Monday, 28 February 2011

Gonna dress you up in my love...

If there is one dress more important than a wedding dress, I know not what the heck it is. Which might explain why I seem to have developed profound wedding dress fear - you know the scene in Sex & the City when Miranda coaxes Carrie into some trampy bridal shop and a wedding dress brings Carrie out in hives? Well, it's something akin to that. A nice swathe of prickly heat across my chest, and a little voice in my head that jeers at me that I'll look like a prize winning fool in most of them: too curve-playing, too much netting, too much bridal bluster or equally too sexpot, fashion-forward or puritan (the jig is up with most brides - very few of us make it down the aisle chaste these days).

A wedding dress is, after all, likely to be the most you will spend on a few acres of silk and lace in your life. Regardless of your budget: this will be the dress that pales any other in significance. It has to stand the test of time, so that on looking back on your wedding photos not only makes you fondly recollect precisely how that dress made you feel, but that it is as timeless as your marriage will hopefully prove to be.

I feel that weddings are ultimately a celebration of you having had the good fortune to stumble across each other in this crazed world, so why wouldn't you wear a glorious, beautiful and yes, possibly extravagant, dress to such an extraordinary party?

Personally, I want my dress to remind my glorious Fiancee why he's marrying me (besides my raging intellect, baking skills and whip sharp wit, that is...pah!). If there's ever a time to take someone's breath away, this is it. It's about being a woman, a wife. Made for loving - and that's just the dress.

Over the past few months, I've been struck by some particularly good dresses, shops and the sheer pleasure that a truly lovely bridal shop assistant can be - and equally by the postcode premium whereby some areas ratchet up their prices dependent upon what they perceive as what local women are willing to pay and might be oblivious to the fact there is a shop just down the way that is easily hundreds of pounds cheaper. Not naming names, as I am a well mannered thing, but I sincerely wish there was some way of informing brides of said shops. It makes me a touch sad to think that they could shave two hundred pounds off their frock, and spend more on some super pretty shoes.

These have been the highlights thus far (and I still don't have my dress...)
  • The White Closet, West Didsbury, Manchester - a delight of a shop, with a happy mix of guileful, bohemian dresses and softly layered fuller dresses. The shop assistant proved herself to be a gift of a girl - warm and witty but enamoured of her dresses. Plus, there's cake.
  • Clifton Brides - the first dresses I fell for after an educational experience in a grotty dress shop in central Bristol where I had gone in pursuit of a Vivienne Westwood knock off (worst incidence of heat rash so far - whole torso, and itching. Nice). Clifton Brides was a revelation - a well chosen collection of refined, sumptuous gowns that felt just as lovely on. The bridal assistants were also fabulous - gentle and generous yet insightful and wise. Dresses here around the £1,000 mark.
  • Vivienne Westwood - there is a reason the grand dame of all things buccaneer and amazing is so revered. Her dresses are so artfully crafted they would have you believe the little seamstress mice had been at them from Beatrix Potter's Tailor of Gloucester, and the weight and quality of the silks speaks of the aristocratic tradition. These made me feel like the quintessential rebel bride I desperately want to be: sadly, the £14,000 price tag means this just isn't going to happen. But, I learnt what I should be looking for in the craft of the dress, and a great deal about spirit and form.
  • There are some corkers on the high street - Monsoon has some swoony Florence Welch appropriate ones for around £200, French Connection some redux glamour 1970's feel dresses with soft pleats for £155, and rumours are that Urban Outfitters' new bridal range will make it's way across the pond next year.
    Monique L'Huillier 2010
  • Dreamy dresses of note from: Paloma Blanca, Ellis bridal, Vera Wang, Jasmine, Charlotte Balbier, Monique L'Huillier, Johanna Hehir, Sincerity, Lusan Mandongus, Jenny Packham...

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Cakes away!

And here we have it!
Behold the mini wedding cake as mentioned below, sent to a certain Wedding magazine editrice...who we hope likes cake.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Let them make cake...

