Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Meaning of Life: the Hitchhiker's Guide to cake.

The meaning of life is 42 - or so Douglas Adams would have us believe because, of course, we never really knew what the question was.
I'd like to offer an alternative answer - the meaning of life is the ability to sustain friendships over time. Family is a different matter, most people are able to put up with family because they are... family. But choosing to invest in a relationship of twenty years plus with someone completely unrelated to you  - that takes some doing. It takes work. But everyone needs friends - without them, life is pretty...well...meaningless.
I'll throw in a little Latin because I can. :) Ex Cultu Robur. It was the motto of my high school and it means, roughly, "Strength is achieved through cultivation". I translate it for myself  as "The strongest relationships are the ones that you nurture". I believe in keeping in touch, in being interested in what my friends are doing, I believe in texts and notes that say "I am thinking about you" or "It's been a while, what are you up to?" I like phone calls that come out of the blue and emails for no reason other than you have thoughts to share.
Katy and I have known each other since we were 16 and students at the high school whose motto I have written above. We helped each other through two years of study and other crises: boyfriend dramas, teenage angst, not being in the popular set... Often we set the world to rights over a tub of ice-cream (with a Cadbury Flake or two crumbled on top) and two spoons. When my family moved to Australia, and I had no one left in the UK to take care of me, Katy's family adopted me. When I stumbled off the ferry after my time in France, it was Katy and her dad who met me and took me home to stay with them until school started.
I moved to Australia and Katy stayed in the UK. Letters were exchanged for quite a while before we both got busy with grown-up stuff and lost touch.
Then came the amazing day when she contacted me through Facebook. (And, whatever its faults, I will always love Facebook for the way it connects people).
She was well. (So good to hear!)
She was living in Australia. (What???)
Western Australia. (SHUT! UP!)
In Rockingham. (30 minutes from me. Only 30 minutes. OMG!!!)
I think it took about 5 minutes from getting to the end of message to getting on the phone. The very next evening, we were in Fremantle, gossiping over coffee.
Of all the people I could have chosen to end up in Western Australia, Katy is the one I would have chosen, and it still seems like some miracle that she is here. Now she lives in Fremantle, and her house is a haven of home-grown veggies, wine-racks full of red, bookshelves full of sci-fi and fantasy, plus three chickens and Bella the dog.

These days when we get together, we are more likely to set the world to rights over a bottle or three of red. We have also been known to get out for lunches and for cocktails. Possibly best not to describe the night when Duran Duran came to Perth and we went to see them - there was a lot of screaming and we probably sounded 16 again, but, and to borrow from Douglas Adams again, we are usually 'mostly harmless' when we get together. Mostly harmless but fairly tipsy.

And here is her birthday cake for this year. We didn't quite manage the party with the dressing gowns and the towels, but the cake was exactly as I'd imagined it when we'd talked about the 'meaning of life' birthday about two months ago.

A nice dense cake to start with then. You don't want anything that is going to collapse in on itself as soon as you put the fondant on. I used this recipe for an orange and almond cake. mainly because it showed a decorated cake.

Don't worry if it isn't very even - the icing will fix a multitude of sins.
I used a packet of ready-made royal icing from the local supermarket to cover this. You can stick it to the cake with a sugar glaze or melted jam, but this cake was moist enough that any extra 'glue' was unnecessary.

Just roll out the icing until it is big enough to cover the surface and sides and fold the rest under.
Blue sparkles to give the idea of "Earth - Mark II"

Now it gets more fiddly. What I wanted were: a cake topper with "Don't Panic" in 'large friendly letters' and in the classic Hitchhiker's Guide font; babelfish all around the edge; and two white mice, Frankie Mouse and Benjy Mouse - not actually mice but the descendants of the pan-dimensional beings behind the creation of Deep Thought.
(Are you keeping up with all the references? You are? Good.)
The cake topper and the babelfish were made from the same batch of marzipan. You'll need about 500g.
I found the font and the image of the babelfish online through an image search. I don't have photo credits for these, unfortunately, but would be happy enough to add them if asked.
I then scaled these down into templates. I'm more of an artist than a mathematician so I wasn't aiming for perfection. Also any errors in measurement can be fixed by stretching and/or squishing the marzipan.
The text was roughly 15 cm across (so it would fit on the 20cm cake) and the babelfish template was about 7cm.
I coloured the marzipan - one batch of orange-red and another yellow. If you have objections to tartrazine and other artificial colourings, this is not the cake for you. If you don't like scrubbing and scrubbing at your hands to get rid of the stain from the colouring, this is also not the cake for you. The text was red letters on a yellow background.
I hollowed out the letters after I place them on the yellow background.
There should actually just be a yellow border to each letter, but that was way too tricky.
The babelfish were yellow with red eyes. The pupil of the eye and the fin details are made by using an edible-ink pen.

Babelfish all in a row. Any rough edges were later smoothed out. Probably best not to stick these in your ear though...

Once this was all done, it was just a question of positioning. I did use melted apricot jam to stick everything in place this time.

Finally, and possible the most tricky part - making the two white mice. I should have used marzipan or proper fondant but I had decided to go with the left-over royal icing because it was whiter. It is not easy to sculpt. In the end though, I had something that looked vaguely like albino mice - complete with red eyes and black whiskers.
See his cute little tail hanging over the edge? :)
And there you have it!
It is, of course, all completely edible, and, while quite sweet, (hello, marzipan and icing!), the actual orange-almond cake could be tasted quite distinctly when I went to Katy's house, to hand the cake over and we shared it with friends and while drinking red wine.
So long, and thanks for all the fish, and happy  (hoopy?) birthday, Katy.

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