Alvin Stardust’s secret passion

How we miss Alvin Stardust, known to many as Shane Fenton and to his mum as Bernie. He left us far too soon.

The immortal Alvin Stardust
The immortal Alvin Stardust

But the best kept secret of all about this wonderful entertainer and heartthrob is the passion he had for jam tarts. But not just any old jam tarts – oh no. Mr Kipling raspberry or strawberry jam tarts were no good to this pop icon. It was while touring Portugal that he first met the love of his life, quince jam, which teamed with the lightest shortest pastry ever to make quince jam tarts which Alvin just could not get enough of. That was of course the inspiration for his perennial hit My Coocachoo.

Quince jam tart, the spiritual leader of cakes
Quince jam tart, the spiritual leader of cakes

This little story reminds me of seeing the late great Michael Caine on Parkinson’s TV show many years ago. Caine, Known to his mum as Mo, but more famous to us that the great Shakespearean actor who announced the immortal lines “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” in his blockbuster film Charge of the Light Brigade, Michael impressed Parky with the etymology of the word Marmalade. Marmalade was what Marie Antoinette liked when she was ill, he said, and since the French for ill is “malade”, then Marie est malade was shortened to marmalade. What a wonderful story.

Total nonsense of course, which either of them would have known if they’d bothered to look it up in the OED. Marmalade is derived from the Portuguese word for quince – marmelo – from which it was originally made. Where the silly story about Marie Antoinette came from is anybody’s guess.

So next time you spread your toast with marmalade, remember Alvin and his beloved jam tarts. Though I must admit that quince jam is a bit of an acquired taste and not one of my favourites.
And while you think about what your own favourite cake is, have a look at Alvin singing about his quince jam tarts:

Jimmy Ruffin’s favourite cake

It is with great sadness that we mark the death of soul legend Jimmy Ruffin at the young age of 78.

The Immortal Jimmy Ruffin
The Immortal Jimmy Ruffin

Jimmy, along with his brother David who fronted the Four Tops before his untimely death due to drug overuse, was one of the true Motown greats and a frequent visitor to these shores.

It was while headlining at the Wigan Casino  that Jimmy was introduced by a fan, Gloria Mundy, to what was to become his favourite cake. The glorious Eccles cake, a northern speciality made with rough puff pastry and oodles of dried fruit flavoured with demerara sugar, became such a firm favourite that Jimmy  continued to  have a dozen handmade every single week by his favourite baker in the back streets of Warrington and flown by chartered jet to the US, for the rest of his life. Apart from when he was away on holiday or on tour. Or in hospital which he unfortunately was from time to time. His substitute while in hospital was blueberry muffins, but he once admitted to me that blueberry muffins just don’t cut the mustard when it comes to cakes and he’d long to get himself discharged just so he could get his teeth round an Eccles cake again.

Eccles Cake, the Soul King of cakes
Eccles Cake, the Soul King of cakes

So here’s to you Jimmy Ruffin, you’ll be much missed, though you probably won’t read this. I’ll have an Eccles cake or two in your honour later today when I’ve had my dinner. They’re a bit too rich to have before my dinner but I’m sure you’ll understand that.

 

 

Penguins and biscuits

It may come as a surprise to you, but the question that I’m asked most often by audiophiles is “What is the penguin’s favourite biscuit?”

Now as you will know, there are actually more breeds of penguin than there are varieties of biscuit, so my reply has to be penguin-specific, and in particular has to refer to the cheeky little rockhopper – the one with the orange feathers on the side of his head. Here he is if you’ve not seen one before:

Rockhopper penguin - the biscuit connoisseur
Rockhopper penguin – the biscuit connoisseur

Now I’ve done tests with real penguins to answer this question, and those tests came out slightly in favour of Bourbon biscuits, which would make sense when you realise that this little chap has a gene dictating a liking for chocolate.