It's a misconception universally acknowledged that whilst wallowing in a bathtub, quite possibly being sponged down by the Butlers in the Buff of her day, Marie Antoinette uttered the infamous line "Let them eat cake" in riposte to reports of Parisian plebeians hurling cabbages at her gates, and demanding her head. The truth is that this seemingly blase, facile statement was concocted by a satirical wit who didn't like queen Marie A very much: it's origin a cunningly edited expression of her genuine concern when alarming reports of mass hunger and unrest reached her, and she pleaded with her kitchens to feed the poor rabble anything left over in the Versailles larders.

Anyway, history lesson over: this week saw my first attempt at baking a Wedding Cake (on a miniature scale). I was put off the idea of buying one for our nuptials from the outset when I realised that unless made of solid gold iced with Swarovski, they are - in general - extortionately overpriced. And having long a prodigious cake baker been, thanks to a good Delia Smith cum Mrs Beaton education from mum, it makes sense to put my heritage to use: plus I have a year's worth of practicing ahead of me to rustle up something artisanal, but still suitably special and decadent.

I'll post an image up later of said mini cake, but for now, I'm going to share what is apparently one of the hardest Wedding Cake recipes to lay ones hands on in the world: and no, that's not hyperbole. Cake maker to the stars Laura Wing's Sachertorte Chocolate Wedding Cake recipe was originally printed in Sainsbury's Magazine of May 2008, and sold out in a New York minute. Back issues simply do not exist, such was the demand for the wedding cake recipes it contained. I had a bash at a white chocolate version, but as white chocolate is more oleaginous and sticky than dark (something to do with the cocoa solids to oils ratio) it was far more fickle and tricksy than when using darker chocolates.

(I also found baking works best to a soundtrack of rootsy americana - something to do with images of Dolly Parton in a pinny I suspect).

For the 15cm (6in) cake
225g (8oz) Belgian luxury plain chocolate
1 large egg
4 large eggs, separated
175g (6oz) caster sugar
110g (4oz) ground almonds
1 level tablespoon finely ground coffee

For the 23cm (9in) cake
400g (14oz) Belgian luxury plain chocolate
2 large eggs
8 large eggs, separated
350g (12oz) caster sugar
225g (8oz) ground almonds
1 rounded tablespoon finely ground coffee

For the 30cm (12in) cake
1kg (2lb 4oz) Belgian luxury plain chocolate
5 large eggs
20 large eggs, separated
800g (1lb 12oz) caster sugar
570g (1lb 4oz) ground almonds
1 heaped tablespoon finely ground coffee

For the icing
1.15kg (2lb 8oz) dark chocolate, at least 51% cocoa solids, broken into squares
2 x 250g packs unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 x 454g jar apricot jam

Don’t even think about making all 3 cakes together, as a domestic oven and equipment will not be able to cope with the quantities. Every cake tier uses the same method, but when making the largest cake, whisk the egg whites in three batches, folding each batch in as soon as they have been whisked.

Preheat the oven to 170°C, 325°F, gas mark 3. Place a shallow dish or baking tin on the bottom shelf of the oven, then fill it with near-boiling water (it isn’t safe to fill it before placing it on the shelf). The shelf for baking the cakes should be placed a third up from the bottom of the oven, just above the water.
Break the chocolate into squares. Place the squares in a large, heatproof bowl set over a medium-sized pan of barely simmering water until melted, making sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Beware overheating the chocolate, or letting any water near it - it will go grainy like coffee grounds...

While the chocolate is melting, put the whole egg(s), the egg yolks and sugar together in another large bowl. Beat with a whisk until the mixture is thick and creamy and has reached the ribbon stage. With a large metal spoon, quickly stir the melted chocolate into the egg mixture, along with the almonds and coffee, until well blended.

In a seriously clean large bowl, beat the egg whites with the whisk, until stiff, but not dry (see note, above, regarding egg whites for the largest cake). Then, using a large metal spoon, fold 1 heaped tablespoon of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture, to loosen it. Quickly and carefully fold in the rest, using a figure of eight motion, until just combined.

Carefully pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and lightly smooth over the surface, then place the tin on a baking tray. Cover each of the 2 smaller cakes with a double thickness of baking parchment and make a hole in the centre of each the size of a 50p piece. Cover the 30cm (12in) cake with a double thickness of extra-wide foil with a hole made in it, as above.
Bake the 15cm (6in) cake for 55-65 minutes; the 23cm (9in) cake will take 75-85 minutes to bake and the 30cm (12in) cake will take about 23⁄4-3 hours.
The cake is ready when well-risen, with a nicely set crust, and when the bamboo or metal skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven, take off the parchment or foil from the top of the cake, cover the cake with a damp, clean tea towel to keep it moist and leave to cool in the tin for 1 hour. After this time, turn it out on to a wire rack to cool completely, then remove the baking parchment and discard.

