Holiday in Alvor, Portugal

Mom and I recently brought Alex on his first trip abroad, a week with us in Portugal. Mom booked it all and I knew absolutely nothing about where we were going other than the name, I didn’t even Google it as we have been to the Algarve before. I thought she had booked a cheap week in the nearest sunny tourist hub, I didn’t realise we were going to what has to be one of the nicest holiday destinations on the Algarve that still feels quite untouched by huge tourism. This was probably helped by the fact that we were there at the very start of the summer season when it was still quiet!

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Alvor Riverfront

Alvor is a fishing village one hour from Faro airport and just down the coast from Lagos. It must be what many of the huge tourist spots were like when sun holidays became popular 40 years ago, but unusual now! Growing up in a hotel on the Dingle Peninsula with a seafood restaurant I absolutely adore fish, and the fresher the better. Alvor reminded Mom of how it was when she worked in the hotel kitchen, with fish being delivered fresh to the restaurants in boxes, and diners choosing which ones they would like from the ice cold display. It did also remind her of the thousands of fish she gutted, and she was very handy to have for filleting our choices.

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Mom’s favourite fish – Sole

The real treat in Alvor is the fact that not only is this seafood fresh but it couldn’t be much fresher; the distance from fishing boat to fork is unbelievably short. At the heart of the village is a pedestrianised area with the river on one side of you and the restaurants on the other. The fishermen bring the fish to the river’s edge where they are gutted and scaled as the seagulls form a relatively orderly queue for scraps. When they’re ready the fisherman walks just a few metres to the restaurants with his catch. The nearest restaurant is Ze Morgadinho, in a 120 year old building four metres from the sea wall. When eating in another restaurant I could see the beds that my clams came from. This place is a seafood lovers’ dream.

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Choosing our dinner, we had the Red Snapper at the back right

We found the most delicious pastries in a local bakery Confeitaria D’Alvor, beautifully soft risen donuts filled with custard or cream were a highlight that we went back for more than once. They were incredibly reasonably priced, as if we needed an excuse to try as many of their baked goods as possible. Lots of locals seemed to go there which is always a good sign. Just look at the beautiful desserts and fluffy donuts:

We tried as many Portuguese Tarts as we could get our hands on. The best ones we tried were from a lady at the local market, of course! The pastry had so many delicate layers yet was sturdy at the same time, with custard of such a perfect baked consistency that she was able to stack the tarts with one face down on top of the other for wrapping up. Perfection. We took to stopping in the playground inside the Castle Ruins to eat them while Alex enjoyed the swings.

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The food is incredibly reasonably priced here, with the freshest of fish costing about half what you would pay here for ones that have been around a lot longer and travelled a lot further. I tried at least three fish I’ve never had before, whereas Mom can name and describe the textures of any of them just by looking at it. It turns out I prefer more meaty options like Stonebass whereas she loves the delicate white fish like Sole. I’m determined that Alex will enjoy food as much as we do, at 12 months old on this holiday he tried monkfish, clams, shrimp, sole, stonebass, swordfish, red snapper, steak tartare, and I fear we created an ice cream monster while there.

Some of the places I recommend visiting are:

Ze Morgadinho

Retaurant Os Marafados

Casa de Rio

Confeitaria D’Alvor

The Village Market – Municipal Mercado

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We ate in many restaurants by the riverfront too and everywhere was lovely really, we had no food we didn’t like!

We also enjoyed a boat trip along the coast which was a beautiful way to spend a few hours bobbing along admiring the view and learning about the history of the area. Next time I want to do a kayak tour to the tiny hidden beaches…and eat some more Portuguese tarts 🙂

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Sunset on our final night

Grace x

Alex’s 1st Birthday Cake(s)

Last week our little boy Alexander turned 1. Fastest year ever, and yet some days felt like the longest ever 🙂 We had his big birthday party on Sunday but he also got a “Kerry Birthday” when we were down a couple of weeks ago. I was helping Mom at a wedding fair (which was a fantastic day with so much interest in her cakes) so we had a cake for Alex in my Grandad’s house, otherwise most of my family would miss out as they can’t be expected to travel to Galway for a little party.