Bourbon appeals to the rockhopper's chocolate gene
Bourbon appeals to the rockhopper’s chocolate gene

but for the result to be statistically significant I thought that a computer simulation would be essential. Naturally, I wrote the simulator in Ruby on Rails, which is the famous Stephen Hawkin’s preferred simulator language, and having run in double blind mode, I can officially declare that the rockhopper’s real biscuit of preference is the Garibaldi.

Garibaldi - the heir apparent of biscuits
Garibaldi – the heir apparent of biscuits

This puzzled the team at first, but then one of the them pointed out that in the wild a large part of the little chap’s diet is the Antarctic ant, which it never gets while in the zoo environment, and because it is short-sighted, the rockhopper mistakes the currants in the biscuit for these ants!

So there you have it, when anyone next asks you the question, you have the answer ready. Well done.

Tefal Actifry or vanilla slice?

I suppose Einstein was just sitting minding his own business at his desk in the Patent Office in Zurich when his neat idea about relativity came flooding into his mind.

Well I had a similar experience this evening. I was just sitting here listening to nineties band The Magnetic Fields playing All My Little Words when it suddenly came to me that if somebody asked me I’d be hard pressed to say whether the Tefal Actifry is better than a vanilla slice.

To show you what I mean, here are pictures of them both together and you’ll see for yourself:

Vanilla Slice, the Princess Royal of cakes
Vanilla Slice, the Princess Royal of cakes
Tefal Actifry, a hot air chip cooker
Tefal Actifry, a hot air chip cooker

 

 

 

 

 

Now on the one hand, if you had just sat down to a cup of Darjeeling or Assam and were looking for a suitable cake to complement it, then excuse me but the Actifry just wouldn’t cut it. The vanilla slice wins hands down, with its layers of light, crispy puff pastry (did you know that rough puff pastry is exactly the same thing as puff pastry? If you didn’t, then that fact alone is worth visiting this page for) spread with delicious fruity strawberry jam; topped with a layer of sweet icing; and sandwiching mouthwateringly rich crème patissière absolutely jampacked with fresh from the dairy double Cornish cream and delicately tinged with real vanilla, from a real vanilla pod grown in Madagascar. And by the way, there aren’t really any penguins in Madagascar – you need the John Lewis Christmas 2014 advert for those.

But then if you’re fancying chips, at a time when only chips will do, and the chipshop is closed, or you’ve been advised to lay off the chips because of their fat content (29.3% on average), then the trusty old Actifry will not do a bad job for you. Peel and chip the potatoes – the thinner the better, not big fat ones that I don’t really care for – and rinse them under the tap to remove the starch. (I’ll cover varieties of potato in another post). Dry with a paper towel and load into the Tefal and turn it on. After five minutes, when all the surplus water will have been driven off by the heat, open the machine and add a single tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil from Italy (forget Greek or Spanish, only Italian will do). Turn on again and wait 20 to 30 minutes till the chips are browned to your liking. Open the machine again and eat all the chips as fast as you can!

Hardly any fat, crisp as can be and soft and light in the middle.

So you can see my dilemma. The Actifry, apart from chip quality, is pretty rubbish, costing a fortune and being made of flimsy plastic, so that the lid breaks and you have to buy a new one for another fortune, or the paddle that agitates the chips around breaks off and you have to buy another one. So that does suggest you have to be really desperate to forgo the vanilla slice for the chips. But if you’re desperate, then, well, there you go.

I was just wondering whether I was desperate for chips at that very moment when one of the universe’s most arcane secrets came to me. Are you ready?

Even if you’re desperate for chips, you will always always choose the mille-feuille instead. Here is one to show you what I mean:

Mille-feuille, the Emperor of cakes
Mille-feuille, the Emperor of cakes

The secret is that the mille-feuille is actually several vanilla slices in one. So you get at least two layers of crème pat, preferably three or four, each with its own jam layer. Beats even crispy chips every time. No wonder that Napoleon christened it the Emperor of cakes.

