Monthly Archives: July 2012

Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake

I am the cup-cake Queen.

Some months ago when I agreed to bake cup-cakes for a morning tea, I did what most self-respecting non bakers would do. I panicked. What was I thinking?  I don’t cook. Well I do, and I’m really brilliant at some things such as one-dish meals—throw it all in and shove it in the oven; slow cooking—put everything in the slow cooker, turn it on, and forget about it for eight hours, and stir fry—in the dim and distant past I did a Chinese cookery course and some things are just never forgotten. But cup-cakes?

I stressed out. I prowled the internet looking for simple recipes. Have you seen some of those pictures on food blogs? OMG! They make Martha Stewart look like a beginner! Some of them have iced flowers on the top of the cakes … iced flowers. WTF. Speaking of Martha, I recall the only show of hers I’ve ever watched (don’t ask) and it was entirely about cup-cakes. Apparently there were 1,000 cup-cakes on the set. Now that’s inspiring.

I turned to recipe books. They were no better. Then someone told me that the photos in recipe books are real photo shoots that take hours to do, and then they’re photo-shopped. Good grief—all you’re going to do is eat it.

I had decided early on that if nothing else my cup-cakes would look good. I bought some colourful paper cups and a packet of fondant icing—I can’t cope with doing everything from scratch first up. The recipe was vanilla (plain and simple), and fairly straightforward—all in the bowl and in with the mixer. Spooned into the cups, which I had put into muffin tins; tip courtesy Martha, and into the oven. Twenty minutes later a rather surprisingly nice batch of cup-cakes appeared. The fondant icing was a whiz—squeeze into bowl, stir a bit, and spread on top. Not bad, and to cut a long story short (something I don’t often do) they were a huge success at tea-time. Well, they all got eaten anyway and, as a measure of their success, I was asked to bake more for another tea some weeks hence.

Success had gone to my head, and this time I was going to get serious. I found an online company in Sydney that sold cup-cake wrappers and cups. The wrappers and cups come in various colours and designs; you can get kids designs, weddings, 1950s (apparently a decade famous for cup-cakes), and scary one with skulls and crossbones on. You can even get decorations to put on the top.

I invested. I ordered a variety pack of 24 baking cups and splurged on a packet of iced flower toppers. I now know where those cooking bloggers get them … and, to my simple vanilla recipe I added an over-ripe banana, and made my own icing (oh yes indeedy) with icing sugar and cream cheese. In their gorgeous little 1950s cups, with little flowers atop the cream cheese, my cup-cakes had centre place.

Now when a morning tea comes up, there’s an understanding that the Queen (that’s me) will do the cup-cakes. I’ve advanced so far that I now own a cup-cake carry box and a three tier cup-cake stand, and will consider special requests. I’ve even started answering to Martha and wearing a solid anklet.

As long as I have access to the little internet shop in Sydney I can handle anything.

Three Perfect Days in NARITA

Most people who fly into Tokyo land at Narita and promptly get a train to Tokyo; passing up a stay in one of the oldest cities in Japan. Although the name Narita does not appear in written records until 1408, stone tools dating from 30,000 years ago have been found on the site of Narita airport. So for our three perfect days we will investigate Narita.We are staying at the Holiday Inn which is a short drive from the airport in their little shuttle bus. Breakfast is served in the restaurant, and although there is a small selection of western dishes (fruit, scrambled egg, tomatoes and toast), it mainly caters for the Asian market with plenty of rice, vegetables, miso soup and congee.

After breakfast we plan to visit Narita-san Shinsho Temple via the circular bus. The Temple is quiet and at the entrance there is a raised fire pit where people congregate and wave their hands in the smoke. We learn later that the Temple is a shrine to Fudomyoo (a fire god) and the fire is a symbol of his wisdom; the waving of hands in the smoke is said to extinguish earthly passions and bring us to a higher state of mind.

Fire Pit Narita-san

The Temple is built of simple grey stone and there are lots of separate halls and smaller buildings and shrines, and one enormous 58 metre high Pagoda. There is a large courtyard where people sit and chat, and a young mother and child dressed in traditional dress are constantly photographed by tourists—including us.

Leaving the Temple we find ourselves in a chrysanthemum garden—the blooms are the largest we’ve ever seen and the colours are amazing with the common white and yellow sitting next to rows of pink, lilac, orange and red. It’s all very orderly with separate greenhouses for each colour. We leave the garden and walk slowly down the main cobbled street. There are cafés and restaurants, gifts and souvenirs, jewellery and accessories, and market stalls selling trinkets, chopsticks, and the ubiquitous gold and silver waving cats. Will we get one? Why not—he may bring us luck.

Chrysanthemum Garden

Back on the bus we hop off at a shopping centre and check out the supermarket. Dinner is sushi, shredded beef and noodles, and a couple of Kirin beers. At the hotel, over another Kirin, we pore over the train timetable and finally surrender to a day trip to Tokyo the next day.The rail transport in Tokyo is awesome. It’s never late, it’s clean and although we have all seen and heard of the train pushers at commuter time; when we are travelling it’s remarkably quiet. The train takes us to the main station in Tokyo where there is an underground shopping centre. You can get lost in here. You name it, you can buy it. There is also a large Daimaru department store which has one level entirely devoted to cakes. We are so amazed by the size and presentation of these sweet gastronomic delights that we simply stand and stare.

There are elaborately decorated sponge cakes, gateaux, giant éclair cakes, birthday cakes, wedding cakes, cream cakes, yellow cakes, green cakes, pink and blue baby cakes, animal cakes, and cakes made to look like the Eiffel Tower, the leaning tower of Pisa, and … oh my, look there, it’s the Sydney Opera House! We tear ourselves away from this sweet feast to find a café for lunch.

