Halloween Chocolate Bark

If pumpkin picking is one way to do Halloween without the scares, then getting creative in the kitchen is the other. And baking is always more fun when you have a theme to follow.

This Halloween chocolate bark is unbelievably simple. It requires absolutely minimal skill, effort, ingredients, equipment and time. I really mean it. You could make this bark now and it will be ready for tonight’s scary movie session.

You just need a lot of chocolate and as many toppings as you wish. I went a bit crazy in the Halloween aisle of Waitrose and ended up with skeleton faces, tiny bats, chocolate stars (big and small), mini ghouls, crunchy bronze glitter and fudge chunks amongst other things. But the choices are endless, and you don’t need as many decorations as I have. I also used milk, dark and white chocolate (because why not?) but again, do whatever you prefer. I would recommend at least two chocolates though, as the bark will look prettier and the combinations taste great.

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Simply melt the chocolate in separate bowls. Line a baking tray with parchment and pour your base chocolate onto it. Spread out using a spoon into a neat rectangle. If you are using a second chocolate, drizzle over the top. Don’t spread the second layer as the chocolates will mix together into one big mess.

Then decorate! Go crazy and put as much as you want on top, the spookier the  better. You can also drizzle leftover melted chocolate on top, which is what I did with one of my slabs.

Then put in the fridge/freezer (depending on how imminent the scary movie session is) until the slabs have completely hardened. Remove and break into shards.

And that’s it! I’ll be spending tonight watching The Nightmare Before Christmas (for the first time!) with plenty of chocolate bark while listening out for the trick or treaters… Happy Halloween everyone!

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Pick Your Own Pumpkins

Halloween has never been my thing. I don’t like things jumping out at me. I don’t like creepy clowns, lunatics escaped from the asylum, vampires in their coffins or skeletons fresh from the grave. Cats are the tamest (literally) part of the whole thing and I don’t like them either (I’m very allergic).

But I love anything festive, all year round. Waiting for midnight on New Years Eve, hunting out chocolate eggs at Easter, watching fireworks fill the sky on Bonfire Night and the complete delight that is Christmas, I love them all. So I can’t skip Halloween, but it needs to be adapted. Which brings me to this Sunday’s blog post – pumpkin picking. Entirely Halloween and not remotely scary.

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Every Halloween, Secretts throw open their farm gates for Pumpkin Week. The Pick Your Own farm becomes dedicated to pumpkins and for just £1 you can jump on a tractor down to the pumpkin fields. You ramble around the field for as long as you wish, selecting the biggest, smallest, prettiest or most misshapen pumpkin you can find, before seeing which hole it fits through (each hole is a price), paying what you owe and then hopping back in the tractor to the farm.

In the run up to Halloween weekend I did my fair share of research into pick your own pumpkins, and the distinction between pumpkin field and pumpkin patch is not one to be overlooked. At pumpkin patches the pumpkins have already been picked, and are then displayed so you can pick the prettiest to take home. Pumpkin fields are the real deal, leaving you to roam around in the mud carrying as many pumpkins as you can manage. There aren’t many farms that let you lose in their pumpkins fields, but Secretts is one of them and it is definitely the only way to do it.

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Back at base, Secretts have all kinds of pumpkin treats to greet you (think tiny gourds with warm pumpkin soup inside). Or you can venture into the farm shop where they have an enormous selection of home grown fruit and veg, freshly baked breads and cakes, preserves and sauces, chocolate and confectionary, a delicatessen stocked by the in house butcher and a cheese counter with an impressive listing of over 300 cheeses. If you couldn’t find what you were after in the pick your own fields, you’ll definitely find it in the farm shop and you can rest assured that it’ll be just as fresh.

There are also cafes onsite for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea. Having worked up an appetite in the pumpkin fields, we opted for Eliza’s Teashop and warmed up over baked potatoes and homemade quiche. The perfect setting for the post-picking discussion of what exactly to do with the pumpkins (pie, soup or lantern?)

We took our pumpkins home and Tiarnan’s mum kindly whipped up a pumpkin soup, which we will be lunching on all week. Who says that Halloween needs to be scary to be fun? Certainly not me.

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Three Tier Biscoff Cake

I have heard a lot of people talking about Biscoff lately. I assumed it was an American thing and not for us Brits. Loaded with sugar and not even remotely natural, I was sure Waitrose and co would turn their noses up. How wrong I was. It is everywhere.

Biscoff is a brand of biscuits (for those not in the know) but they aren’t just biscuits. They have the biscuity answer to Nutella. Biscoff spread is delicious – you can spread smooth, biscuity goodness over anything!

