Monday, 28 February 2011

Off-Grid Baking

On Saturday, I spent the morning rowing as normal, but had a whole afternoon to myself as James was off coxing the men in the Norwich Head Race. After having done the laundry and the washing up, I decided to spend the time baking some cupcakes!

For inspiration I went online and searched for recipes from the Hummingbird Bakery in London. My sister Esther and I went there last year when I visited her, and ate delicious Red Velvet cupcakes, so I thought it was a good place to start.

I came across a recipe for Black Bottom cupcakes: rich chococlate sponge with a dollop of chesecake baked in and topped with cream cheese frosting. I couldn't wait to try them out. But then I noticed that the recipe required an electric mixer. Now, we could use one on the boat but that would involve either running the generator or switching the inverter on as our boat runs on 12V power, and these mixers require standard domestic 240V. So I decided to set myself a challenge: to try various delicious sounding recipes like this, and see if it's possible to make them simply using good old elbow grease, and a handheld whisk! Surely our grandmothers managed so we can too! I shall be posting on here about my efforts so here is

Off-Grid Baking V.1

Black Bottom Cupcakes

For the chocolate sponge base

  • 190g plain flour
  • 120g caster sugar
  • 40g cocoa powder, plus extra to decorate
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 40 ml sunflower oil
  • 1½ tsps white vinegar
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract

For the cheesecake filling

  • 140g cream cheese
  • 60g caster sugar
  • 1 egg
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • A pinch of salt
  • 100g milk chocolate chips

For the cream cheese frosting

  • 300g icing sugar, sifted
  • 50g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 125g cream cheese, cold


  1. 1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (325°F) Gas 3. For the chocolate sponge base put the flour, sugar, cocoa powder and bicarbonate of soda in a large bowl and mix with a handheld electric whisk on slow speed until all the dry ingredients are well incorporated.
  2. 2. Put the oil, vinegar, vanilla extract and 125 ml water in a jug and whisk to combine. While the electric whisk is running in the flour bowl, slowly add the contents of the jug, increasing the speed of the blender as the mixture thickens. Continue to beat until all the ingredients are incorporated (scrape any unmixed ingredients from the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula).
  3. 3. Line a 12 hole cupcake tray with paper cases. Spoon the mixture into the paper cases until two-thirds full and set aside.
  4. 4. For the cheesecake filling beat together the cream cheese, sugar, egg, vanilla extract and salt in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment (or use a handheld electric whisk) on medium-slow speed until smooth and fluffy.
  5. 5. Stir in the chocolate chips by hand until evenly dispersed. Don’t overmix, otherwise the cream cheese will start to split.
  6. 6. Scoop about 1 tbsp of the cheesecake filling on top of the cupcake mixture and bake in the preheated oven for about 20 minutes, or until the cupcakes are firm to the touch and they have an even golden colour on the cheesecake filling. Don’t overcook as the cheesecake will become very dry and crumbly.
  7. 7. Leave the cupcakes to cool slightly in the tray before turning out onto a wire cooling rack to cool completely.
  8. 8. For the cream cheese frosting beat the icing sugar and butter together in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment (or use a handheld electric whisk) on medium-slow speed until the mixture comes together and is well mixed. Add the cream cheese in one go and beat until it is completely incorporated. Turn the mixer up to medium-high speed. Continue beating until the frosting is light and fluffy, at least 5 minutes. Do not overbeat, as it can quickly become runny.
  9. 9. When the cupcakes are cold, spoon the cream cheese frosting on top, if using, and decorate with a light sprinkling of cocoa powder.
It all went pretty well at first, although I needed to add a little more oil and water to make the basic chocolate cupcake mixture. I also resorted to using balsamic vinegar since I didn't have anything else and it seems not to have caused any problems. But th cheesecake mix just wouldn't fluff up properly by hand. So I just drizzled it over the top:

After the required time in the oven,  they looked like this:

Not bad at all, although the cheesecake mixture has all run to the edges. While they were cooking I made the frosting which was surprisingly sucessful. Combining the icing sugar and butter was a bit of a faff, but after a lot of mixing I had a yellowish bowl of fluffy buttery icing sugar. Then I mixed in the cream cheese and I didn't manage to get rid of all the lumps but it still tasted good and I was pretty pleased.

