Dessert Trollied

In my last post I talked about Waitrose’s Raspberry & Drambuie Meringue Gateau. They stopped doing it a few years ago so I’ve had a bash at recreating it. The end result isn’t exactly the same as the dessert I remember if I’m honest – It’s more of a variation on a dessert my Dad makes, which has a nod to that delicious Waitrose pud of old:

You’ll need:
– a high-sided springform cake tin
– a large mixing bowl
– something to whip the cream (electric or hand whisk)
– a small sharp serrated knife and a bread knife

Ingredients:
– a ready-made sponge flan case larger than your cake tin
– 250g of fruit (I used strawberries and raspberries)
– 300ml whipping cream
– 250g mascarpone cheese
– 2ish tablespoons of Drambuie if you have it (I used whiskey)
– 1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
– 2 small ready made meringue nests
– A little icing sugar for the top

Start by using the small knife to trim down the flan case so it’s the same size as your cake tin. Then, using a sharp bread knife, cut through the sponge base laterally to give you two thin pieces of sponge. Take it slowly using small strokes, check that you’re cutting evenly as you go.

Separate the two layers of sponge. Save the top layer for the top of the dessert as it looks tidier. Use the bottom layer in the bottom of your cake tin. Take care because it’s quite thin and fragile. Spoon about a third of the booze over the base layer and move the tin and sponge top to one side.

In your mixing bowl, whip the cream to soft peaks. Add the mascarpone cheese to the cream and fold together. Wash your fruit (and cut the strawbs into smaller chunks if you’re using them) and add to the cream/cheese mix. Roughly crumble the meringue keeping some larger chunks (for crunch) and add that too, along with the remaining booze and the vanilla essence. Fold until it’s combined – don’t over mix, it needs to just come together.

Spoon the cream and fruit mix into the cake tin carefully a little at a time. Don’t push it against the sides of the tin too much – doing that means you run the risk of it sticking to the sides when you remove the tin to serve. Lightly smooth the mix until it’s flat and place the remaining layer of sponge on the top. Sprinkle icing sugar over the top sponge evenly whilst it’s in the tin (less messy than doing after you take it out!), cover and pop it in the fridge until you’re ready to serve.

When you take it out of the fridge to serve, remove the cake tin gently and slowly. You can also try heating a metal skewer and branding the top of the pud – the skewer needs to be really hot so you can do all the stripes (or criss-crossing if you’re really quick) in one go. This is a practised art but worth doing because it looks really pretty and the taste of caramelised sugar adds to the favour of the dessert.

Give it a go – its a lovely summery dessert. Perfect for this bonkers heatwave we’re having at the moment. If I were to try again, and make it more like the Waitrose pudding, there would be a layer of meringue in the middle the same size at the sponge base & top. The trick would be working out how to stop the meringue layer from going soggy and losing its crunch. And there would be Drambuie – lots of it.

(A final thank you to Rob and Sarah for being very willing volunteers for my first attempt… “it’s the perfect cake – more filling than sponge!”)

A Quarter Of The…

A few years ago I worked on the Deli in Waitrose’s finest branch – Hall Green (branch 122 for the WaitroseSpotters amongst you). They were good days… The summers were long and hot, and we’d often be found in the beer garden of the pub next door after a shift where I’d be sipping a […]

Telling Storeys… about the city of Birmingham

A while ago, I got thinking about how important it is to share knowledge about Birmingham’s architecture with non-architects. It came off the back of my talk at Birmingham’s first Pecha Kucha night – I spoke about local Architect John Madin – and I rounded off my presentation by suggesting the audience look up more often when walking around the city and take in their surroundings: notice the design of local buildings, have a closer look at the style of windows, the choice of stonework and brickwork detailing, how it relates to its neighbouring buildings etc.  I also encouraged them to buy a copy of Andy Foster’s updated version of the Birmingham Pevsner Guide because it’s essential reading if you’re remotely interested in architecture.

Well, I’m pleased to say that one or two took my advice and can often be seen walking into lamposts because they’re so preoccupied with the beautiful architecture of the city that they forget to look where they’re going….. I jest…. Incidentally, if this really does happen, please don’t sue me – you’re responsible for making sure you can see where you’re walking.

I digress.

Thanks to that very warm spell recently, timed with a reshuffle of my work schedule, I was finally able to spend a bit of time taking dubious-quality photographs around some areas of the city (Birmingham is HUGE!) to share via a dedicated website.

Ladies, Gentlemen, Children and Architects: I give you Telling Storeys.