For this celebration Mom made the cake, based on the cake she made for my own first birthday. A chocolate Genoese sponge with chocolate mousse, fresh cream and fittingly retro decor for a 1985 inspired cake! It was absolutely delicious. Fresh cream isn’t suitable inside the sugarpaste covered cakes we make professionally, they need to have a stable structure and not require refrigeration. So when we can have dessert cakes we make the opposite type, and is there anything better than a fresh cream cake?

For Sunday Joe made not just his usual pulled pork recipe but 3 different ones, and 3 barbecue sauces, oh my God, they were all so good. All homemade, along with his spicy coleslaw to accompany them. One pork was done in our relatively new slow cooker and this was definitely my favourite, the juices soaking into the bun making it all very Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. This is the only photo I got, too busy eating it and didn’t dare pause anyone else to photograph theirs!

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Alex likes to play with things that wouldn’t make pretty cakes; wallets, empty yoghurt pots, Credit Union booklets! But he does love our pets, in particular our dog Poppy. She’s 7, a pretty big dog but so gentle and adores him too. He lights up when he sees her, knows how to rub her nicely, laughs hysterically when she does anything, and because of her he loves seeing any dog. Obviously we weren’t going to get a dog for his birthday…so I decided his cake should be his birthday puppy gift 🙂

Inspiration comes from the strangest places. I got a giant candle in Tiger Store in bright green and asked Joe what colour scheme/design I could create that would incorporate it. He was strapping Alex into his lime green Stokke Tripp Trapp highchair as I asked him so he suggested I base it on the chair and its fabric, because I love it so much. Yes, I love a highchair. It’s colourful and lovely, any other Tripp Trapp owners will understand! The fabric has a funky design so I used that as inspiration for the gift box Alex’s puppy friend would be in. I combined this with the cutest puppy face based on different ones I found online and his cake was created:

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Alex’s 1st Birthday Cake

There was stitching detail on some of the plain circles that was lost in the photos, boo. We didn’t do a smash cake, that stuff hurts my soul, cake should be respected! But he did get to pat the puppy on the nose and pull his tongue off, being allowed to touch a cake will be a very rare thing for him.

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Chocolate & Peanut Butter Cake Inside

Along with his birthday cake I made Sticky Toffee Pudding Cake, served with butterscotch sauce and whipped cream. No photo of it served, it was demolished by the time I got to it. But will make it again soon and share the recipe. I also made Lemon Drizzle Traybake as I was super busy and this was easy basically. I had made cookies and fudge earlier in the week when I was making them for a wedding dessert table. These ended up looking like cheese and crackers when plated together, lots of lols when people expecting savoury got sweet when they took a bite!

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“Cheese & Crackers” White Chocolate Fudge & Vanilla Cookies, Lemon Drizzle Traybake, Sticky Toffee Pudding Cake

The birthday boy enjoyed having so many friends and family crammed into our little house. We thought we would have loads of leftovers but our guests did as they were told and came hungry, there was very little left. Just enough for us to have a well deserved second helping of pulled pork followed by tea and cake when all the guests were gone, with our now one year old snoozing happily in my arms.

Grace x

Planning Your Wedding Cake

With all of the Christmas engagements and those already engaged getting the “Omg it’s the New Year and I am getting married THIS/NEXT year!” fear my inbox fills up rapidly in these first few weeks. I spend this month mostly meeting couples for wedding consultations, and this has been my busiest January yet (thank you!).