When the boys got back from Norwich I took nine of them (the slightly mis-shapen ones, since they wouldn't care!) down to the boathouse as they were rigging the boat and they went down very well. Hopefully I shall be baking again next Saturday!

Sunday, 27 February 2011

My Favourite Finds V.1

I've been thinking recently about writing more about the things I enjoy which aren't boating. Especially at this time of year when its cold and we rarely go cruising.

So, this is a new thing for me, but since I love shopping in charity shops (I work near 7 of the best in Cambridge) I thought I would try a series of posts about my favourite charity shop finds. I'm a girl who enjoys beautiful things but doesn't like giving my money away to huge multi-nationals who are not always very ethically orientated. So I shop in charity shops for pretty much everything except underwear basically! I know its not everyone's thing, so I'm not trying to preach, I just love finding that special dress or beautiful pair of shoes buried amongst everything else. It makes me happy, so I'm going to share it!

V.1 The Accidental cardigan.
Red Cross, Burleigh Street

There's a story behind this one! (I also totally need to learn not to frown at the self-timer!)

I was walking to work the other morning when I spotted this on top of a heap outside the closed Red Cross shop. I fell in love! I couldn't bear to leave it there in case it didn't end up in the shop or someone else nabbed it. So I picked it up, and later that day went into the shop to donate some money into their tin.

I'd been looking for a fairisle jumper for a while, and while this isn't quite it, I like the simple colours and the cute patterns. I wore it with skinny grey jeans, a blue top and a belt in similar colours made from a headscarf.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Marvellous Marmalade

I was so pleased that James took the boat out to our old mooring on Thursday night. Firstly, I just love the cycle ride up there. Here are a couple of photos I took on the way out.

But I tried not to stop too often, as I wanted to be able to add the ride to my training log on Heia Heia. If you've not come across it, this is a great site for those like me who need a bit of friendly competition and support in order to excercise regularly (outside of my normal rowing that is).

When I arrived at our old mooring (aka the Parish) said hi to the landowner who was about, parked my bike and then went over to see Rhoda on widebeam Hullabaloo, whose new cat Oscar I had yet to meet. He's a gorgeous black fluffball!

Finally, I wandered past Pippin, to find that James was already on board having tea with John. Gladly I joined them, and we had a lovely quiet evening chatting and eating a lot of toast cooked on the stove-top. There's something very special about stove-top toast. Unlike toast done in a toaster or under the grill, it dries out all the way through, creating deliciously crispy toast! Yum. As an extra treat, I spead some of Jackie's famous marmalade on it. She made it recently, and apparently it was surprisingly easy so I'm tempted to try my hand at it sometime. It was delicious!

Born to be Mild

Thursday was particularly mild and spring-like, so I decided to take the boat out to the Parish in the late afternoon sun. I wanted to go all the way to Ely, but having had a good deal of paperwork and organisation to complete in the morning, ran out of time.

I set off at about 3pm, in a t-shirt and sunglasses! Having the loudhailer at the back of the boat proved to be useful, as the river was fairly full of rowers practicing for the Lent Bumps, which are coming soon. No really scary moments, just a few gentle reminders of my presence to those who hadn't spotted the boat and were still happily in the middle of the river!

I found Baits Bite lock in my favour- which is always pleasing to see!- and was soon able to come up to a nice cruising speed, sitting on the cabintop enjoying the sun and birdsong.

When I arrived at the moorings they had unfortunately silted up, and it took nearly a quarter of an hour to get the boat moored. I resorted to driving the boat at the bank until it ran aground as close to the bank as I could get it. Lyra hopped out to explore the bank, but decided to head back in.

We spent the evening on Pippin, enjoying John's hospitality, and I plan to head back on Friday afternoon, in order to take apart a rowing boat and put it on a trailer to take it to Norwich, for a race on Saturday.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Spring Has Sprung!

Ahhh, it really feels springlike here today. After a cold day yesterday I felt entirely overdressed in jumper, opaque tights, scarf and coat when I went out for lunch earlier. I saw so many signs of spring as I walked through Cambridge- the trees and flowers are beginning to come back to life.

Look carefully and you can spot a ladybird!

Love the sunlight through these leaves but didn't quite get the focus.

Focus better on this one!

It is a simply glorious day, and I am extremely envious of James being on half term and able to enjoy the sunshine on the river. He just called to say that he will be out at our old mooring when I finish work, as he's gone for a cruise. I'm quite looking forwards to the cycle home in fact. If it's still sunny it will be a lovely cycle along the river.

