Alice in Wonderland Baby Shower

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I know on this side of the pond there are some mixed views on baby showers, I fall in the camp that they are a great excuse to get everyone together, and the ones I have thrown have actually been a lot of fun to plan. The first baby shower I planned was for my friend Casey, who was over from NY and living in London for a couple of years. At this point I had never been to a baby shower, hence throwing a baby shower for an American was a slightly daunting prospect – The main questions being how to feed everyone without me being stuck in the kitchen, and how to make it fun and unique without crossing the line into the cheese-fest I am sure the English attendees may have been dreading…  I decided to start with a theme, Alice in Wonderland – A bit of a British backdrop and some great details in the book to play on in the food and decorations.  Luckily the film re-make was out around this time so the internet was filled with a lot of inspiration, and I was fortunate enough to stumble on the amazing Loralee Lewis who worked some magic on the invitations and decorations.  I wanted to create a sense of fun with the menu and little details, but most importantly be free to enjoy it when people arrived – recipes, timings, games and decorations below (the bump we were showering is now my adorable godson).

Menu:

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  • Coronation chicken sandwiches
  • Cucumber, mint and cream cheese sandwiches
  • Individual lemon tarts
  • Queen of hearts biscuits with jam
  • Chocolate biscuit cake squares
  • Chocolate truffles (bought)
  • Hummingbird cupcakes (the only special request from the mother to be)

With the number attending a sit-down menu wasn’t an option.  I didn’t want to worry about passing canapes, but didn’t want people to have to balance knives and forks standing either, so in Bridget Jones’ mother style everything was kept bite sized.  I decided to take the idea of afternoon tea and add an Alice in Wonderland twist, with playful and colourful food on various different heights of stands to try to turn the dining table into a bit of a decoration in itself.  While the menu had a lot of components, all of it could be made in advance so the only thing to do on the day was assembly.

Recipes:

  • Coronation chicken sandwiches (makes six rounds)

All about the sauce: 6 tbsp mayo, 3 tbsp mango chutney, 1 tbsp double cream, 2 tbsp madras paste (or curry powder), 2 tbsp flaked almonds, coriander to taste (around 2 tbsp).  I leave out the apricots and sultanas but they are easily added back in.

Bake four chicken breasts in tin foil with salt and pepper and a touch of oil (around 180 for 50 minutes).  When cooked pull apart and when cool stir through the sauce.  Remember to add the sauce to the chicken not the other way around so you can manage the ratio of the mixture.  The  mix can be made in advance and put into sandwiches on the day.

  • Cucumber, mint and cream cheese sandwiches

Pretty self explanatory – To make the filling a bit more interesting I chopped some mint and mixed it through the cream cheese the night before and added a touch of salt.

  • Individual lemon tartlets

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I made two full size lemon tarts the day before (using Merry Berry’s tarte au citron recipe), but if you preferred you could buy them.  On the morning of the shower I took a round cutter around the size of a £2 coin and cut out the individual tartlets to place on the cake stand.  Top each one with a raspberry or blueberry for an extra pop of colour.

  • Queen of hearts biscuits with jam

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Biscuit dough recipe from the BBC Good Food website: 250g softened butter, 140g caster sugar, 1 egg yolk, 2 tsp vanilla extract beaten, plus 300g plain flour.  Mix with a spoon then your hands, roll and cut into shapes, cook at 180 for around 10 minutes until just golden at the edges.

For the heart biscuits, make the dough as above and cut the individual hearts, then using a smaller heart cutter remove the inside of half of the batch (you can keep going with the offcuts until you run out of dough).  Once the cookies are baked and cooled, heat some jam in a saucepan and spoon onto the solid hearts, place the cutout hearts on top and leave to cool.  If you find they soften when you store them (mine did), just pop them back  in the oven on the day – 10 minutes at around 160 should get the crunch back.