 

 

 

 

 

mille

Amazon echo and chocolate swiss roll

First the important bit: a light fluffy chocolatey Swiss roll packed with fresh whipped cream.

Chocolate Swiss Roll - The Queen of Cakes
Chocolate Swiss Roll – The Queen of Cakes

The chocolate Swiss roll is truly the Queen of Cakes – or the Cake of Queens, assuming that Her Majesty loves this culinary wonder just as much as I do.
BUT it is absolutely vital that it is very very chocolatey – intensely so – and that the filling is abundant and rich and real fresh whipped cream. Swiss rolls with butter-cream go to the bottom of the class. Ugh! How on earth can anybody eat one of those?
So while I’m savouring this mouthwatering treat – in fact up to my third slice – I happen to come across Amazon’s latest big idea that I feel I must share with you. But get your CSR ready first, as this is such a crazy idea that it will take your breath away.

They call it Amazon Echo and if things go to plan, practically everybody in the world will have one of these in their house very soon.

Big Brother is watching you - though there's no video yet, just sound
Big Brother is watching you – though there’s no video yet, just sound

Why is it crazy?
The Echo is an always-on internet-connected device that listens to you in your house 24/7. Yes, they think that you’ll be happy to pay $199 for a device to snoop on you and report back to them what you are doing, saying, probably even thinking.

And in return, if you shout out “Alexa, what is the weather like?”, it will tell you and save you the trouble of looking out of the window.
It will also let you buy music, videos and probably anything else that Amazon sells without the hard work of going to your laptop, tablet or phone to do it.

How amazing is that?

There’ll be all kinds of “safeguards” and promises of confidentiality built in of course. And it wouldn’t surprise me if people are happy to trust that Amazon is not listening in when you don’t want it to, or recording and saving your data to sell on or use against you at some embarrassing moment in the future.

I’m not sure either what happens if your OH is called Alexa and you cry out her name in the height of passion. Will it record your most intimate moments too?

And of course the daftest thing of all about this little gadget apart from the fact that it’s just a black cylinder standing in sinister fashion in your room, is that all your info goes straight over the net, to “the cloud”.

So goodness knows who can intercept it at any stage on its way from your router, through to the exchange and beyond to this fabled “cloud” which really means somebody’s server probably in a third world country because it’s cheaper to keep it there, or purloin it after it’s arrived.
This little beauty is available only in the US at first – and another daft point is that you can get one “By Invitation Only”, but there’s a button on the Amazon website for you to click and get an Invitation. Doh!

I must admit I had to check the date to make sure it wasn’t April 1st.

So anyway, that’s all the CSR gone and all the spare cream and chocolatey crumbs licked up. Wonder what cake to go for next. What do you think?

Monty the penguin and chocolate eclairs

monty
Monty the £95 penguin

So John Lewis have now got the media waiting every year at about this time to be the first to admire their new Christmas video and give them millions in free publicity.
You’ve got to admire them for it, and cast beside the oodles of free publicity from the papers, internet and even national news channels the production cost of a rumoured £7 million looks like a bargain.
All JL is trying to do of course, is raise its profile at the buying season to empty your pockets, and boy does it do that well.

Yet each time, doesn’t the video get gooier and gooier? Less and less subtle?
A little penguin looking for a mate? Give me a break. At £95 a time (cost on the JL website, except they’re out of stock) little Monty can stay single.

The only thing that kept me calm when I saw this video was the chocolate éclair I was eating – and it’s very fitting that the spellchecker has put in the accent for me on the word éclair (look it’s done it again) as this is a high ranking member of the Royal Family of cakes.

Eclair
Chocolate éclair, the Prince of cakes

Let’s assume an average price of £1.50 for a top quality one of these, meltingly light choux pastry, gleaming luxurious and luxuriant rich dark chocolate topping, crammed full of enchantingly wholesome whipped cream. Yes, I mean a real quality one, not one of those finger-thick imposters you get from the bargain boxes or freezers. So at £1.50 a throw, that means that a stuffed penguin would cost the equivalent of 63.1/3 of these big fat beauties.