Many find it daunting to design a wedding cake, others love the prospect but aren’t sure  where to begin. The main info I ask for to start off and give a personalised quote are:

Wedding Date:

Most couples contact me 6-12 months before their wedding, but the amount of notice required depends quite on the time of year you’re getting married. Summer dates (June-September) are obviously most popular so book up quickly, bank holidays even more so, often 12-18 months in advance. Due to the nature of the cakes I create I can only make a limited number each week. I personally deliver and set up your custom cake on your wedding day so can only do two at most for any particular date if they are not very far away from each other, or three in one week is my maximum.

 

Finishing touches to my own cake and a client’s

Many people think that because cakes only take “a few” days to make that they don’t need to give much notice, but it’s not the actual baking and decorating you’re booking early for, it’s to ensure I save time in my schedule to create your cake that week. So I am allocating time for your cake 6-18 months ahead, because the actual 3-4 days in which it can be made will likely be manically long and busy!

P1060108I need to start some decorations a week or two before to allow them to dry sufficiently, or specialist supplies need to be ordered so I have to be organised. The distance for delivery is another part I need to factor into my schedule, which is why your reception venue is another key piece of info.

 

Reception Venue:

Some venues are incredibly easy to get to, they are either local to me or just off the motorway so delivering is straightforward. Other venues are in beautiful but distant locations, like Connemara, isolated castles, or the Aran Islands. And because we’re in Ireland sometimes the roads separating your cake and I from your venue are potholey, twisty and poorly signposted! Driving with a cake is a special kind of nervous hell that only cake makers will understand.

You have to maintain an even speed and need to override the urge to break or swerve sharply when the road or incidents demand it. Wedding cake deliveries are often 3-5 hour round trips by the time I drive carefully there, assemble and photograph the cake, do any finishing touches and drive back resisting the urge to recklessly hit every bump and pothole just because I don’t have cake. This time has to be accounted for months in advance and needs to be considered when I’m designing the cake to make sure the decoration isn’t too fragile for the journey.

It’s also important for me to know the reception venue because if I have previously made cakes for it I can advise on where it is best displayed, how the cake has been cut and served, how much they served (these vary wildly from place to place), and very importantly what type of cake stand they have or if I should provide one. Cakes stands in hotels/venues are a whole other post so I won’t start on that now!

A gorgeous backdrop like the beautiful panelling in Adare Manor can make such a difference to your wedding cake display Adare Manor wedding cake table

Guest Numbers:

A wedding with 250 people will need a vastly different size and style of cake to a 30 guest wedding, so this is very important to help me give you an accurate quote and guide you towards suitable sizes. If you have a very small wedding you will likely want enough for each guest, but if you have a wedding of 80+ I usually recommend having cake for a certain percentage of them, based on those who don’t eat cake, when and how your cake is being served. The usual options are for it to be served on plates to each table with the afters food at 11.30pm-12am or left at a tea & coffee station for guests to help themselves, with leftovers being popular if you’re having a party the day after.

How cakes are cut varies quite a lot. Some venues cut them into perfect neat one by one inch slices which is the ideal, whereas at the other end of the spectrum some venues seem to whack a blindfold on a junior member of staff and let them dig at the cake with a spoon!

My wedding cake was cut into perfect wedding servings by Ballygarry House Hotel

Cake Slices

Design Ideas:

Last but not least, I ask that couples send me any design ideas they like so far. This doesn’t have to be a finished design, it’s purely so that I can get an idea of the style and theme you have in mind. People send me 3-5 wedding cake photos, and images of their bridal and/or bridesmaid dresses, bouquets, invitations, etc. These help me to visualise a mood board of sorts and I can suggest options based on what I think would suit the couple and their wedding style.

