Posts Tagged ‘party’

Party ideas for teenagers

April 21, 2014

As a seasoned children’s party giver (mug?) I’ve worked through a wide range of themes, games and food and lulled myself into a false sense of security about how to create a successful kids party.

Until this year, that is, when Elsa turned 13 and still wanted a party, much to my surprise. All my failsafe games and ideas suddenly seemed totally inappropriate – classic party themes are way too much for a bunch of 13 year olds, everything that was fun last year is uncool this and they’re certainly not going to sit down and play pass the parcel.

So how on earth do you keep a bunch of teenagers who are already obsessed with social media and screens of all varieties, amused and engaged at a party? Quite easily it turns out, thanks to a random (and totally accidental) genius purchase in Selfridges January sale.

As I stood by the door watching this group of teenagers looking awkward and totally unready to party, I panicked. What on earth could I do to get them moving? We should’ve sent them home straight after laser tagging. But as I looked at them pouring over their phones (probably WhatsApping each other!) I had a Eureka moment, ran upstairs and retrieved (from the random-emergency-this’ll-make-a-great-present-for-someone-one-day bag) two packs of photo booth props.

photo props on a plate

I ripped the packets open, scattered the contents and within minutes all that teenage awkwardness had evaporated.

teenagers party photo prop pic

What better way to manage all those small glowing phone screens than to incorporate them into the fun. I can’t claim that it was a carefully planned idea but it’s amazing what you can come up with under pressure! Thank goodness I’d had the foresight to spend 50p (25p each) on these two little packets of joy and then remember that I had them!

teenagers party photo prop pic

The particular props I bought; ‘Groovy photo props’ and ‘English Gent photo props’ are, at the time of writing still available here but there are also loads of alternatives widely available, not for 25p of course, but still worth every penny of the £3 or £4 they usually cost.

An even better and more personal idea than these small packets would be to make your own photo booth props using magazine pictures glued onto cardboard and taped to skewers or other little sticks. This way your party guests could become famous actors, film characters, pop stars or (heaven help us) TV celebrities.

teenagers party photo prop pic

So with all this larking about our teenagers became kids again and from that moment the party went with a bang. They were up for playing games (more on those later) and blowing out candles – they even sang Happy Birthday with gusto and I stood back and watched Elsa have a fantastic birthday.

blowing out candles

Of course none of this would’ve happened were it not for the fact that Elsa has a great set of friends who were ready to let their hair down, have a good time and help make Elsa’s day totally special. Lucky girl.

teenagers party photo prop pic

A giant Tunnock’s teacake for a momentous birthday

March 11, 2014

We’ve had another big birthday in our house. That’s two in less than a month. Woo! I’m not sure how we’ve coped with all the excitement to be honest. We’re not used to it.

birthday girl grinning

Elsa’s transition into her teens felt momentous and exciting and scary and right. And although she’s 13 and I thought she might be beyond our usual home-styley party, she insisted on having one. So I had an unexpected bonus year of youthful party planning.

Of course one of the most important elements of any birthday celebration is the cake – it’s the bit of children’s parties we carry on right into adulthood. But ironically, given my prediliction for producing absurd cakes over the years; Elsa, it emerges doesn’t really like cake. On second thoughts, perhaps it’s not ironic at all.

So after her declaration as a teenage non-cake lover, we had to think of something else special to stick candles in, sing around and share with friends.

I began to think about biscuits, which she does like and was heading in the direction of a stack of giant cookies. And then I remembered Elsa’s favourite teatime biscuity treat, which really IS a treat. Drum roll please…

The Tunnock's teacake

The Tunnock’s Teacake

Oh what a wonderful confection, starting with the box – perfect in all its yellow and red retro glory and right through to the six foil-wrapped beauties inside.

Plated up, Tunnock’s teacakes look fabulous. I’d like to think that the Queen offers them on silver platters as an eminently superior alternative to Ferrero Rocher. Perhaps I’ll petition the government to make sure there are supplies in every British Embassy. I’m sure tricky negotiations would be eased considerably with Tunnocks teacakes to hand.