When all the cakes are made and have cooled completely, make the icing. Put the chocolate in a large heatproof bowl set over a medium-sized pan of hot water over a low heat for 15-20 minutes, or until melted, making sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Add the butter, bit by bit, stirring gently until it has melted. Remove from the heat and then set aside to cool until the icing mixture has started to set to the consistency of double cream.
Meanwhile, if the tops of the cakes are uneven, trim with a sharp, long-bladed knife, then turn them upside down on to wire racks so that there is a flat surface for icing. Brush away any loose crumbs and place the flat plates or trays underneath each rack to catch any drips from the icing.
Melt the apricot jam in a small pan over a low heat, strain to remove any lumps and then, using a pastry brush, brush over the surface of the cakes to prevent any loose crumbs from spoiling the icing. Heat the jam again if it starts to thicken up too much.
Starting with the largest cake, pour over a thin layer of icing and then, using a long-bladed palette knife, quickly and evenly smooth it over the top and sides. Repeat with the remaining cakes and chill them in the fridge until set – about 30 minutes. If your fridge is not big enough to accommodate the cakes, you will need to put them aside in a cool place instead and allow longer for the icing to set.
After this time, put the remaining icing back over the pan of barely simmering water to melt again, then remove and allow to thicken, as before, and give the cakes a second coat. Chill the cakes until the icing has set, then repeat the whole process for a third and final time and chill for about 1 hour. Any spare icing on the trays can be saved and used at the last minute to disguise any marks – just melt it, then pass it through a sieve into a small lidded container to remove any crumbs, and refrigerate.
When the icing has set, remove the cakes from the fridge and, using a small sharp knife dipped in very hot water, carefully cut them away from the cooling racks. Using the cake lift, remove each cake to a tray lined with baking parchment and refrigerate, uncovered, overnight.
NB: The cake freezes well if each tier is kept in an airtight container, un-iced and wrapped in a double layer of foil, for up to 8 weeks. Defrost overnight at room temperature. Alternatively, make the cakes up to 1 week ahead, wrap in a double layer of foil and keep in airtight containers in a cool place. Ice them up to 5 days ahead and store in individual Tupperware-type boxes (put the cake on the lid and click the box into place over the top) in the fridge or a cool place. If stored in the fridge, remove 4 hours before decorating so that any condensation on the cakes will disappear.

Monday, 7 February 2011

A rush of love to the head

Sara Byworth
In among the more serious stuff (such as Champagne), I have been distracted. What I wasn't prepared for in among the more salient production aspects, talking to vicars and romance of it all was to have my whimsical streak tempted by feathered hair concoctions.
                                                                                                  I still have no idea what my wedding dress will look like, besides some tendancy towards silk satins in the exact hue of double cream, with absolutely no diamante: but inspiration came in the unlikely form of a beautiful cobalt and green wing as painted by Albrecht Durer. Then I spotted Sarah Byworth (Associate Director at Relative MO) desporting her unusual headress with pride. And chose to overlook the other, er, interesting guests' guises. A little rootling around on the internet uncovered these lovely things at Pearl & Ivy for just £25 a pop (  This is when all focus on crockery went out of the window.
Hair band - Olive

One of these plumed concoctions was made last summer by my own fair paws. Feathers, velvet ribbon and a clear plastic comb from a local haberdashery, and one headdress later - which I like to think of  as my peasant's crown: made recovered feathers from a befelled Pheasant (I suspect the local fox, rather than rifle-toting country types). It seemed such a shame to leave them scattered there underfoot, their oily lustre and Mitford sisters' country styling on the ground to fade away into mulch...

Ok, so I'll probably end up in some fabulous frock that won't suit such head attire and go with a Jenny Packham medieval-lite gilded band - and I really should get back to the plates and napkins of it all - but they are a ravishing way of injecting some wilder adornments into a traditional get up.