I thought long and hard about the format and figured it needed to be kept simple – that’s why I’ve used tumblr which autotweets a link whenever I hit ‘publish’. I’m sticking to using photos that only I have taken so as not to open a can of worms regarding copyright. Each photo is accompanied by a little bit of information about that building or place: name and location, and if I can find it, a bit of background about when it was built, who the architect was, and any other interesting snippets of relevant information.

At the time of writing this blog post, the Twitter account has 69 followers, and the number of Tumblr followers has suddenly risen sharply. I’ve had some really lovely feedback from people who like the simplicity of the format and it’s worth noting that I’ve also been dropping the location of each post (each building) onto a Googlemap which I guess might come in handy… one day.

Building A City

So this is what I talked about at Coventry’s last Pecha Kucha night instead of ranting about the big society agenda:

Silly? Well, yes, a bit. But there’s not enough silliness in the world of Architecture in my opinion. It sometimes takes itself rather too seriously. I vote for MORE SILLINESS PLEASE.

[Being a bit of pedant, I noticed a couple of things that slipped out during the presentation that weren’t factually correct. Nerves must have got the better of me. Answers on a postcard… or in the comments below.]

The Pecha Kucha That Never Was

I got some way through preparing to speak at Coventry’s most recent Pecha Kucha night, organised by the lovely Janet Vaughan of Talking Birds, before I realised it was in danger of turning into a rant about the future of the profession.

But I’m not one to waste something when I’ve put some work into it. These are the notes I made as I was preparing. They are unfinished, and very much written in the style that they would have been spoken to a room full of people. It’s a bit opinionated but I’m in the mood for taking a chance so I want to share it.

I’m what’s known as a practice manager – it’s like an office manager with added marketing and business development duties but I work with architectural practices. I’m interested in web-based technology and communication, new media and how this is creating a new social agenda in the work of an architect, and also across society.
I’m doing this talk because I’ve met some inspirational people, particularly over the last 3 or so years, and because I feel that architects and urban designers are often a little bit misunderstood. I hope to dispel some of the myths about what an architect actually does.

In 2009, the government called for local authorities to involve local people in decisions that affect them. This “Duty to Involve” which incorporated “Community-led design” was scrapped in 2011, and replaced with a new guidance document which formed part of the government’s Big Society agenda. The resulting neighbourhood planning element of the Localism Act gives planning powers to local communities and parishes allowing them to have a direct involvement with developments that affect where they live and work.

Well, this is all very nice and encouraging and positive and lovely and if it all works, David Cameron will have a nice warm feeling in his belly… but in actual fact, community-led design has been going on for a long time already. A really long time.

Where once architects were the master builder at the top construction family tree, now they find themselves at the grassroots of development. They don’t just sit down in front of the people with the money for development and tell them what it’s going to look like, they have a hands-on role from the very beginning. They consider how a place functions and what sort of a societal role that building or place will have.

Good architects are good listeners. They have to be because the role of architect has evolved into urban designer, community planner, communications expert, translator of ideas, social curator, sociologist and in some cases, councillor and therapist.

Architects and urban designers must listen first, then put ideas together, then they share those ideas and talk about them, and then they make changes, then they might think about what it looks like, then they come back again and talk to the local community about their ideas, and they might make some more changes, and listen a bit more, and tweak something and show their new ideas……. and eventually they get to the point where something might actually get built.

Out of that process comes a development, a public square, a community centre, some new houses, a new village, a new city…… it has evolved from the local people who use them, play in them, live in them, asking for what they want. Telling the architects and urban designers how they use their homes, what they like doing at the local community centre, what they don’t do enough of and what they’d like to do more of, what works and what doesn’t work where they live at the moment. They are constantly teaching architects about habits and lifestyles. Lifestyles are changing at such a rapid pace, this isn’t possibly something that can be taught at university.

This process hands the power to communities. They are involved in the process of design and planning, and they take pride in it.

This sense of ownership is of enormous value. If local people have been part of the process, they will care for that place, that community hall, their new house because they are proud of it. And from that spirit of involvement, new communities form, new activities start taking place. It’s exciting and wonderful and uplifting and bellywarming……

And it’s been going on for years.

I want to reference some examples of where architects have been working directly with communities. Some of them are architects I know, some are architects I have worked for and with, other schemes are ones that I’ve seen and admire. Some are recent and show how architecture has evolved (particularly in response to the current economic climate), some show architecture that has been led by a team of social entrepreneurs with assistance from architects – which illustrates how architects have to adapt their role.