Tunnock's teacakes on plates

On the tea table a plate each of blue (dark chocolate) and red (milk chocolate) Tunnockses (that’s the official term) look wonderfully festive and quaint in a his and her’s, ‘boys and girls come out to play’ kind of way.

The red ones are far more widely available but the blue ones do actually have a certain something. Having bought a packet of them for this very blog post, we all tested them and I’m pretty sure they’ll be in my shopping basket again. I got them in Waitrose. The red ones are available widely, including in Poundland, thank you very much.

Opening a Tunnock’s teacake is sheer delight. Even the foil wrapper merits a few minutes of attention, but only AFTER the main event which of course is the teacake itself.

Teacake collage

Maybe she loves them a bit TOO much!

I’m not sure I should say too much about the beauty of that perfect chocolate dome, the joy of cracking through it with your teeth and the taste of the perfectly white fluffy mallow within. I won’t do it justice with mere words. All I can say is, if you haven’t tried a teacake yet, now’s the time. Email me your address and I’ll put one in the post. I can’t guarantee its safe arrival, but I’ll try.

Incidentally there are pretenders – supermarket own brands and the like, but I did a taste test once of three other varieties against Tunnock’s. Guess who won. By a long chalk.

So anyway, back to Elsa’s birthday non-cake. After much deliberation and a middle of the night Eureka moment the answer became clear: a GIANT Tunnock’s teacake. Oh the excitement.

It occured to me that the giant Tunnock’s teacake might have already been attempted, so I headed straight for ‘Pimp that Snack‘. I was right; 3 people have tried, with mixed results in my view, but well done them for trying and a round of applause to Michelle Kershaw and Nick Dodds for their creation.

While Pimp that Snack was a good starting place for some top tips, I went elsewhere for recipes and techniques. The whole process is perhaps not as hard as you think, but you do need to take some care and time, and it’s not one to cut corners on. Remember it’s perfection you’re trying to recreate.

close up tunnocks teacake

Somehow I think most of you won’t be falling over yourselves or each other to make a giant Tunnock’s teacake but you should if you’re feeling adventurous and you want to make an impression. If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that I think it’s really important to make birthdays memorable. What better way than a giant version of your loved one’s favourite biscuit.

So I’d like to think that sometime, somewhere the 5th brave giant teacake adventurer will benefit from my experience. Whoever you turn out to be, I salute you. Please do say hello, whenever that great day comes.

boxes of tunnocks teacakes

And now here’s my more or less blow by blow account, because I did a lot of research and I wouldn’t want you to have to do the same.

To get us started; when making a giant Tunnock’s teacake there are four key elements to consider:

  • The chocolate dome
  • The mallow filling
  • The biscuit base
  • The distinctive red and silver wrapper

The super smooth chocolate dome is really the key to it all. Its super smooth, perfectly rounded finish is crucial to an authentic end result. Once you’ve got the dome right the rest will follow, sort of. Hopefully.

unwrapped teacake

The naked teacake

Dome first. I inherited my grandma’s round-bottomed copper bowl which she used to whip up egg whites into a frenzy for meringues. It’s about 8″/20cm across. Perfect. If you don’t happen to have a copper bowl in your cupboard (you don’t?) then a large hemisphere cake tin like this one would be just right.

I used this teacake recipe by Paul Hollywood and doubled the quantities for each giant teacake. (I actually made 2 domes and biscuit bases but more on that later). The recipe recommends dark chocolate but I went for a mix of milk and dark. About 2/3rds and 1/3rd respectively. And supermarket own brand rather than the usual high quality stuff I use. More authentic for this project methinks.

In the name of authenticity I decided to temper the chocolate as I wanted that glorious teacake shine. Without getting too technical (I’ll leave that to the experts) tempering chocolate is a process of developing all important beta crystals. These splendid fellows prevent the characteristic white bloom of untempered chocolate that you may have seen if you’ve stored chocolate in the fridge. Tempering involves heating, cooling and reheating melted chocolate to specific temperatures, reasonably quickly. There are several methods out there, but I recommend David Lebovitz’ guide to tempering chocolate.