If I had to choose my best baking creation, this would be it. My sister and I always stick to cupcakes and cookies, but we decided it was time to be ambitious and attempt a layer cake. It turned out to be quite the monster. But this enormous, biscuit tasting cake is actually pretty easy to make. You can use Biscoff spread with anything (cupcakes, cookies, cheesecake, crumbles…) but I reckon this is a pretty good place to start. We got the recipe here and it worked really well.

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YOU WILL NEED

For the cake

  • 400g butter
  • 400g light brown sugar
  • 400g eggs (roughly 7 large eggs)
  • 400g self-raising flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 4 tbsp whole milk

For the Biscoff buttercream

  • 250g butter
  • 500g icing sugar
  • 300g Biscoff spread
  • 40-60ml whole milk

For the decoration

  • Crushed Lotus biscuits
  • Whole Lotus biscuits
TO MAKE

Heat the oven to 180C and line three sandwich tins.

Beat together the butter and the sugar. Add the flour, eggs and baking powder and beat until combined. Use the milk to loosen if it gets too thick. Divide between the tins and bake for 25-30 minutes.

For the decoration, beat the butter to loosen it. Add the icing sugar at a slow speed until fully combined. Add the Biscoff spread, then the milk until you have the desired consistency.

When the cakes are cool, pipe on the icing and add crushed biscuits on top. Put the next cake on top and repeat. Add the top layer and decorate as you wish!

Breakfasting in Amsterdam: Pluk

If you thought that my last post looked suspiciously unlike London, you were right. Just last weekend Tiarnan and I hopped over to Amsterdam for the marathon. I refuse to allow our marathon weekends to only be about limbering up and eating shedloads of pasta, though. We had Saturday for exploring, and explore we did.

After some minimal research I decided that I most wanted to visit The Nine Streets, or De Negen Straatjes, area. Just outside the centre and the very heart of Amsterdam’s canal district, it is a beautiful place to wander with plenty of independent shops and small cafes along the 17th century canals. It was here that we discovered Pluk.

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I challenge you to leave Pluk with just a full stomach. It is the most gorgeous café meets gift, stationary and interiors shop and not picking up an entirely unnecessary treat to self is almost impossible. From wooden platter boards, travel mugs, notebooks, photo frames and an enormous selection of fresh fruit and veg, it is only a small shop but you are completely spoilt for choice.

The café is on a mezzanine level overlooking the shop. The girls in there are absolutely lovely and as it was full when we arrived, while we were browsing the shop one of them hovered by the door looking for any leavers whose table we could take. Pluk’s menu is all about healthy and fresh food, with a huge selection of breakfasts, lunches and homemade cakes. We opted for breakfast and ordered a generous selection from the acai bowl to yoghurt to homemade banana bread – all delicious.

It’s only small and incredibly popular, so expect a little wait but the shop will keep you more than occupied. It is the perfect place to fuel up before a morning of wandering the canals. It was my favourite place that we visited over the weekend and the best introduction to Amsterdam.

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Autumnal Pinks

I am not a pink person. In fact, I’m not really a colour person. I always end up in blacks, whites and – my favourite colour of them all – grey. I’ve had to ban myself from buying grey jumpers, it has got that out of control. But autumn is just such a colourful time. The leaves are putting on a firework display of reds, oranges and yellows and we haven’t even set off the real sparklers for the 5th November yet. So this is my attempt to put a bit of colour into my monochrome wardrobe.

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Not only am I absolutely not a pink person, but it isn’t a very autumnal colour either. Spring and summer yes but autumn? No. But this dusky rose Topshop jumper absolutely fits the bill. I love how the colour is slightly unexpected, but still fits in. And it’s a great option if, like me, yellow makes you look a bit sallow and red is just a bit too bold. Baby steps. This jumper has an amazing fit – comfy and relaxed but still slightly fitted, and it can look smart if you want it to. It’s also not too heavy, so ideal for these warmer autumnal days we are still enjoying.

I am also completely in love with this H&M scarf. It is so soft, so comfy to wear and so cheap! And it looks perfectly autumnal without being stereotypically so. The mustard yellow brings it straight into the season, along with the dusky rose pink I am loving so much. It’s also not too heavy so, again, perfect for these crisp autumn days.

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So if you buy one thing this month, make it colourful. Or at least slightly so. We are going to have plenty of time for monochrome when winter rolls round.

West London Weekends: Petersham Nurseries

Petersham Nurseries is the furthest away you will ever feel from London, while still in London.

It is bizarre. We hopped off the bus, rounded the corner and suddenly we were transported to the countryside. There was a dirt track. There were fields. There was a cute little church. There was mud. And of course I was entirely unprepared and had dressed completely inappropriately in my brand new pink suede trainers. So I spent the entire jaunt prancing around puddles like a real townie. But no matter. Besides the puddles, mud and other non-London elements, there was also cake. Which is why we are all gathered here today, obviously.