IMG_9752You might think I have left the most important part out of all of this…the cake flavours! This is the easiest part to decide on, usually couples are most excited about this so have lots of suggestions and choices from my flavour list before they even consider designs. I provide a selection of samples for you to try and to be honest usually I can see by couples’ faces which flavours they want to go with when their eyes light up tasting particular ones. I do always say though; remember you are choosing for a crowd, not for you to sit and eat the whole thing! Much as you might like to 🙂

Grace x

 

 

 

2016’s First Wedding Fair

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After a year with no wedding fairs I was ready and excited to attend one in the first few days of 2016 in the Shearwater Hotel here in Ballinasloe. A very handy location for me! I can see this hotel from my back garden so thankfully we didn’t have far to travel to it. It’s difficult enough loading a lot of display cakes into a car along with cake samples and stands without having to face into a long drive there and back too. Being the closest cake designer to this venue I’m always delighted to take part in their wedding showcases. My husband Joe was also attending this event with his family business (Michael Ward Menswear) and by coincidence our tables were together in a corner. We made it a serious family affair by having my Mum and baby Alex with us for the day too, his first wedding fair! As if a wedding fair isn’t busy and complicated enough to set up and work at we had the added “fun” of minding Alex at it, might as well start him young anyway.

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Oh how I envy suppliers who can arrive and get started with minimal effort. I gaze jealously at photographers, bands, and others who find their table, open out books or brochures neatly packed away from the last wedding fair, put out business cards and get into the swing of things. For those of us that need to bring fresh cake samples and new display cakes it’s a lot more complicated and we’re tired before we ever begin chatting to prospective brides and grooms. And their mums. Can’t forget the mums 🙂

For a wedding fair our prep starts a few days before when the samples need baking. Mom and I have a team system that we usually use for wedding fairs, when our schedules allow. She *loves* all the baking and technical prep required for beautiful neat samples in a selection of flavours so she does it for me when possible. We bake square cakes of our most popular flavours, they are then filled, covered with sugarpaste icing so that they look and cut like a wedding cake will. The icing is colour coded; yellow for lemon, orange for carrot, pink for raspberry and so on. They are then popped in the freezer until they firm up, which makes it much easier to cut them into perfect neat finger slices.

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Mom’s not so good at the hours of chatting and smiling needed at the fair itself. She is the only person I know who is completely unable to project her voice so I don’t blame her for finding it difficult! I do this bit for her when I can. For those who don’t know me in real life, I am naturally chatty and well able to project my voice…ok yes I’m loud. But these are benefits at a wedding fair! I also describe myself as – excuse my language – a praise whore. I’m like a puppy that needs to be fussed over after doing a trick, nothing makes me feel better and gives me more confidence in my work than being told how much people like what I do. It might sound sad to some, but I’m a people pleaser and doubt myself constantly, I need reassurance.

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As I spend most of my time working alone I don’t have any colleagues to talk to unless you count the baby who yells at me from his high chair or my cat sitting outside the window silently judging me. Wedding fairs are a great opportunity to get all (well, much) of my talking out of my system, and to explain different aspects of the cakes I create to possible clients in a way that I never can over email or social media. I can talk them through flavour options when I see which ones they enjoy the most, and people are always interested to hear they are all home baked with traditional “real” ingredients. Brides and grooms ask me fantastic (and sometimes hilarious) questions about display cakes, make suggestions for new design ideas, and I can provide information about all the possibilities when each part is personally handmade by me. People don’t realise that the decorations are all handmade, they understandably assume that they are from moulds or cutters or are bought products, so it’s great to explain it all in person.

It’s a great feeling to see the samples being demolished, especially when someone insists they will only have one and you see them sneak back over to grab another…and another! I love to see them enjoy them but also I want to see the samples gone because there is nothing worse than going home with lots of leftover cake, that has been lovingly prepared but now have no where to go only the bin (or my belly) due to a low turn out or something. That’s heartbreaking, I hate waste!

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By the end of the day I have such a great buzz from it all, despite being exhausted with sore feet. Wedding fairs are obviously such a happy day to be part of, you can feel the excitement in the room from so many engaged couples and it’s lovely when they choose you to create part of their big day.

I’m hoping to attend a few more this year, which will be looking more towards 2017 cake trends. I’m going to get started on some new cake designs for them, can’t wait!

