Thursday, 24 June 2010

Wedding cake work experience

After making a couple of wedding cakes last year, one of my objectives for 2010 was to try and get some work experience at an established cake decorator. I started to contact a couple of places at the end of 2009 (actually, they were the 2 companies whose designs I had used for each of my wedding cakes) and in February of this year, I was very happy and surprised to receive an email from one of the companies asking if I would be interested to do some work experience with them. After a brief trial and interview, I was offered 2 weeks full time (sadly, unpaid) which began straight after our holliers in the Basque Country. 

I won't name the company but I was very fortunate to land my work experience there as it is one of the top names in this very niche industry and has also provided wedding and celebration cakes for numerous celebs including Madonna, Paul McCartney and Pierce Brosnan (some clues!!). The studio is situated in Central London and this is where all the decorating work takes place. Luckily, they were very busy the week I started with numerous orders so it was the perfect environment to see and learn as much as possible. 
Surprisingly, the routine followed in the studio was very similar to what I had followed when making my own wedding cakes - Monday begins with going through all the week's orders and covering all cake boards, cover cakes with marzipan and sugarpaste on Tuesday which leaves the rest of the week to decorate. It was great to be able to see everything being done on a larger scale and also being given some tips along the way for shortcuts, fixes, etc...... As well as helping with wedding cakes, I was also involved with making some individual cakes (bound for some of the fanciest retailers in town - you don't want to know how much these babies cost!!), fairy cakes with cute decorations for a client launching a new product, as well as a couple of corporate and birthday cakes. The founder of the company was also in and out of the kitchen working on recipes for a photoshoot of a new book so all very hectic! On my 2nd week, I was also lucky enough to shadow a couple of cake deliveries (I was jinxed on both  - wrong address for the 1st one and stuck in traffic for the other, char!)

The fortnight flew by and the company very kindly invited me to a handpiping masterclass which was held on the Saturday after I had finished at the Langham Hotel. This was a great experience in itself because the founder was personally taking the class and gave a very interesting presentation at the beginning of the day about how she and the company have evolved over the last 10 years (btw, she has just been awarded an MBE by the Queen which is mucho impressive!!). 

I had a great time over the last 2 weeks, working with some really nice people in the company and gaining a real insight into the world of wedding cakes. There is a lot of time spent rolling and icing which is making me think twice about whether it is something I would like to do full question mark and several more coming down the line, I feel over the couple of weeks :(   
Quick peek into the studio - smaller than you would expect and also a bit of sun trap!

Different wedding cakes for aspiring brides to peruse (they are dummies, of course!)

A bespoke design for a client - the middle tiers are dummies, the bride is provided with 2 tiers of "cutting" cake

A pirates and princesses cake for a joint kiddies birthday

Some "nature" fairy cakes

Individual handbag and high heels cakes

My attempt (left) at hand piping - the cake on the right formed a set of 80 individuals for a wedding

Confetti wedding cake - am a big fan of this design - simple but lots of fun!

My attempt (small cake) at candy stripe piping - still need some more practice!!

One of the cake deliveries which I made of a white chocolate helter skelter adorned with chocolate dipped strawberries and red fruit

My piping attempts from the masterclass 

Monday, 21 June 2010

Our last SS supper - Branka

When I had booked the hotel for us in San Sebastian, I had no idea quite how far it was from the town centre (a good 20-25 minutes) which meant a fair old trek most nights before and after dinner! For our final dinner, we decided to head to a funky restaurant called Branka, on the edge of one of the city's beaches and luckily only down the hill and along the beach a little bit for us. The restaurant is on the 1st floor and has some fantastic across the bay, of the beach and also looking across to the city centre. We had a lovely evening, with some fairly eccentric waitresses serving us (including one who poured txacoli all over our tablecloth rather than into the wine glass!) and some tasty food with the exception of our monkfish which was oversalted....
View from our table - pretty spectacular!!

Amuse bouche of croquet and some tasty small olives

My starter of rice with courgettes, mushrooms and giant prawn, a little salty but pretty tasty!

JD's starter of egg yolk with lots of wild mushrooms - simple but really good!

Our main of grilled monkfish - very fresh fish but oversalted, a real shame

Dessert of apple tart

Churros in San Sebastian

Nice but not very comparable to the place that we accidentally discovered in Malaga on the way to the train station. Word of warning, this place closes by about 8pm so not great for post-dinner dessert treat :)

Ogiberri -breakfast of champions!

Since breakfast was not included with our hotel room in San Sebastian, we wandered down the hill and came across a nice bakery in the neighbourhood called Ogiberri, which also had a sit-in area. Ogiberri then became our breakfast destination for the rest of the holidays where we would have our fill of tortilla or jamon rolls, orange juice, choccie croissants and cafe con leche to fuel us for the day. Having done a bit more wandering through the streets, we discovered that Ogiberri is actually a bakery chain in the city!! But only the branch closest to us had a sit-in, lucky us!!! ;)

San Sebastian pintxos

After a few days exploring Bilbao, we headed out east to spend some time in San Sebastian. San Sebastian has been getting  lot of press over the last few years and hailed as one of the "must-go" foodie destinations. Unfortunately, I too bought into this hype and arrived into the city with unrealistically high expectations that each of my meals would be a culinary experience. We arrived into town on a Sunday afternoon and after much hmmming and ahhhing, settled on a bar in the Old Town called Bar La Cepa for dinner. The food was terrible (no photos) and it wasn't cheap either......I found out afterwards that a fellow food blogger had run into Ferran Adrià and his wife popping in for a bite to eat here!!! In fariness, the bar is best known for their jamon and good range of mushroom pintxos, neither of which we ordered...... am still perplexed at the difference in quality between the pintxos at the bar and the food being served in the restaurant - surely, it is all made in the same kitchen??