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Petersham Nurseries is a garden centre meets antique and gifts shop meets restaurant meets tea rooms. It is a total delight. You can browse the plants like you actually have a garden to plant them in, frolic in the gift shop and then have a slice of homemade cake. Their food is seasonal so the menus are ever changing. And the cakes are exactly like you’d bake at home but more inventive and, let’s be honest here, better. The banana bread was excellent and they had interesting offerings like an elderberry drizzle cake and even gluten free chocolate cake.

The tearoom is in a glasshouse and the plants surround you, so you really couldn’t feel further from London. Petersham Nurseries say they are a refuge from the city, and they really are. They have a huge selection of plants and a big site, so you could browse all afternoon before having a cup of tea and slice of cake.

Being London’s answer to countryside, it obviously isn’t a particularly warm place to spend an afternoon. But wrap up, wear something appropriate on your feet and don’t leave before you’ve tried the banana bread. It is truly like no other place I have found in London.

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How to Spend… October

Is it just me, or does everyone seem obsessed by autumn? My social media feeds have been playing fancy dress in anything red, orange or yellow and I’ve seen more pumpkin pictures than I could have ever fathomed, accompanied by an endless stream of excitement for the change in season.

Now, I am not autumn’s answer to Scrooge. I bought a teeny, tiny pumpkin entirely for decorative purposes this weekend (yes, I know it was a completely bonkers purchase and no, I do not care). But all that excitement in September felt like the world was furiously over-egging the pudding. It was definitely still summer in September. My legs were without tights and my face was with sunglasses. We hit over 30C. Records were broken.

But now it’s October (and I appreciate that I am no authority on this), autumn is actually here. I’ve bought a coat. I can see my breath in the mornings. I’ve remembered why I love jumpers, and my electric blanket, and chai lattes. So from kicking your way through piles of leaves to scaring yourself silly on the 31st to starting the silent panic of how on earth you are going to fund Christmas… Happy October everyone!

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*Invest in an enormous scarf: October is a really awkward time of year. First thing in the morning you are a frostbitten, sorry soul. By lunchtime you are a hot, flustered mess furiously ditching the layers. The solution is a blanket scarf – possibly the world’s greatest invention. You look cool and you are essentially wearing a blanket. So you can plod along to the station all swaddled up like a baby in the morning and, when the sun puts in an appearance, you can hide it away in your bag. And it will cooperate with this in a way that no coat ever will. Zara do the best, biggest, softest scarfs, but the H&M ones are also amazing and not quite such a hit to the bank balance.

*Stay in and cook: It’s getting cold outside and we have to be sensible and start thinking about the monstrosity that is Christmas spending. I gave up cooking for a year (it became a “boy job”) but I am back on that bandwagon and really loving it. In the summer it is far too hot to be slaving away over the oven. But now it’s getting cold, that’s the only place I want to be (as it’s not acceptable to spend all evening, every evening, in bed). Find some fun new recipes and spend your time cooking rather than your money eating. Then eat in front of the TV. Bliss.

*Make your home a cosy, autumnal den: Other than new recipes, the thing I am obsessing over is interiors. In summer, who wants to be surrounded by blankets and candles and fairy lights? But now it’s autumn, who doesn’t?! We’ve just moved into a new place and the bare whiteness of it was depressing me. So, seeing as I can’t nail anything into the walls, move anything around or spend much money, I’ve been finding other ways to make it cosy and homely. The aforementioned tiny pumpkin is one of my exciting autumnal touches. And  I’ve bought a crazy number of candles (you can never have too many), fairy lights and new bedding – which was from ASDA and it is so soft and was so cheap! I’ve also got some fake plants because I cannot be trusted to look after anything living. The ones from Oliver Bonas are cheap, realistic and (being fake) don’t require any maternal attention.

*Go pumpkin picking: Pumpkin picking seems to have suddenly become a thing here in the UK. And it makes sense. We harp on about picking strawberries in the summer, so why not pumpkins in autumn? Lots of the Pick Your Own farms are now offering pumpkins and squashes and there couldn’t be a more autumnal activity. Admittedly, picking and shifting pumpkins is slightly more back-breaking than strawberries, but cart them home and cook up an American pumpkin pie. Or just carve a ridiculous face out of it.

London’s Prettiest Cupcakes: Peggy Porshcen

WELCOME… to London’s most Instagrammable cupcake shop. With pastel pink walls, beautifully designed cupcakes and an enormous flower garland crowning the door, this is a very hard one to beat.

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The Peggy Porschen parlour has become somewhat legendary on Instagram. The marble table tops, feats of sugar craft and general pink-ness were enough to make it so, but the flower garland is what really attracts the attention. Based in London’s Belgravia, this hub of pink on the corner is impossible to miss.

And miss it you should not. You’ll get some beautiful pictures, but fortunately this place really does taste as good as it looks. You need a sweet tooth, but the selection of ready to eat cupcakes, layer cakes and confectionary are delicious.