It’s pouring down when we leave the station and hurriedly buy our tickets to Keisei Narita. The train trundles along—it seems to be taking longer than it did to get there and it’s packed with school children. You get up and look at the map, and then … “Er, this train isn’t going to Narita.” What! Where is it going! “Chiba something.” Faaarrrkkkkk!!!!  Off the train at the next station; we cross over the bridge and seconds later another train takes us back to where we started. This time we’re on the right train, and we thank Japanese rail for its efficiency—even though we arrive back at Keisei Narita, in the rain and dark, an good hour later than planned and have to wait 30 minutes for the little circular bus to the hotel.

The next day is shopping day and we take the bus to the Aeon Mall. This is a huge shopping centre and we spend an extraordinary amount of time trying on clothes and shoes. A couple of jumpers and three pairs of shoes later we stumble across the Hello Kitty shop. This shop is as big as small department store in itself, and any Hello Kitty item you could imagine is here; from suitcases to pencils and everything in between including t-shirts; pyjamas; baby clothes and accessories; beanies and gloves; slippers and gumboots; glasses (both for wearing and drinking out of); crockery, cutlery and bakeware—yes, you can buy moulds for Hello Kitty cupcakes—jewellery, shopping bags, and every item of stationery, all emblazoned with that cute little kitty face.

Hello Kitty Shop, Aeon Mall

We climb aboard the circular bus holding our Hello Kitty shopping bags aloft and smile childishly at everyone on the bus. They just look and nod. But who cares? We’ve had a great time, and as it’s our last night we will splurge at dinner in the hotel restaurant.

Sayonara Narita!

Three Perfect Days in Lido di Ostia

The sun is shining; both the Mediterranean and the sky are so blue it’s hard to tell where the horizon is, and restaurants are setting up for breakfast in the Piazza. Buongiorno Roma!

Well, Ostia to be exact. Where is Ostia? It’s about 20 kilometres south of Rome and is also known as Lido di Ostia—meaning Ostia beach. It’s our first day and from our little shuttered balcony we look out over the esplanade to the ocean, and shading our eyes from the glare of the sun, we count the little yachts bobbing up and down in the marina.

It’s late September and hotter than we expect for the time of year. The white and terracotta houses facing the ocean all have their shutters drawn to keep the them cool, and the gardens and window boxes are a blaze of colour and fragrance with deep purple bougainvillea, red and white geranium, lavender, and bright yellow jasmine and honeysuckle. We decide to explore the town and surrounding area and make our way past the cafés and towards the CBD.

Lots of little boutique shops, but more expensive than we thought. Walking along the back streets is an obstacle course of trestles, racks and boxes displaying shoes, bags, clothing and accessories. You pull a jacket off a rack and check the label—made in China—mmm, that’s a bit disappointing. Perhaps we’ll hold off on the purchases until we get to Rome.

For  lunch we settle on a little place tucked away down a cobbled street and opt to share a traditional pizza napoletana, a taste sensation smothered in fresh tomatoes and sprinkled with oregano. Later we saunter back along the esplanade for a closer look at the yachts in the marina. Dinner is a selection of antipasto in the little bar below our hotel, accompanied by a glass of chilled rosé, and later in the evening we enjoy a second glass while sitting on our balcony before closing our shutters for the night.

The following day finds us on Lido di Ostia station about to board the train for Rome. You want to go to the Vatican but after some debate we settle on the Colosseum. The train takes about 35 minutes and is obviously the commuter train to Rome—it’s packed with businessmen and very chic Italian ladies who manage to look stunning in their camel coats, leather bags, and perfect make-up. In our jeans, sneakers and back-packs we look quite the poor cousins.

The Colosseum is jam packed. Is it always like this? There are groups of centurions who will take your photo—and your camera if you refuse to pay them 50 Euro for the photo. We climb the hill behind the monument and look down on the town. There are olive trees on the hill and we wonder how old they are. Olive trees can live for hundreds of years—in fact the oldest trees are in Lebanon and said to be around 1,500 years old. What tales they would tell.

In the evening we take a walk along the esplanade before dinner. It’s cooler now with a slight breeze coming off the ocean, and the cafés are preparing for the evening rush. The sound of live music drifts on the breeze—it’s coming from a large marquee and we wander over to take a look. It’s a wedding expo and the place is packed. We arrive to a catwalk parade of white puffy organza creations and tuxedos. Most of the (paying) guests seem to be mama and papa who are about to fork out thousands of euros for this one day in their daughter’s life. Champagne flows and the opera singer is in full voice. We return to our hotel to the distant strains of Ave Maria.

Today is our last day and you are determined to see the Vatican, but this time we take a local bus that takes us on a sight-seeing tour of Ostia and crosses a narrow waterway. “That’s the Tiber” you say. No it isn’t. “Yes it is” and you point on the map. So it is. Somehow I expected it to be, well, bigger.

Finding the Vatican is easy—it’s just a matter of following everyone else. There is a sign at the end of the closest queue that tells us the waiting time is two hours. “Two hours” you say, “I’ve waited less than that for a Disney ride”. So instead we wander around the side streets and are quite enjoying our own sight-seeing tour until a Caribineri crosses our path and tells us we can go no further. He seems quite a nice young man. What a pity he’s dressed like a paratrooper and carrying a rather large gun. He does however move us on ever so politely with rather bored smile—he probably does this all day, every day.

Back on the main street we finally hit the shops and it takes us three times as long to walk back to the station. There is a rather nice pair of grey suede boots in the window of a shoe shop. I’m tempted but doubt I have space for them in the luggage. Instead I buy a cute little leather purse in the shape of a cat with a diamante collar, for one of my girls.

After dinner we spend our last evening on the balcony absorbing the sights and sounds—the building blocks of memory. We have an early flight tomorrow.

Arrivederci Roma!