This weekend held our long overdue Secret Santa girls’ night. I think that sentence throws up a lot of questions, so I’ll try to clear them up now. I’ll start with the concept of girls’ night, which I usually abbreviate to GN because I’m not comfortable with that apostrophe - it *is* a night for girls, lots of us, so I guess it belongs to us, but it’s also a night *of* girls, so maybe it doesn’t need one at all… Anyway, the weekly night of girls started long ago, and I think it has its beginnings in the founders getting together to watch e.r. on the TV, and sigh over George Clooney. It evolved from there into bad film night, then grew in numbers, until it reached its current form. The nature of the night is thus: most Thursdays, someone’s living room (or bedroom, in the case of some tiny flats I’ve lived in) becomes a temporary home for as many girls as can make it along that week. Some weeks it’s three or four and some weeks it’s everyone, although this is sadly a rarity. We get together and eat our own body weight in cheese, crisps, chocolate, cake, nuts, sweets, crackers, wasabi peas, cheese straws, strawberries, biscuits and generally anything that takes our fancy or gets in the way. In amongst the eating, we tell each other our ups and downs, cheer for each other’s good news and swear at the bad (sorry mum), sing show tunes, watch edited highlights of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, dance, drink and do our very best to be merry to varying levels of excess. Another thing that happens, more often than not, is that we give presents. It’s an integral and wonderful part of GN, the present giving. Almost every week someone gets something – due to the nature of the night, you can find yourself not seeing someone for weeks on end if you each miss a few nights for whatever reason, and this means that birthday presents can go unopened for a long while after the event. There’s nothing quite like getting a birthday present six months on, long after what you thought was the last one was opened and marvelled over and you thought you had another year to go before the next day that was all about you, unless you could somehow have a fake wedding just to get the attention and gifts but without all the expenditure and paperwork, and husband finding… Presents are also given for new jobs, new homes and sometimes just because something has leaped from a shelf on a mission to find itself a more caring home with one of the ladies. The best thing, though, isn’t the present itself. Oh no. The best thing is opening your present to a chorus of cheering and ‘ooooh’-ing, and then sharing your present with everyone before wrapping it back up safely to take home. Especially if you get candles – candles or other items of a scented nature must be passed round each and every person without fail. That is the law.
It’s difficult to convey the meaning and the joy of GN without drumming up images of saccharin sweet, rose-tinted conversations about kittens – we are girls, and we are proud of it, but by all that is feminine we are not saps. It’s kind of hard to get across how great it is. I won’t try any further – if you’ve been, you know what it’s like. If you haven’t, and you don’t have something similar, you have my condolences. For those who have been and cannot return due to geographical issues – come and visit, and soon.
The Secret Santa night is really the epitome of the GN present giving. We hold it in February most years, because that’s usually around the time that everyone’s schedules are getting back to normal after Christmas and New Year. It’s organised a long while ahead of time to get a night that suits everyone, and we draw names from a bowl, box, hat or other handy receptacle to choose who we’re buying for. It stays a secret until the night when you hand over the present and, all being well, get one handed to you by someone else so that everyone has something to open. We opened them one at a time this year and there was much hilarity and rowdiness for quite some time, what with there being ten of us to take a turn. Good times.
However, the point of this post is not so much to discuss the present giving as the inordinate amount of baking that we churned out between us. Six people had made one or two items each, and our delightful and generous host Miss Prim had lad out a vast spread including a cheeseboard that I was considering marrying, and the most important element of any buffet: cocktail sausages. The table was already groaning when we arrived. This is a dining table, mind, and not a coffee table. It was full of savoury goods of a pleasing nature to begin with, then we cleared a lot of that despite several replenishing trips to the kitchen by Miss Prim, and they were replaced with sweet items of an equally pleasing nature (although the cheeseboard stayed put, possibly due to me clinging to it and wailing as if it was being sent off to war and not just taken into the next room). You’ve never seen anything like this amount of food, unless you’ve watched You Are What You Eat – it was like three or four of those ‘bad’ tables put together, and it was oh so good. Look, there is ONE of the two tables. Picture is courtesy of my lovely lady wife, to whom I am not married in any legal or romantic sense – we’re just wives. Mind-reading, sentence finishing, unspoken sentence understanding wives.