Word of warning: you need an accurate thermometer for this. I hoped my jam thermometer would work but it doesn’t go to a low enough temperature. Fortunately our digital cooking thermometer did the job. Just make sure you have one before you start.

peeling chocolate off teacake

Obviously the critical part of this whole chocolate dome thing are the acts of moulding and unmoulding the dome. Scary concepts unless you’re a chocolatier with your own lab in Switzerland. So I did considerable research into making sure the chocolate would form the perfect shape AND come out of the bowl. I wiped around the bowl with a smear of flavourless oil and froze it as well. Allegedly one or other of these measures should’ve been sufficient but I wasn’t taking any chances.

To make the chocolate dome spoon a decent amount of melted ( and tempered?) chocolate into your bowl/mould and swirl it around and up the sides of the bowl. Use the back of your spoon to help the distribution process. Keep tilting and tipping and adding more chocolate until the whole bowl is covered with a reasonably thin and reasonably even layer of chocolate. Return the bowl to the freezer for about 20 minutes. Remove and repeat. I opted for a fairly thick and therefore stable (I figured) chocolate dome, coward that I am. Finally, after another short spell in the freezer check that the chocolate is firm and face the scary prospect of removing the dome from its home.

I’ve mentioned that I made two domes – this gives me the opportunity to tell you that the process of removing the chocolate shell can be either really easy or really not easy. The first shell I made slipped out with barely a word of encouragement. I just slid a knife around the top edge to loosen it, inverted it and the little beaut slid out with no trouble.

Eating a Tunncok's teacake

The second was a nightmare. It refused to budge despite the knife trick, hot tea towels laid on the bowl and a few sharp encouraging taps on its bottom. Leaving the bowl to come to room temperature didn’t help either. In the end we took a palette knife to it, pushed right down between the bowl and the chocolate. This on the basis that there must be a sticking point somewhere. I had visions of the dome’s smooth shiny surface being completely ruined but decided it would be hidden under foil so WHO CARES! Me actually, but we were desperate by then.

Anyway the dome did loosen and slid out. And miracle of miracles it was as smooth as. Not a blemish from the palette knife anywhere. The moral? Get tough if you have to. Tell it who’s boss. And if it tells you who’s boss by breaking. Well then you’ll just have to start again. Remember I made two in one evening and I didn’t find that too arduous. In fact we made the whole kit and caboodle in an afternoon and evening.

The biscuit base is straightforward – just find a circle template the right size to fit just inside your hemisphere. I used an 8″ removable cake tin base. Roll the mixture quite thick – about 1cm and bake longer than the recipe says for a beastie of this size. I confess I can’t remember how long ours took, I just kept checking and putting it back for another 5 mins. Once cooled cover all over with melted chocolate – I had enough left from the dome for this. No need for perfection here. As you can see.

smearing chocolate on biscuit base

THIS is the part Alice volunteered to help with…

Next the all important mallow. It’s basically a meringue mixture with some added syrup. The recipe uses golden syrup but I might be tempted to try glucose syrup next time for extra whiteness.

I always seem to have a problem with egg whites – there always seems to be some egg white that remains liquid in the bottom of the bowl. There’s plenty of advice online about meringue weeping once it’s on the pie, but what about when it’s still in the bowl?!

close up bowl of mallow

Anyhoo, the mallow worked out fine – it tasted and looked perfectly great – but there was some weepiness when we cut into the teacake.

Thanks to this very useful ‘Decoding Delicious’ blog post about foaming egg whites there are two things I’ll do differently next time. First I’ll start beating the egg whites at a sloooow speed and secondly I’ll refrigerate the completed mallow/meringue; warmth causes them to deconstruct.

Once we dolloped the mallow into the chocolate shell we carried out the slightly scary operation of adding the chocolate biscuit base and turning the whole thing over, before sealing the edge with more melted chocolate – rapidly piped and smeared on with a teaspoon. This join is not perfection on the real thing, so smearing is fine! You can’t really do this part without a second pair of willing and able hands.

drawing teacake wrapper

Aside from moral support and extra helpful hands, Danny’s most important and much admired contribution was the fantastic wrapper artwork. He copied the signature design (with personalised messages for Elsa) onto tin foil. Don’t use non-stick foil and do use a permanent marker like a Sharpie.