Anyhoo, you'll be pleased to know that we did find a few good places to sample pintxos that had good food, were almost smoke-free with a relaxed atmosphere with no need to jostle for space at the bar (how old and grumpy are me and JD???!!!). Our first good place was a bar in the Gros area called Casa Senra. Its a bit out of the way but we think its worth the trek with a wide range of pintxos by the bar but the stars were the pintxos that were being prepared "a la minute "straight out of the kitchen".....yum! Our waiter behind the bar was also very helpful and attentive, always a good sign as we had found previously at Cafe Iruña in Bilbao!!
Tasty combo of jamon, aubergine, roasted red pepper and anchovy

Pan fried venison with apple

Roasted turbot

Homemade black pudding

The second place of note is just off the Plaza Constitucion called Astelena, the highlights of our meal being the hot pintxos being made from the kitchen (ordering these are a lot easier when the bar is not so busy hence our love of quiet places!):
View of the kitchen

View from the bar

Chorizo - small, tasty and perfectly formed

Some morsels of steak - yum!

Baby cuttlefish

Duck with chestnut puree and raspberry

The least successful dish - tuna.....which was overcooked :(

Sunday, 6 June 2010


It goes without saying that as soon as we had booked our flights to Bilbao, I then spent many an evening on the web figuring out which restaurants we would eat at during our holliers. Having seen the restaurant on an episode of "No Reservations", I had previously said to JD that he could take me to Arzak if we ever found ourselves in the Basque Country. Strangely enough, now that we were heading there, I was in two minds as to whether we should go or not? After a bit of hmm-ing and ahhh-ing, I finally put in a request for a table at Arzak via their website and a bizarre series of events followed.....I sent an additional email to Arzak requesting a non-smoking table should our reservation be successful. My first response back was that there were no tables.......I decided to ring the restaurant direct and ask about alternative dates but unfortunately, there was still nothing suitable....a day later, another email response saying that yes, we did have a table but it would be in the smoking section. Amidst mild confusion, I could not believe my luck!!! However, after reading a horror story on the net about a whole table lighting up cigars at Arzak and chatting to JD (who didn't want to be shelling out 200 yoyos a head for dinner to be sat in a roomful of smoke), we decided to relinquish our table and not go to Arzak. 

In contrast, there was no hesitancy with me trying to secure a reservation for Etxebarri, a restaurant a little outside Bilbao which specialises in grilling everything over charcoal, which is made by the proprietor himself. I had first read about this restaurant on Chez Pim a few years ago and had always dreamed of going to eat there one day myself. Since then, Etxebarri has achieved global foodie pilgrimage status, and was awarded its 1st star last year. Getting a table was pretty straightforward, we decided to go for dinner which is only served on Saturdays (Etxebarri is only open for lunch on other days, other than Monday).

After a day out in the Urkiola National Park and surviving a tough ascent up Anboto, we headed out to the small village of Axpe for dinner at Extebarri at a relatively late time of 9pm (the Spaniards like to eat late). We both decided to go for  the tasting menu (120 yoyos per head) but asked if JD could change his course of prawns to something else, which they were more than happy to do. So, what was on the menu?
Some home-made slices of chorizo - very good, sliced more thickly than normal and had a great meatier taste.

Smoked butter on toast with grated fresh local mushrooms - an unusual first course but very tasty.

Red prawns - super fresh, sweet and tasty

JD's alternative dish of oysters - he liked them :)

Clams - served on plates with customised indentations for the shells!

My favourite dish of the night - las espardeñas (sea cucumber) with mini broad beans. To be honest, I was a little worried when I saw sea cucumber on the menu - the species that Chinese people eat is quite thick and rubbery so was pleasantly surprised to be presented that tasted of tender squid instead.....sooo good!

Baby squid

Egg yolk served with purple potato mash and garnished with fresh, local mushrooms again - very curious as to how on earth they managed to cook this over charcoal??

Tuna with tomato - funnily, the tomato was the highlight of this dish, full of flavour and super sweet

Final savoury dish of steak - perfectly cooked and delicious

Pre-dessert of elderflower sorbet - very refreshing

Cheese ice cream with red fruit compote

Pain perdu (French toast) with ice cream

Looking back on it, we did have a lovely meal at Etxebarri. At the time though, I felt a little disappointed but I guess thats what happens when you have such high expectations for the experience. The restaurant wasn't completely full but we did have to wait quite long in between courses meaning that our meal lasted a good 3 hours plus!! Every dish tasted very good and fresh but only a few really "wowed" me - the low point of the meal for me were the desserts, I didn't really see the point of having 2 ice creams and the didn't even manage to finish my pain perdu :(   

The service was lovely and despite the late finish to the dinner, we had the opportunity to take  a quick look at the kitchens before we left (sadly, no pics here). The kitchen is much smaller than I expected and there are 5 chefs who work every night. There are various types of wood used to make charcoal (made daily) and they will be used to cook all the different dishes on the menu. We were also able to see first hand the quality of the raw ingredients (seafood being kept alive by a constant flow of seawater, plus a great array of vegetables all provided from local farms) - you would have to be a complete moron to mess up when you have such great produce!!

A nice evening, with tasty food but am still unsure whether its the ultimate culinary experience for me.....