Now could you tell me that a stuffed penguin can bring as much delight as 63 pukka chocolate éclairs, even ignoring the spare third? No, I didn’t think so. Case closed. Q.E.D. as we used to say in maths classes.

I’m certainly not going to post the video on here, as you’ll have already seen it, and in the time it takes me to put the Youtube code in, I could have eaten another third of a delicious choux pastry cake.

And for next year’s video, I predict a lovely soft bed full of little kittens with big ears and big eyes, mewing pathetically, and a voiceover saying “Give us all your money or these kittens get it”.

House of Cards, and Battenberg

If you haven’t already seen House of Cards, the US political thriller TV series starring the late great Kevin Spacey, then get out the Battenberg, plug in those Bose headphones and get watching.

Battenberg - the cake of Kings
Battenberg – the cake of Kings

And yes, I know that the great Kevin Spacey isn’t technically “late” in that he’s still alive, but the phrase “late great” has such a ring to it.
The US edition first aired in 2013, ran for two seasons, and a third is currently being filmed.

It’s not, as you might suspect, about Clintons the famous High Street card shop, nor about magicians doing sleight of hand but rather about shady deals, backstabbing, suspect practices and plain criminal activity in American politics. It’s centred on the White House and Congress, and concentrates on Spacey’s character Francis Underwood’s struggle to climb the greasy pole.

The West Wing notably features some great insights into the sorts of shenanigans and compromises you need to get involved in to be successful in politics, but House of Cards is much grittier and more realistic – though still not, one suspects, anywhere near as bad as the real thing. After all you just expect US politicians to be liars, cheats, swindlers and all-round baddies, so there’s no believability gap there and you can get involved and enjoy it right from the start (or the get-go as they say over there, for reasons that escape me).

The original House of Cards TV show, based on a book by Michael Dobbs, was actually British and aired in the early 1990s, starring the immortal Ian Richardson who died in 2007. Francis Urquhart, his character equivalent to Spacey’s Francis Underwood, brilliantly portrayed similar underhand, bad and downright criminal behaviour in his own climb to power, and that original series is highly enjoyable and well acted. But even though you know deep down that our own politicians are just as deceitful, egotistical, ruthlessly ambitious, shameless and corrupt as any to be found in the world, somehow the image of the corrupt politician just strikes a chord in one’s vision of the USA. You just expect American politicians to be on the take and so the US version with Spacey seems that bit more satisfying and true.

It really is a brilliant show, in fact so good that I’d watch it even if there were no battenberg to hand – I’d go so far as to say that I’d even watch it while eating a Victoria sponge – you can’t get much plainer than that, can you, and you all know how much I love cake.

Victoria sponge - a boring cake
Victoria sponge – a boring cake

And speaking of cakes, it’s interesting that the regal battenberg cake didn’t have its name changed when the royal family started changing theirs.

The Queen and her lot are really from the house of Saxe Coburg-Gotha thanks to good old Prince Albert who married Queen Victoria, but George V thought it a good idea to change the family name just before the country went to war with Germany so he wouldn’t be mistaken for one of the enemy. He chose Windsor as a good old English name for them, and Windsor they’ve been ever since. Yorkshire Pudding would have been more convincing, or even Smith, but there you go.

So anyway, Battenberg, another old German dynasty named after a village in Prussia (“berg” in the name means mountain) is tied in with the Saxe Coburg-Gothas, and Lord Louis Mountbatten, close relative of the Queen, also thought it a good idea to drop the title of His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg and rename himself Mountbatten so it wouldn’t seem odd his sending our ships in to bat against the Germans. So the cake could just as easily have come over too but didn’t.
That’s why this wonderful confection, sumptuously clothed in marzipan, is rightfully called the Cake of Kings, or the King of Cakes, and certainly one of my favourites to accompany US political thrillers.

I recommend House of Cards and I recommend battenberg cake – they make a fine pair.