December 2009


Last Saturday, I woke up as excited as a child on Christmas morning. The day had finally arrived! After months of waiting, Helen and I were finally off to our cupcake decorating class at the Make Lounge. Our class was led by Janine Rose, who runs a bespoke cake business and was the sort of excellent teacher who made everything look easy.

The Make Lounge is a lovely place, where you find yourself believing that all manner of crafts are perfectly possible, if only you had access to the supplies conveniently offered in their shop, and a patient teacher. And maybe some sort of manual dexterity. After we and our classmates were ushered into the long, light workshop, our first task was learning how to quickly and easily make a piping bag from a piece of baking parchment. I was dangerously close to losing my enthusiasm straightaway, as I battled with my paper before finally, with a bit of help, ending up with something that might do the job.

Using these bags, we then practiced piping lettering with buttercream. I can sort of see how I might learn to do this in a more accomplished fashion if I had a never-ending supply of buttercream and a steadier hand, but my efforts mostly looked like a shaky old lady’s handwriting. I apologise in advance if you get a cake from me while I’m still learning.

The most exciting part of the class was decorating our cupcakes (we were given seven to customise and take home) with coloured, piped buttercream, as a base for further embellishment:

The first stage

We were let loose on a variety of paste colours, resulting in some outlandish colour combinations around the table. Once the buttercream was in place, it was time to really go to town with sprinkles, glitters, and dyed marzipan hearts, stars, and flowers. All restraint disappeared at this stage:

My favourite!

I can wholeheartedly recommend this class – it’s not cheap, but you’re given all the guidance, techniques, and tools you need to produce a box of cupcakes that you’ve decorated entirely by yourself. I splashed out a bit in the shop afterwards on heart- and star-shaped plunge cutters (those things are amazing), and am confident that I’ll be able to recreate something suitably lurid and sparkly at home now. I’ve never found making the cakes themselves as much of a challenge as making them look pretty, but I definitely feel like I’m a step closer.

Cold, damp, and miserable on Tottenham Court Road last night, Paul and I had a brainwave. Where was guaranteed to cheer, warm, and feed us? Of course: The Salt Yard. Forget the fact that we hadn’t intended to eat out at all that evening. As buzzy and bustling as it was on our last visit a couple of years ago, we managed to score a couple of stools in the upstairs bar for drinks and tapas. The warm welcome and convivial atmosphere was exactly what we needed after trudging round the shops in the rain, and after a fino for me and a white wine for him we were sufficiently revived to consider the food menu.

Paul went for tuna carpaccio with baby broad beans and salsa verde, and we shared fried violet artichokes with pine nut purée and black olive oil, deep-fried courgette flowers filled with Monte Enebro cheese and drizzled with honey, patatas fritas with romesco sauce and aioli, and chargrilled bread with olive oil. The artichokes were crispy nuggets of deliciousness, and the purée added smoothness and substance. I have the courgette flowers every time I visit the Salt Yard, which used to be much more often, and although I was disappointed to note that the plate of three flowers has now shrunk to two, the quality was as high as ever; a perfect balance of crispness, melting cheese, sweet honey, and green freshness from the courgette. I really must learn to make them myself. Even though the patatas fritas were blatantly just chips, they were good ones and the duo of dips classed them up. Chargrilling had added a lovely hint of smokiness to the bread, although the accompanying dish of oil was redundant considering the bread had already been liberally drizzled.

By the time we headed back out into the night, the restaurant was fit to burst, and soggy diners waiting for their tables were queuing around us. It’s definitely worth booking a table in the downstairs restaurant for a more relaxed meal, but the bar’s the place to be if you’re after a more authentic tapas-style experience (and lighting that’s too low for photography, hence the lack of pictures here). Just make sure you have the courgette flowers.