Fforde Fiesta

Last night's Jasper Fforde talk was brilliant. Such a nice evening, despite a bit of a false start! We met John Pippin in Cambridge and he drove us back to have tea and cheese on toast (an apt pre-Fforde meal) on Pippin before heading to Ely for the talk. Let's look up the location (St Peter's Church) on Google maps, we thought, before we left. So we did, and found that Google maps doesn't list a 'St Peter's Church in Ely at all. Hmm, we thought, that's rather annoying! We decided to head for the location given in the postcode and hope for the best. If we couldn't find it we'd head to the pub instead!

Thankfully, we passed the church, on our way to the location given by the postcode and arrived just on time. Jasper Fforde was great, regaling us with stories of how he came to be a writer, and about the books themselves. Basically, his main strategy is that he sets him self literary dares that he then tries to write himself out of. The Eyre Affair came out of  a dare to write a world in which it was possible for Jane Eyre to be kidnapped and then rescued by a daring heroine. He is a great speaker, and the best bit was when he mentioned the photos I'd emailed him of the toast on the tree. He said that the Toast Marketing board was one of the most common topics of his fan's emails!

If you've not read Jasper Fforde's work, then I highly recommend that you get The Eyre Affair out of a library (or borrow it from us!). The Thursday Next series is my favourite, and this is the first title. His writing is so funny and surreal, and plays on our shared knowledge of literature. It has lots of references to other books, but also some counterfactual history and fantasy describing a version of our own world where croquet is the national sport, the Crimean war is still going, Wales is a socialist republic and cheese is illegal.

After the talk we met up with Jackie, and had fish and chips on the waterfront, followed by drinks in the Cutter, which was lovely. Alas the weather was too grim yesterday for James to be able to bring the boat to Ely, so Jackie kindly drove us back to Cambridge.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

My weakness!

The light green pear ones (my favourite) are all but gone!
Someone at work brought Jelly Belly jellybeans back from a trip to the US. They are sat on the end of my desk and have been tempting me all day! I know they are dreadfully unhealthy, but I just love the colours and they way they taste so realistic. They also remind me of a lovely day when my little sister came to visit me when I lived in London and we bought loads of Jelly Belly beans from Harrods food department and sat eating them and guessing the flavours all evening, while watching films in my room. Good memories!

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Jasper Fforde comes to Ely

One of our favourite authors, Jasper Fforde is coming to speak in Ely tomorrow night, courtesy of the wonderful independent bookshop, Toppings Books, to speak about his latest Thursday Next book One of our Thursdays is Missing.

James is on half term, so he'll probably cruise into Ely during the day and we'll stay overnight on the visitor moorings there, and I'll go into work from Ely in the morning. I love staying overnight in Ely, its one of my favourite moorings so its nice to have an excuse to go there.

Moored in Ely last summer

Monday, 21 February 2011

Our Weekend

My post about Maplin's service seems to have created a bit of a stir. I've yet to hear anything from their head office but I'll keep you posted about their response.

We had a mixed weekend. On Saturday we cancelled our rowing outings be make time to head to Denver in Norkolk to attend the funeral of Andy, a friend and former Chesterton rower. He was in the blades winning eight in 2008, and James coxed him in the 2009 M1. He was a fantastic rower, and all round great bloke. He tragically died in a hang gliding accident in Australia in January. It was a moving service, followed by the wake at a local pub. Testament to his popularity was the fact that both were packed.
Will has put up some photos here:

Sunday was the second leg of the Winter League, a series of three races, with times accumulated. My Chesterton boat was leading the Women's Novice Eights category, and we maintained that lead in Sunday's race.

By the evening, both James and I were pretty tired out, so we had a quiet evening in. I played with the settings on my new HTC Desire HD, taking photos of the Lyra.

Friday, 18 February 2011

The Saga of the 12V laptop charger, and why no-one should shop at Maplin!

In my previous post I mentioned that I'd bought a laptop charger for my Sony Vaio. What I didn't mention, as I'd not had a chance to test it was that it didn't work. It outputted a fluctuating voltage, and so the screen flickered and the laptop made worrying clicking noises. It did charge the laptop when it was off, but was pretty useless, so I contacted Smart Parts, and asked for a refund. They agreed.