Lesser mortals like myself would need to draw circles and straight lines to ensure a reasonable result, but being a proper artist Danny drew this freehand. Brilliant! So brilliant we’re going to frame it. I love it.

giant Tunnock's teacake wrapper

And that’s it. We’re there. The giant teacake is ready to serve to our newly teenage daughter and her birthday friends. Ta da!

Giant Tunnock's Teacake

Actually I mentioned that I made two giant teacakes. We presented the second one unwrapped and with a small hammer. It was filled with sweets not mallow. A chocolate piñata if you will. Whoop! Alongside we stuck the requisite 13 candles into some proper teacakes for Elsa to blow out and then she hammered and cut her way into her two giant Tunnock’s teacakes.

pinata teacake

The birthday girl couldn’t quite believe her eyes and a special place for Tunnock’s teacakes has been utterly guaranteed for many, many more birthdays in our household. Now who do I write to at the British Embassy? Wait, I know just the man…

teacake and candles

Happy birthday sweetheart x

 

Oh and by the way, this is not a sponsored post!

50

February 8, 2014

So it’s here. The number 50 birthday bus pulled up outside my house and I jumped on board. I’m sitting upstairs at the front, peering down at the drivers head and so far it’s a perfectly nice ride with comfy seats and plenty to look at.

old image of number 50 bus

Ting, ting, fares please!

As is often the case, waiting for the bus to arrive was painful. It took forever and I got cold and wet, because while actually being 50 doesn’t really bother me, this impeding birthday did provide me with an opportunity to examine all aspects of my own life with a powerful electron magnifying glass.

A friend actually gave me a magnifying glass as a birthday present, but I don’t think I need it. As usual I scrutinised myself and I didn’t much like what I saw. Sigh.

And then when I’d got my knickers in a proper twist about my teeny life and universe I tried to work out how to celebrate my birthday. Party? Dance? Dinner? Day out? Night in? Night away? Grown ups only? All inclusive? Shouldn’t care. Doesn’t matter. Yes it does. Aaaggghhh…

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz WW Denlow illustration

“I’m melting, I’m melting”. W.W. Denlow from ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’.

Eventually I chose my mode of celebration: tea and cake with friends. Phew. And then with perfect timing, my very own knight in shining armour rode in and whisked me off to Naples for a surprise weekend. Oh the excitement!

Naples as I can now report, is a fabulous city that lives and breathes its own history. It stands in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius which could blow at any time. In fact an eruption is overdue, so this great natural time bomb is a powerful presence. And while the streets are coated in a layer of grime, noise and graffiti – all of which I quite like, there is history everywhere; beneath the pavements, behind the walls and in the daily life of the city.

Naples collage

In a dim and dark back alley, we saw a family chapel filled with the most beautiful and extravagant renaissance art, as well as two human bodies stripped of everything but their circulatory systems – a mass of veins and arteries. And inside an anonymous apartment a bed pushed into the wall revealed steps to a roman theatre, recently unearthed in the family’s cellar. Excavations now continue underneath 89 occupied apartments.

Naples collage

We were taken on a candlelit tour through the tunnels and caverns of the old Roman aquaduct that was later used in the last war as a bomb shelter and by nuns to store wine. I also understand it was a place of horrendous torture. That wasn’t on the tour. We came across a shrine to football’s Maradona in a coffee shop and visited an exhibition of tiny nativity scenes that we could only see with a magnifying glass and torch. The smallest was set into a seed and the head of each tiny figure was made with a single grain from a pear’s flesh.

collage naples

And so in Naples I was reminded that there are wonderful things to see everywhere; just look carefully and shine light into dark corners to see unexpected treasures. I think perhaps the magnifying glass I was given will turn out to be a splendid present after all. Note to self: remember to appreciate what I see.

Back home and revitalised, our initial idea to have a few friends over for tea grew like topsy (who’s topsy?) into a vintage afternoon tea for…errr…sixty five people. And we invited guests to bake a ‘Showstopper’ cake as on The Great British Bake Off TV show.