  • Chocolate biscuit cake squares

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Brilliant recipe from my friend Ems.  Take around half a pack of digestive biscuits and crush them into a bowl using your hands so you have pieces of various sizes.  Add 2 tbps cocoa powder, 4 tbsp softened butter, 4 tbsp golden syrup and mix.  Everyone likes these with a slightly different mix so taste as you go and play around with the quantities – but make sure it isn’t too wet (if it is, add some more biscuits).  Press the mixture into a dish and press in tightly.  Refrigerate for around an hour, top with a layer of melted chocolate and return to the fridge.  Leave in the dish and remove to cut into squares on the day.

Decorations:

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From the off, I wanted to make the most out of all the small details in the Alice in Wonderland story to try and create a proper atmosphere for the shower.  I was lucky enough to come across Loralee Lewis on Etsy fairly early on in my planning who helped me hit exactly the right note on the invitations – Unlike so many invitations out there that were either sickly pink or a silhouette of someone with an unrealistically perky ponytail stroking their baby bump, Loralee’s paperie had real imagination and a brilliant sense of fun to it.  The Alice in Wonderland collection was originally for her daughter’s birthday party which Loralee had posted on her blog, so I contacted her about making it into something bespoke for the shower with some accessories to carry the theme through from the invitations to the shower itself.  Loralee was incredibly patient and enthusiastic, and unsurprisingly her work has now taken off in a big way (check out her full site at http://www.loraleelewis.com).  As well as the invitations, I ordered cupcake toppers, “eat me” and “drink me” tags for the teacups, and posters of my favourite quotes from the book, which I placed on the front door  to the building and on the way up to the flat.  Also via Etsy I found a lady to make some napkins with some images from the book printed on them and scattered them around for people to use.   All of the guests had e mailed me a picture of themselves as a baby which I mounted on different colour card to decorate the doorways and dining table.  Huge brownie points to my dad who spent months stopping at every charity shop he passed to collect so many different cups and saucers…

The Games:

  • Don’t say baby (using tiny pegs ordered from ebay)
  • The  perfect baby (attributes game)
  • The baby food game (baby food tasting)

The games were the part I was a bit nervous about, so I stuck to a small number and added a couple of twists so they tied in with the rest of the day.  I found some sweet little painted wooden pegs from ebay to give to everyone as they arrived for the “don’t say baby” game (if you say baby, the person who hears it takes your peg, the person with the most pins at the end wins).  For the attributes game and baby food tasting I bought some pastel coloured paper from Rymans and printed out the answer sheets with Alice in Wonderland quotes at the top.  For prizes I was back to Etsy (Alice in Wonderland notebook, soaps and writing paper).

The Favours:

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A very easy favour idea that can be made well in advance and doesn’t cost a lot at all.  I bought the jars on ebay and Loralee Lewis did the labels for the front and the lids.  I made raspberry and lime jam (from the WI Book of Preserves) – Just make sure the jam is cooled before you apply the labels.  I displayed them in the hallway as an additional decoration – the basket was borrowed from the mother-to-be (I padded out the inside with towels and topped them with some dotted fabric, then placed the jam jars on top).

Timings:

  • 3 months in advance: Save the date and ordered invitations, collect addresses
  • 2 months in advance: Send invitations, (from this point you can also make the jam, write and print quizzes, buy/make prizes and decorations)
  • 1-2 days in advance: Make coronation chicken mix, cream cheese and mint mix, cook the chicken, make (or buy) lemon tarts, make biscuits and chocolate biscuit cake.  I also attached the labels to the cups etc in advance.
  • Day of the shower: Put up posters, baby pictures, lay out crockery, napkins.  Cut out the mini tartlets and place fruit on top, assemble sandwiches and cover with cling film, cut chocolate biscuit cake into squares, arrange biscuits, cupcakes and truffles onto plates.
  • Once people arrive: Just remember to keep the sandwiches covered until ready to serve

Blue Cheese Pesto


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Sunday supper inspiration found in the form of the Waitrose Spring booklet – Trying to think of more exciting ways to use their purple sprouting broccoli (and intrigued by the great Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s comment that this vegetable is hard to overwhelm) I decided to try it in a pesto, which got me thinking about the other components – why have I never seen pesto with blue cheese? I am guessing there is a straightforward reason to do with the production process or storage, but if you are making from scratch this is a winner. Using blue cheese I decided to switch out the traditional pine nuts for walnuts, but stuck with basil as the main herb for the sweetness. I stayed old school and ran it through some pasta, but think it may actually be even better on top of a steak… S