Grace x

 

 

2015 – My Sweet Year

Like others I’m reflecting on 2015 in these last weeks of it, it’s been a particularly big year! Mainly the gaining a baby thing, but also turning 30, marking five years since I made my first cake. I wanted to look back and share some of my foodie highlights, which generally coincided with special occasions, the best way to celebrate!

At the beginning of the year Joe and I were lucky enough to appear on TV3’s show The Restaurant as diners. We got to meet the lovely Paolo Tulio months before he died. It was a pleasure to be part of it all, and luckily we had good food, phew! State Pathologist Marie Cassidy was our guest chef, I was just glad it wasn’t a rugby player because I would’ve been smiling blankly while everybody applauded, that was genuinely my big fear!

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I enjoyed Afternoon Tea in five fantastic Irish hotels this year. Mom and I indulged at The Shelbourne (my post about it), and a friend had a decadent hen party at Adare Manor. After Mom was her usual amazing self when my son was born I treated her to tea in Ard na Sidhe which was an absolute gem that I must go back to.

I also treated a friend to an Afternoon Tea birthday, and attended the Into The West Blogger Network event in Glenlo Abbey, Afternoon Tea with Retro Flame. It’s so lovely to try each venue’s interpretation of this classic treat that I have enjoyed for years, and it’s always a great way to feel pampered and mark an occasion. Now I just need reasons to try more in 2016 🙂

 

One of the nicest meals I had this year was in Left Bank Bistro. After spending two weeks in hospital when Alex was born (where I ate my Easter Egg in a pool of misery, a low point in my sweet year!) I was so excited to be out and enjoying life. When he was 12 days old I went to Athlone with my Mom and visiting Canadian friend, who had arrived 2 weeks before my due date, ha! We had a lovely day of wandering and enjoying having my shiny new baby admired by other shoppers. It’s a day that I will always remember because the cooped up feeling of the hospital was still very vivid but I felt like a normal person again, the chocolate hazelnut dessert tasted of happiness and freedom 🙂

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Joe, baby Alex and I also had our first family day out when he was 4 weeks old in Galway. We ate in Ard Bia, which was lovely as always. While there Alex got hungry and I was all cocky and “I got this” about feeding him in public. As he started to uncharacteristically fuss and cry I got flustered, I could feel my panic rising and I just wanted to flee. A lovely woman at another table told me not to worry about his little cries, that I was doing great and to stay where I was and enjoy my tea and brownie. Thank you kind stranger!

In recent years early October has been very busy with weddings and visiting Galway Bake Fest (Mom was a judge in 2013). But this year I had more leeway during that time so we finally decided to go to Dingle Food Festival which we had heard so much about. It didn’t disappoint! There was a Food Trail leading you around local businesses and street stalls, offering bite sized deliciousness for €1+. There were 76 possible places to eat and drink, we researched it and painstakingly narrowed it down to 15-20 places we wanted to visit. We had the best day. It was packed and rightly so, we tasted so many gorgeous dishes but my highlights were an Atlantic Crabmeat Tartlet from Danno’s Bar, Monkfish Curry from The Boatyard and an elderflower and raspberry chocolate cup from Crinkle Stores. We made it to most of our choices, some were abandoned because of the queues. The place was heaving by afternoon, everybody should go but definitely get there early.

And lastly we celebrated our two year wedding anniversary in late October, along with Alex’s christening which I posted about recently. We returned to our wedding venue Ballygarry House Hotel (I swear if it was left up to Joe we would be that couple “We’ve been coming here for FIFTY YEARS” *dodders*). We didn’t mention a word about our anniversary when booking but of course they knew, in the way that all of their staff have their secret info handbooks and just know everything about you and everything your heart desires. After our lovely dinner (at the same table as last year, I’m telling you, we will be that couple) the waiter offered his personal congratulations and our desserts had a lovely anniversary message for us.

