and back and convinced him that he wanted to join me in running this every day for 5 days. In my initial enthusiasm I set up our fundraising page, and then there was no turning back!
I’ve got to be honest, this week has been tough, and the weather hasn’t been kind to us either. Monday was the first time either of us had run the full distance, and we both struggled with our stamina. On Tuesday we found our stride, but our leg muscles were complaining – and it rained the whole time. Wednesday was the worst, as every step was agony due to our poor overworked muscles. Thursday I came down with a head cold and was sent home from work in the afternoon, only to nap for a couple of hours and then head out to the bridge. The fresh air cleared my head a little but I was so fatigued it was a hard slog. On Friday, our final day, I wasn’t sure I could do it at all having been in bed all day with this cold, but we were determined to complete the challenge so got out there and focused on Oliver.
Which brings me to the main point, really. Only Oliver could motivate me to push myself to get through this week. He brought us so much joy and so much sorrow, and the only way I know to deal with that sorrow is to try to stop this happening to other children, other families, other communities. Please, support us if you can – just click here.
We did it! We got married! It’s hard to know what to say about the day. After twelve months and two weeks of planning we woke up on a grey and slightly chilly Saturday and became husband and wife. The day was all sorts of wonderful as well as emotional, overwhelming, joyful, exhausting and surprisingly stressful at times (mainly when things weren’t running according to the pretty detailed plan I’d put together!). I’m known for my perfectionist nature (that’s putting it kindly – ‘control freak’ is used more often) but I’ve learned that something doesn’t have to be perfect to be absolutely wonderful. Least stressful day of my life? Definitely not. Most joyful day of my life? No contest.
It seems a bit much to share all 2386 photos from our wonderful photographer Eric-Rene Penoy so here is a just a brief summary of what went on. While we’re talking about him, I can’t recommend our photographer enough. Not only has he captured the day perfectly, but he was a much needed calming presence at times, and also very useful when it came to doing up the many teeny tiny buttons on my dress!
In the week running up to the wedding the whole thing felt very surreal. We were pretty organised with just last minute bits and bobs to do, the cake to decorate, and lots of fun to be had with our good friend Christine who came all the way from Texas! On the morning of the wedding day I still felt a bit spaced out, until my hair and makeup were done and my veil was on, and all of a sudden it all felt very real. He got ready at home with his best men whereas I was at the hotel with my family, so the first time we saw each other was when I arrived at the pier with my parents. He looked just as nervous as he did when he proposed last year!
It was lovely to have a moment with each other before getting on the boat to cheers and claps from our friends and family. I had been quite teary all morning so of course this outpouring of love brought on some more tears. We then set sail for Inchcolm, a small island in the Firth of Forth which has been home to a religious community since the 12th century, although the abbey is now owned by Historic Scotland. It is one of the first places we visited together and we’ve always known we would get married there. We had half an hour on the boat, which was beautifully decorated thanks to metres and metres of bunting borrowed from an internet friend. Hurrah for twitter! We hadn’t thought much about the journey in advance but it was so good to have time to talk with everyone and share our excitement on the way to the ceremony. It also helped to settle the nerves (and the tears) before we arrived at the island.
Then we did the deed! We were married by a friend who happens to be a Church of Scotland minister – we were his first wedding, in fact – which was lovely as the ceremony was so personal. My dad read a poem, another friend sang, my sisters cried, my two-year-old nephew howled, we fasted our hands and made the vows we had written together, we exchanged rings, we kissed, our minister gave a Harry Potter themed address including producing a wand from his kilt sock, and my sister and brother-in-law sang a beautiful version of 500 Miles (yes, by the Proclaimers) which ended with everyone singing along!
After the ceremony we headed outside for some photographs and ended up forming an impromptu receiving line, resulting in lots of hugs and smiles as we were congratulated over and over. This was completely unplanned but I’m so glad it happened.
By this time the wind had got up and it was threatening to rain, so we rushed through the group shots in a fairly chaotic manner. Handily my niece’s waterproof jacket coordinates quite nicely with the dresses! Once we’d had enough of the group shots we spent some time around the abbey while everyone else returned to the boat to warm up. By the time we joined them all the popcorn and Tunnock’s teacakes had sadly disappeared!
Back at the hotel I was relieved to see that the 3 foot helium balloon letters I’d wasted so much time worrying about were the perfect size for the space, and everything looked amazing. We had Pimm’s and prosecco before settling down to a magnificent afternoon tea. We sat at our own sweetheart table and it was lovely to have some time to chat to each other, as well as some very special moments when people made use of the two extra chairs at our table. Once we’d all had our fill we had short speeches from him and me, then my sister and his brother. The boys provided plenty of laughs, and of course I couldn’t get through mine without crying.
With the speeches out the way it was time for some fun! We had hoped to set up a kind of funfair in the hotel gardens but we moved most of the stalls inside because of the weather. We still managed a bounce on the bouncy castle though, and the games were very much enjoyed inside. It turns out hurling beanbags at coconuts and tin cans gets people laughing!
Once we’d all worked up our appetites we served a barbecue buffet, with burgers, sausages, kebabs and salads. We were both too excited and emotional to eat much on the day but handily we had stuffed ourselves at our menu tasting earlier in the year so we knew it was a good spread! We then cut the cake (of which more later, this is supposed to be a baking blog after all) before fairly awkwardly shuffling around to our first dance. The photos are gorgeous though!
The band played a mixture of covers and ceilidh dances and by the end of the night the dance floor was packed. I have very happy memories of jumping around to Uptown Funk and 500 Miles (again!) surrounded by the people I love, which will never fail to make me smile.
And then it was over! I’ve heard so many people say that the day disappears in a flash, but I didn’t feel that way at all. It seemed to last forever (in a good way) and I love that we had plenty of time to enjoy being with our guests throughout the day. After all, we did start at 11am and didn’t head to bed until midnight, but that’s just what happens when your ceremony time is dependent on the tide!
I think I’ll do just another couple of wedding posts – one on the cake, and another on the DIY details that have kept us so busy over the last few months – if you’re interested? Or is there anything else you are dying to know? I think I’ve now read so many wedding blogs that I’ve lost sight of what’s useful and interesting!