Ingredients:

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120g firm blue cheese (I used Cropwell Bishop)
225g purple sprouting broccoli
100g walnuts
20g basil
250ml olive oil
2 garlic cloves
Juice of 2 lemons
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 180°C

Method:

Step 1: Steam the broccoli for 6-8 minutes until just tender. Drain and plunge into ice water (this will retain the colour)

Step 2: Place the walnuts in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped (but before the mixture gets too dusty). Transfer onto a baking tray and bake for ten minutes (you can also do this in a pan on the hob) – This brings out flavours and also seems to make them a bit crunchier when they come back to room temperature which gives a nice texture to the pesto. Leave to cool.

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Step 3: Place the garlic and basil in a food processor with the oil and pulse.

Step 4: Add the blue cheese and chopped walnuts, gently pulse.

Step 5: Add the broccoli and season to taste, pulse (until combined but so you can still see parts of the broccoli).

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Hot Cross Buns

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Third year and fourth attempt at hot cross buns… The original recipe I used was by Mary Berry – I played with the ratios of spices and fruits, used less flour and changed the glaze. Bizarrely the thing that took the longest to be happy with was the cross, the mix of flour and water can be a little bit bland (I add a touch of sugar), and the ratio took some playing with the get it visible enough without the mix being too heavy and therefore not quite staying part of the bun – The one below seems to be just right. Best eaten warm from the oven or toasted, with a slick of salted butter. Happy almost Easter.. S

Ingredients:

55g golden caster sugar
440g strong white flour (split 380 + 60g)
1tsp salt
Spices: 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp nutmeg, 1tsp mixed spice
7g fast action dry yeast
225ml whole milk
Zest of 1 very large orange and 1 lemon
100g dried fruit (I used 50:50 currants and sultanas)
50g salted butter, melted
1 large egg

For the cross: 50g flour, 5 tbsp tepid water, 1 tbsp caster sugar

For the glaze: 2 tbsp golden syrup, juice of half an orange

Makes 12 buns

Method:

Preheat the oven to 180°C

Step 1: Mix the sugar, 380g flour, salt, and spices in a large bowl and add the yeast. Make a well in the centre.

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Step 2: In a separate bowl, mix 225ml tepid whole milk (cold will not activate the yeast), 50g melted salted butter, 1 egg, your dried fruits and the zest (you can add the zest and fruit later but this is a good way to stop them clumping together).

Step 3: Add the wet mixture to the well in the dry ingredients and mix until it comes together

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dough
Step 4: Flour your work surface using the full 50g of remaining strong white flour, knead for 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. When the gluten has been developed you should be able to take a piece of the dough and pull it into a thin square using your thumb and index fingers without it breaking (like the paper fortune tellers you made at school in the nineties)

Dough 2

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Step 5: Transfer the dough into a lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Leave in a warm place to double in size (approx 1hr 30). Once risen, poking the dough with your finger should leave a dent.

Step 6: Punch down on the dough and roll it into balls (I leave the scales out and weigh them to be the same size, this recipe makes 12 balls of 75g each).

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Step 7: Place the balls on the baking tray you are going to use approx. 1cm apart. At this point I use a sharp knife and mark a cross on the top of each bun so there is a little dent for my piped cross to fall into and also a line to follow when piping. Cover again with lightly oiled cling film and leave in a warm place to rise – When risen the buns should have puffed out to fill the gaps you left between them.

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Step 8: Mix your cross ingredients adding the water 1tbsp at a time until you have a thin but slightly firm paste

Step 9: Brush the buns lightly with milk and pipe your cross on top – piping more slowly tends to make the cross bond to the bun. Place in the oven for c. 20 minutes at 180°C (when cooked the buns should be hollow when you tap the bottom)

Step 10: Mix 2tbsp golden syrup and squeeze in your orange juice to taste (I used half an orange). Brush over your hot cross buns as soon as they come out of the oven and leave to cool.

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