We visited on an unseasonably hot day and with tables spilling out onto the street, it was the perfect pit stop for pink lemonade and people watching. And cupcakes of course. It’s a little out of the way but certainly worth it.

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Recent Reads

I spent my summer either lounging in the sun reading, or crammed on a train reading. In short, I did a lot of reading.

I went through a sad phase where I couldn’t seem to pick a good book, but fortunately that has passed. I’ve been making a real habit of hitting 4 stars on Goodreads lately. Not quite 5, because 5 is a really big deal. But 4 is pretty good too. And today I’m going to share all of that reading love with you.

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*The Forgetting Time, Sharon Guskin: I picked this up because I saw adverts for it on the tube. Genuinely, I was that low on reading inspiration. And a good job too, because it was great. It’s about children remembering previous lives and ideas about reincarnation (quite heavy for the morning commute). 4 year old Noah can remember a previous life, and the story centres on what exactly happened to the previous personality. This book could be a thrilling page-turner, but strangely it isn’t. The author doesn’t throw you any red herrings and you don’t have to work for the answers, they simply get revealed as the story moves along. That said, it is hugely enjoyable and manages a big topic without getting too mind-boggling about it.

*I See You, Clare Mackintosh: Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go was one of my favourite books from last year, a page turner to wear the skin off your thumbs. This is her follow-up, based around women doing their daily commutes and how the predictability of their movements can allow men to stalk them, rape them, murder them…(which makes for slightly alarming reading when you are doing your own commute). It follows one woman at risk during her commute, and a police officer investigating the case. Mackintosh was a policewoman herself, so the insights into how the force works are some of the best bits of the story. I didn’t find this as believable as I Let You Go, and there are so many red herrings that I feel it stops being clever and just annoyingly masks what’s actually going on. That said, I still loved it. Even though I can’t quite relax on my commute anymore…

*Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling: I was so sceptical about this. I’d go as far as saying I was mildly appalled by the whole idea. There can be no eighth Harry Potter. It stopped at seven and we should leave it at that. Also I hate reading plays (just what is the point? You’re meant to see them, not read them, I mean honestly). But in the end I (predictably) got a bit curious and picked it up. And I’m so glad I did. No, it’s not the same as the books. But it’s still a great story line in itself and it’s fun to see our favourite witches and wizards all grown up. I’m desperate to see the play now but seeing as tickets are sold out up to December 2017, it’ll take a small miracle for that to happen…

*Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson: This summer I have fallen in love with Bill Bryson and his travel books. He is hilarious, and reading about his travels makes the morning commute that bit more exotic. I’ve read almost all of them, but I particularly enjoyed his jaunts to Australia. My mum is Australian and I had to keep relaying back to her all of the many ways you can die a horrible and painful death in Australia (as if she didn’t already know).

*Little Lies, Liane Moriarty: I loved this. Liane Moriaty has this incredible way of drawing characters. By the end of the story, I felt like they were all my friends and I was part of their small community. Little Lies is based around a primary school and three of the mothers. At the beginning of the story, you know that someone has died – but you don’t know who or anything about it. You just know it happened on the school charity night. The story builds and builds and the tension is increased as you know when you’ll find out what happened, but you have to keep waiting for that critical moment. Liane Moriarty also doesn’t have the annoying habit of throwing a million red herrings your way. Everything is relevant and it all comes together so cleverly.

*The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman: I was a bit disappointed by this one, mainly because I thought it would be like The Night Circus and it wasn’t. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is a sideshow of ‘natural wonders’ (or freaks) in Coney Island. It follows the daughter of the leading showman, as she becomes a mermaid for the show, and a photographer, who takes to New York’s underworld and records everything that goes on there. It was fine, but not extraordinary, as the name would have you hope. And, to be honest, I don’t remember much about it which I always think says a lot.

*The Bridget Jones Omnibus, Helen Fielding: I’m twenty years late to this bandwagon, but better late than never. Who doesn’t love Bridget Jones? I have seen the films a million times, but the books are far better and much, much funnier. I sat on my sun lounger giggling away at this, reading out the best bits until I annoyed everyone. If you haven’t read Bridget, read it. And go see the new film while you’re at it.

*Ctrl, Alt; Delete: How I Grew Up Online, Emma Gannon: This memoir is for all of us who grew up putting on cheap make-up just for webcam chatting, sharing the ‘luv’ on Bebo and having enormous fights over MSN. And making complete fools of ourselves while we were at it. Emma Gannon’s honest and completely hilarious stories from her time growing up online are so recognisable and relevant to all us nineties and early noughties babies. And after all of the horribly cringey moments, her insights into the role of the internet and social media today are really interesting and so well put. I don’t often read memoirs, but this is definitely one to add to your reading list.