A good party (when you’re under 10 or over 40) starts with an invite to set the scene and inspire. I put mine together on Powerpoint, using lots of fonts that are all listed at the bottom of the post.

bake off birthday invite

On the invite I made it clear that people didn’t have to bake and I’m so glad I did. Not everyone is a born baker or has time. I don’t want people to feel guilty, I just want them to be there. We would’ve had way too much cake anyway and that would just be obscene.

So we ended up with a ratio of one cake to about 6 guests. Maybe this could be supervised (i.e. check who is and isn’t going to bake), but I did a quick guestimate and thankfully it worked out perfectly.

felt bunting

The final week was a blur of organisation and preparation. I kept decs simple; paper balls and fans in the kitchen and homemade triangular felt bunting in the (newly painted) dining room. The vintage china came out, Carole brought her supplies too and so the tea table was ready to receive cake! Lots of cake.

vintage teacups & pot

The fun really started when Fergus and Erin and our girls donned their pinnies and chefs hats and got baking. We set up workstations on trestle tables and they had an adult each to help. We managed oven space amd time carefully, covered the kitchen in flour, had a LOT of fun and ended up with some great cakes.

bake off collage
I can wholeheartedly recommend the bake off idea, whether or not you have children to hand. Guests bringing cake to the table is lovely and it can work for many ages and occasions. Of course it also reduces the cooking workload, but don’t be under any illusion that the party becomes easy. There’s still plenty to do and buy and organise, but it’s all so worth it.

Come the day, the first knock at the door; guests arrive with cake and smiles and tea is served!

tea table

ta da!

There were savoury treats as well as sweet. Carole and Ross rolled up their sleeves and made a shop’s worth of cucumber, ham and cheese sandwiches and stuffed 100 mini bagels from the Rinkoff Bakery with salmon and cream cheese (maybe a little too much Ross) and there were homemade sausage rolls. We served fizz, tea and fruit punch in vintage teacups and lemonade in bottles with straws for the kids.

Oh and the flowers. Marie filled vintage cups with beautiful posies of flowers and dotted them about the place. Everywhere. Beautiful. She’s a professional florist and it shows of course, but you could achieve a similar if simpler effect with little tied bunches of spring flowers.

Vintage flowers collage

I love that the whole party was a group effort and it suited me perfectly that the cakes were the centre of attention, not me. It is slightly (very?) ironic that while I love creating parties I’d rather not be at them! On the day I just want to hide and let everyone else enjoy themselves.

bake off cakes collage

Erin’s white chocolate and raspberry tarts, Fergus’s disco brownies, Alice’s mehndi lime cake and Elsa’s birthday cake biscuits

The true stars were the cakes and their bakers. We even had cakes from two friends who’ve never baked before – yay!

We planned to do some judging but I couldn’t bring myself to choose one over another. They were all winners to me. Judge for yourself.

cakes collage

So cake and friends turned out to be the perfect birthday for me and now here I am sitting on that number 50 bus. I’ve paid my fare and I don’t mind being onboard one little bit. I have opportunities to explore, grow and change right into middle and old age (hopefully!), so the journey promises to be an interesting one. For these days, while our children grow up faster we have the chance to stay young for longer. Three cheers to that!

Oh and three little cheers to Tumblr for easing the path into 50-ness. I’ve just signed up for a Tumblr account and had to write my age to register. Declaring it openly was definitely a test of my cheerfulness at turning 50. This is Tumblr’s response…

Tumblr registration page

Thanks Tumblr. Bring it on!

50 cushion

Credits:

  • Number 50 bus photo by JGS Smith
  • Various birthday pics: Ross Sleight & Miklos Kiss
  • Invite fonts: Cursif, Postino Std, Carnivalee Freakshow, American Typewriter, Ecuyer DAX, Copperplate, Bernard MT Condensed, JFRingmaster, Baskerville
  • Luverly ’50’ cushion by ‘Of Little Consequence’
  • Danny, Carole & Ross – amazing, thank you xxx

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