On the recommendation of someone who commented on my problem, I decided to buy a charger from Maplin (Cambridge Beehive Centre)to replace the 12 V charger from Smart Parts which didn't work. When I went into the shop, armed with the output voltage I needed and the size of the pin to plug into the laptop, I stood in front of their display of 12V laptop chargers for a while, checking the details of each. No-one approached me to ask if I needed any help, despite the shop being quiet. So I picked up the one I thought would work, based on the info I had. At the counter, I expressed concern that I had bought a similar charger previously which hadn't worked. No advice was offered, I was simply told that if it was faulty, I could bring it back.

I took it home, and set it to the right output voltage, but it didn't work. Wiggling the connector seemed to get it to charge when held in by hand - the charging symbol came one, but it was pretty useless. Assuming that this was because it was faulty, I took it back with the receipt. They tested it, and then the bombshell: Rudely, they said. This isn't faulty, there's nothing we can do. I asked if the assistant would speak to his manager to double check. He reluctantly agreed, and came back, almost smirking, saying 'He's not prepared to offer you a refund, he'd not even prepared to offer an exchange. You bought a 78W charger for a 120W laptop!' I felt like he was implying that I'd been an idiot. Nowhere on my laptop or charger does it say what wattage it requires. How was I to know? I am not a computer expert! Despite the fact that I expressed concern that I wasn't sure if this one would work when I bought it, they didn't ask if I had checked the wattage of the charger. So they decided it was my fault. I am frankly appalled by the poor customer service I received from Maplin - they were rude and unhelpful, and I will be making sure that they see this. I will certainly never give them my custom again.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Conservators See Sense!

The meeting at the Guildhall this morning went well. In light of the responses to the consultation carried out last month, the Conservators have decided to opt for 'none of the above' and to review the decision next January. They agreed that the financial situation although serious was not urgent, and resolved to find new ways to increase revenue. They invite suggestions on this front.

In the interim, they plan to carry out a wider consultation of all licence payers (motor boats and unpowered boats) with the document going out to river users in September hopefully.

Camboaters welcomed the proposal and offered to help carry out the survey as much as possible.

At the meeting, the Conservators also voted to try and remove Mr. ASBO and family from the river as a one-off case for his own safety.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

War Horse

For Christmas I bought James tickets to see the play War Horse (based on the book by Michael Morpurgo) at the New London Theatre. The date I chose in the end was last night, not because it was Valentine’s Day (although it was a lovely evening) but because it was pretty much the closest date that I could find, and Mondays are generally free of rowing!

So, last night we hopped on the train and had a lovely meal at an Italian place on Leicester Square before wandering down towards the theatre. We had a bit of time spare so popped into Stamford’s travel bookshop on Long Acre. We found that on the basement floor there was a huge map of London, so of course we set about locating all our favourite waterways!

There's the finish of the Boat Race!
 When we found our seats at the theatre we were surprised and delighted to find that we were metres from the stage, and the usher told us to be careful as there would be actors using the walkway in front of our seats! I hadn’t gone for the cheapest seats, but these were only the next price band up. I hadn’t expected to be so close to the action. At one point, the horses were so close to us, and so realistic that I almost thought we would be trampled!

The story is a powerful one, of a young Devon farm boy’s search for his beloved horse in the horror of the first world war, and it is beautifully told. I cried most of the way through it.

Going with James, who is a techie and theatre fan meant that we talked a lot about the set, the lighting and the production, making it even more interesting for me, who could probably count the number of plays I’ve seen on my fingers! The theatre itself is quite modern, with a ‘thrust’ stage projecting out into the audience and no curtain. We were amazed by the production, particularly the incredible life-sized horse puppets, each operated by three people and  made of translucent fabric stretched over wooden frames which somehow create living, breathing, emotive creatures, with twitching ears and flicking tails. The set is quite stylised, mainly created by projecting sketched images onto a screen, and the revolving stage is skilfully used. We also enjoyed the music, which is mainly live, with singing, a violin, harmonica and an accordion, and the comic relief of a puppet goose character!

Saturday, 12 February 2011


The tree works on the Common have continued apace, and the latest development is the removal of the stump which was one of the trees used to highlight the plight of the trees.