Bromley by Bow in London is a fascinating scheme highligted to me in 00:/ architects’ Compendium for the Civic Economy.

Brandwood End in Kings Heath by Axis Design Architects. A scheme design that was very much led by the residents. Have a listen to this audioboo from Podnosh and you’ll get what its all about.

Electric Wharf in Coventry by Bryant Priest Newman Architects. Community consultations during very early design stages, and the role of artists in the process are key to its success. There’s a fascinating case study on the project at Public Art Online.

Other examples that were pointed out to me with the help of colleagues at Axis Design include the work by Walter Segal (a “community architect” who developed a simple timber-framed housing system allowing self-builders to create a home quickly and cheaply) and Ralph Erskine’s Byker Wall scheme in Newcastle (a scheme which was redeveloped with participatory support from residents – most of whom were able to remain on site whilst the work was carried out in several phases).

There are also a couple of young practices of note – recent graduates who are doing things a bit differently to traditional practice. Make:Good in London, and Icecream Architecture – the latter travel the country delivering an architectural service from an old ice cream van. Both are innovative, fun practices who are very much community-led in their approach.

Well… that wasn’t a rant. And now I’ve written it all down, it’s actually quite interesting. Funny how things work out.

I guess it’s just not as packed full of laughs as finding tenuous links to architecture in Starship’s 1985 hit single We Built This City.

Resolutions – and why I’m not bothering

Every new year’s eve, it’s the same thing…. I’ll eat more healthily, exercise more often, moan less, do the ironing on a weekly rather than monthly basis, blah, blah, blah.

This new year, however, I’ve not bothered. I’ve realised that making resolutions is futile. It turns out I don’t have much resolve, which probably explains why I start every year feeling like a failure.

Earlier in 2011 I made the decision to stop using a ToDo List. I realised it was driving me a bit nuts. Every time I looked in my notebook (or online – I went through a phase of using various bits of the internet to make my ToDo List more interesting), my heart would sink. Oh god. There’s that task I’ve still not done…. urgh… I’m a bad person… I’m a failure…

But here’s the thing: I always knew I needed to do that task. Writing it down didn’t make me any more likely to complete it. In actual fact, it just wound me up and stressed me out seeing it staring at me. Every. Single. Bloody. Day.  

My ToDo List became the enemy. I would stare at it with a look of mild disgust. It would stare back at me with its hand on its hip and a smart-arse grin on its stupid smug little face. The words TAX RETURN! were leaping off the page every time I glanced downwards. It was the last straw. I tore the page out of my book and threw it away.

So enough is enough. Resolutions and ToDo Lists are dead to me. Instead I’m celebrating the arrival of 2012 by reminding myself of all the things I’ve achieved in 2011:

In the last year I have mostly been:
– improving my public speaking skills by presenting at seminars and conferences,
– improving my writing skills by creating content on the web on behalf of interesting and inspiring clients,
– learning to play the Ukulele,
– making light work of homemade curtains and blinds for my house,
– becoming my own boss,
– re-landscaping my garden and staying on top of maintaining it,
– seeing more of my family and in doing so, being reminded of their general awesomeness
and… AND!!…
– completing my tax return (see? I still managed to do it even though it wasn’t written down on a list. Amazing, huh?)

So go and trash that ToDo List, it’s not doing anyone any good. Have a happy, productive and satisfying 2012 instead.

Season’s Greetings… (and thank you!)

Firstly, apologies for the sickly sweet nature of this post but it needs to be said.

2011 has been a hectic year. I took the daunting leap into self-employment and although it was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made, and it’s taken some getting used to, the flexibility to select the people I work for, as well as striking a work-life balance leaves me knowing it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Numerous friends, family and colleagues have tirelessly supported me on my journey. I never fail to be astounded by how generous people can be with their time, advice and guidance. Every now and again a message of support, completely unprompted, arrives via [insert electronic messaging system of choice] to remind me that everything’s going to be OK and that there are lots of us out there just trying to do a good job and make an honest living and there, there, don’t cry… etc, etc.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work for some wonderful clients too. Clients who I can now call friends, which makes me feel like the luckiest freelancer in the world.

A special hat-tip to my closest friends and family too, who have put up with my whinging, grumbling and general moodiness, as well as celebrating with me when something I’ve worked hard to achieve works out well.

Thank you, each and every one of you (you know who you are) – it means the world to me. When it’s time to return the favours and the unwavering support, I’ll be here.

So… Merry Christmas one and all, and here’s to a fantastic 2012.

Cheers!