I had brought three things with me to share. Two were recipes I’d been wanting to try for a while and thought that this was an excellent time to do so. If I’m going to bake things to take along to girls night I like to do something savoury as well as or instead of something sweet, not least because my talents as a cake baker are quite, quite overshadowed by some of the other ladies! So I went for some little pretzel bites, as you can see artfully arranged in a tin I purloined from work at Christmas time (after the chocolates had been eaten, of course). I had intended to make actual pretzels, but by the time I was ready to shape and bake them I had run a bit short on time and, if I’m honest, was ready for a sit down. I baked for about four hours on Saturday and enjoyed myself thoroughly, but I always like to have time for a wee rest before I get ready to go out anywhere. So, instead of abandoning the pretzels, especially after spending time making the dough and letting it rise, I rolled the dough into little rounds instead and baked them that way. They made excellent mini cheese sandwiches. The recipe for the dough is here with the lovely folks at Leite’s Culinaria: http://leitesculinaria.com/21126/recipes-fresh-baked-pretzels.html
The second thing I made was this recipe for what I insist on calling Raspberry Joy Bars, because it’s easier to remember and sums them up pretty well: http://leitesculinaria.com/17667/recipes-raspberry-truffle-brownie-bars.html. Mine don’t look as fancy as the ones in the picture, but then I’m not a professional baker so I feel OK about that. I did tinker with this recipe quite a lot, mainly to suit what I had in the cupboard. I replaced the raspberry liqueur with cherry, for one thing. Where the recipe called for semisweet chocolate I used milk, and for unsweetened chocolate I used plain, but it was probably only about 50% cocoa solids because it was a generic brand as opposed to a more expensive, higher quality brand. I think next time I will use a darker chocolate and get a raspberry liqueur - the Joy Bars were lovely and received a lot of very generous compliments, but I think a darker chocolate would make them more luxurious and grown-up. If you are only going to try one thing from this page, make it the marbling decoration on the top of the cake. You can try it on anything you happen to be baking, it’d work with icing as well as a ganache. It’s easy and you wouldn’t believe how many people said they loved how it looked.
The last thing I made was a special and very late birthday cake for one of the ladies, Miss E. Her birthday was in December, and I’d wanted to make her a cake then but never seemed to be able to get it together enough to make the kind of thing I wanted to. Having GN at the weekend solved this problem as it gave me all day to bake before I went out, and I certainly feel like I made the most of the time. Miss E likes rabbits - they’re *her* spirit guide. I therefore wanted to make a rabbit cake, and had been thinking for a long while about how best to make that happen. I’d done the obligatory Google search to check out designs that other people had come up with and came across several cake rabbits coming out of cake hats. while I had originally been thinking of a swiss roll affair, possibly with a muffin for a head and a tiny wee fairy cake for a tail, the rabbit in a hat idea seemed more achievable with my as-yet less than professional skills. I opted for a cake hat and a fondant icing rabbit, and here he is!
The hat’s a bit faded and battered looking, and the poor wee guy did get quite melty and lose an ear in the heat of the kitchen, but he started off very cute, and kept himself together admirably long enough for me to hand him over. Miss E says she’s not going to eat him, which is saying a lot as she’s the same person who took an unceremonious bite right out of my sister’s frog cake’s head… The hat is a chocolate cake which I baked in a ramekin, then trimmed to give the flat, wide top and thinner stem, and then I sandwiched it up with another, smaller cake to give it height. The recipe I used was equal amounts of plain flour, caster sugar and margarine – about two ounces of each - along with one egg, a tablespoon of cocoa powder and a teaspoon of baking powder. That was enough for one ramekin and two cups of a muffin tray, which was more than enough for the size of cake that I was making, but I wanted to have a bit extra to work with in case anything went wrong. It’s coated with ready to roll white icing (cheating!) which I failed to dye black, and the rabbit himself is all just fondant with writing icing applied to give the details. Maybe not as delicious as the Raspberry Joy Bars, but almost certainly the cutest cake I’ve ever made. Happy belated birthday, Miss E!
Tunes: Among other things, I listened to The Presidents of the USA’s self titled album while I was doing all my baking. This is one of my favourite tunes on the album, mainly for the line ‘Put some clothes on and call me’. Full of excellent tunes to rock out to, check them out. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FWIQ8erv-0
Movie: I had no time to sit down and watch anything after my marathon of baking, but my Secret Santa present was a copy of the excellent The Ref, otherwise known as Hostile Hostages. An odd film from Simpson and Bruckheimer, featuring no explosions and a very angry Denis Leary, this is my second favourite Christmas film, second only to The Muppets Christmas Carol. Includes the classic line ‘Your husband ain’t dead, lady. He’s hiding.’ Can’t find any clips, or an official trailer, but You Tube makes all things possible… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=th9YhAva0Ss