This is what it looks like now:

Friday, 11 February 2011

Narrowboat cruises up St. Edmund's Passage

James was sitting in the wonderful Indigo cafe, on St Edmund's Passage in Cambridge the other day, when a strange sight passed by:

It was apparently a prop narrowboat, which even seems to be telescopic! St Edmund's Passage leads to Cambridge Arts Theatre, which is showing the play Corrie! based on the TV series Coronation St. Episodes of the show have featured a narrowboat called Utopia belonging to the character Ken, so this would make sense.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Saturday night at the Movies

We don’t watch a lot of TV or films on the Duck because we are so often busy in the evenings with rowing, but it is nice to have the option. A couple of recent developments have coincided to make watching films at home much easier. The first one has taken a ridiculously long time to happen, mainly because it simply didn’t occur to us. For the past two and a half years, we were only able to use a laptop at home if either the generator was running of the power hungry inverter was switched on. 

Only last week, it occurred to me that my laptop is a really standard type (old Sony Vaio) and that someone might have thought it worthwhile to produce a 12V ‘car’ charger for it. Five minutes later and I found such a device on Amazon for £15. It arrived today so I’m looking forward to trying it out.

The other development is the installation of a self-service DVD kiosk in a cafĂ© down the road from where I work. For £1.99, you can hire a DVD for the night, and you don’t have to join a club or anything. You just plug in your credit card, choose a DVD and it pops out! It’s even possible to hire it for 99p for 6 hours, if you’re organised enough. Definitely worth trying out when we have a free evening.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Not a patch on...

Actually this is a patch. On the patchwork quilt which James' school is making as a big project. Each student and teacher has made a patch which represents something about them. James chose to sew some traditional narrowboat roses. I'm quite impressed, I have to say!

I will try to get him to photograph the finished product when it's all sewn together!

Monday, 7 February 2011


Dragonfly was safely moored up when we got back on Friday evening, and we had a thank-you message from the owners. But the high winds continued over the weekend. Both of my outings were cancelled, although I did get a chance to row in the mens boat on Sunday, through the choppy waves and wind, which was fun, but tiring!

On Saturday afternoon there was a college race being held, so James and I decided to walk out to watch it along the Reach, and made an afternoon of it, stopping in the Plough pub at Fen Ditton. Despite having visited this pub several times, I'd never walked there, only arrived by boat!

Sitting on the river bank (James wearing the lovely Craghopper shoes I found for him in a charity shop for £6.50!)

Waves on the Reach

Wonderful house in Fen Ditton

On the way back into town, we were walking along the footpath, approaching the railway bridge, when we heard a mighty snap and crash as a large tree fell across the path in front of us, missing us by about 5 metres. It was pretty scary but all over in a matter of seconds. It seems that the tree was rotten, and simply snapped at the bottom of the trunk. It doesn't bear thinking about what could have happened had we been walking a little faster, or stopped in the pub slightly longer...

Friday, 4 February 2011

Windy Night

Like elsewhere in the country, it has been very windy here in Cambridge. It is still gusting up to 50mph. Last night James got up to secure the boat against the rocking of the wind (on the Common we are in a side wind) and make sure the roof furniture was safe. The noise meant that we didn't sleep well, but otherwise we felt pretty safe. We use a very long ground anchor hammered in behind the concrete edge of the bank at the bow, and two interlocked shorter pins behind the concrete at the stern.

Our neighbours on NB Dragonfly were not so lucky. Seeing the gap where their boat should have been this morning, I was a bit worried. I looked up and saw that Dragonfly was over the other side of the river, pushed against the bank by the wind, and thankfully not going anywhere. In the ground on this side, I could see where the mooring pins had been ripped out of the bank. I rushed over to the other bank, to see if I could help, but there was no-one in. So I got their mid-rope and tied it up to the bank (to a convenient stump) so that the boat wouldn't go anywhere else. Unfortunately, although James has the number of the owners, I don't, so I wasn't able to get in touch. Fingers crossed it just stays put until they get home!

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

New Shoes

I bought some new shoes at the weekend. This style seems to be pretty fashionable right now, but that is not why I bought them, I hasten to add! I just love the old-fashioned look and how sturdy and comfy they are. They were also reduced from £60 to £30 which helps. I very rarely buy clothes and shoes unless they are from a charity shop, but I had been trawling the Cambridge charity shops for weeks looking for some lace-up boots to no avail.

Complete with floral dress and cardi, I wouldn't look out of place at the elum of a 1960s butty!