Introducing Alex to food has been great fun in the last couple of months, we can’t wait to recruit him properly for our foodie adventures. I’d like to point out that I do eat healthily most of the time, my diet doesn’t consist of only cake and sugar as my social media and blog would suggest! I can’t wait to start the New Year and try more new foods and afternoon teas. But for now I am focused on my absolutely favourite day/continuous meal of the year….only 4 more days!

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Happy Christmas!

 

Grace x

 

The Alternative Christmas Pudding

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I’ve been getting lots of enquiries asking if I will be making my usual Christmas gift boxes, cakes and chocolate biscuit igloos, logs and puddings. I’m actually quite busy with occasion cakes right up to the 23rd so I have very limited availability for festive orders unfortunately! Which is a pity because I love all the decorating that goes with them, I’m a Christmasaholic. So seeing as I can’t make them I thought I’d give you a recipe to have a go yourself 🙂

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Chocolate biscuit cake has become incredibly popular lately for all occasions, and is rewriting what we consider traditional for weddings, birthdays, and now Christmas. Chocolate biscuit cake (or CBC for short) Christmas Puddings are a huge trend over the last couple of years here in Ireland, while international variations of Tiffin cake in the UK and refrigerator cake in the US are made for much more casual eating. Us Irish have taken this chocolatey goodness into our hearts and I get asked for it probably more than any other flavours, certainly much more than classic fruit cake. The great thing about the CBC Christmas Pudding is that it looks very similar to the usual one, almost like a cartoon version of it when you add sugarpaste decorations on top. So it can sit just as proudly as a centrepiece on Christmas Day…maybe don’t serve this one with warm custard though!

IMG_20151016_131543The key to a good CBC is good ingredients. You have to be sure to use high quality chocolate for this, which can be bought in any local supermarket here in Ballinasloe, you don’t need to go to specialist cake suppliers to buy suitable quality baking ingredients. Big brand “eating” chocolates aren’t great for use in this, as they don’t do too well with heating and can become chalky. You need your chocolate to contain 50%-65% cocoa solids, chocolate too light (milk chocolate) and your pudding will be more like fudge in consistency, too dark and it will be quite bitter. Even if you think you don’t like dark chocolate trust me, you need the cocoa solids to get this right! Make sure that what you buy is actually chocolate. Sounds silly, I know, but read packaging carefully. Some cooking chocolates are chocolate flavoured coating, not actual chocolate. This is for covering sweets, cake pops or similar, not for using when chocolate is needed.

Chocolate Biscuit Christmas Pudding – Makes 1 x 2pt Pudding

150g Butter (real butter, no spreads!)

125g Golden Syrup

300g Chocolate

200g Rich Tea Biscuits (brand doesn’t matter as long as they have a good snap to them)

200g Digestive Biscuits

Decoration can be created using a small amount of white, red and green sugarpaste icing

Line your 2pt pudding bowl with two layers of cling film, very neatly.

Melt the butter, chocolate and syrup in a bowl over a pan of water on a low heat. Stir occasionally to make sure it is well mixed.

Lightly crush your biscuits. Add any raisins, Maltesers, nuts, or marshmallows (to make Rocky Road) at this stage. You can get creative with what you add depending on your own favourite sweets and flavours.

Pour a tiny bit of your chocolate mix into the bottom of the pudding bowl. Pour most of it over your biscuits and stir well. Transfer this mix to the pudding bowl, and press down or tap it lightly on the counter to remove air bubbles. Pour any leftover mix over it to fill any gaps. As my mum says the consistency should be more like stew than potato salad if you want to achieve a relatively smooth finish on the outside.

Cover with clingfilm and store in the fridge until set.

When set remove from the bowl and clingfilm. Use a large flower shaped cookie cutter – or a small sharp knife if you want to do it freehand – to cut a suitable white shape from the sugarpaste, and place on top of the pudding. Roll 3 small red balls for holly berries and cut two or three green holly leaves, leave to dry on a piece of foam and then place on top when completely firm. You can also just use real holly as a decoration.

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Enjoy!

Grace x