It’s no exaggeration to say that I had one of the best days of my life this week. Still pinching myself just thinking about it. And of course there was also cake this week (there’s always cake).
Before I went on the Great British Bake Off I had about 30 Twitter followers. By the time I finished on the show it had got a fair bit bigger than that. I suddenly had a public profile and a lot of really nice people interested in what I was up to. After the final of my series, I got a lot of charity requests but I chose two London-based charities that I wanted to work with more regularly – Great Ormond Street and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). A few years ago I did a part-time BSc in Biodiversity & Conservation at Birkbeck College, and wildlife is my number one passion – more than building, more than baking (ok, maybe Sarah and the kids are number one, but it’s a pretty close call!) I got in touch with ZSL straight after being on the show and as a result, had one of my most fun experiences, making a 40th birthday cake for Zaire the gorilla (see below).
Over the years I’ve done a bit more with ZSL and one of the fantastic people I’ve met as a result is their Director of Zoology, Professor David Field. My wife Sarah and I last saw David back in November and he very kindly offered to give our family a tour of ZSL Whipsnade Zoo the next time the kids had an inset day from school. We’re lucky to be halfway between Whipsnade and London Zoos – only about half an hour from each of them. I love London Zoo, particularly in terms of how they well they work their animal conservation around their available space. But since I was a kid, the big animals requiring more space have moved out to Whipsnade, which is the UK’s biggest zoo. If you’ve never been before, it’s absolutely brilliant.
David took us round the whole zoo on Monday, and there’s nothing like finding out about conservation work from a world-leading expert – a total privilege. My eldest daughter’s first question to him was “who would win in a fight between a lion and a tiger?” and he and the fantastic team of keepers we met answered all of our questions with so much patience and detail. David has known one of the chimpanzees since he was 12 years old and the way she recognised him was astounding. The kids got to feed nuts to the chimps, carrots and leaves to the giraffes, bananas to the magnificent elephants and then we met the rhinos. This was absolutely incredible. They’re such placid and friendly animals and I couldn’t believe we got to meet them so closely (see below).
There are so many opportunities to get closer to the animals at both Whipsnade and London Zoos. If you’ve got an animal lover in your life, you can book Meet the Animal or Keeper for a Day sessions at both zoos here. It’s an unforgettable gift, particularly for someone who’s hard to buy for. I’ve mentioned on the blog before that my sisters and I got our Dad the overnight stay in London Zoo’s Lion Lodge for his 70th birthday last year but that’s also available at Whipsnade, here. Money raised through experiences like this are absolutely crucial in funding the incredible and varied conservation work ZSL does around the world.
If you’ve been watching The Big Painting Challenge (and if you haven’t, start, it’s wonderful telly) you’ll have seen tonight’s episode on painting animals (available here) was also filmed at Whipsnade Zoo. The kids loved seeing the animals they’d met this week on screen tonight and I was impressed they’d remembered lots of their names. As much fun as it was taking the kids to the zoo, the Big Painting Challenge has made me really want to plan a day to go along on my own with my sketchbook and lose myself for an afternoon. I can’t think of a better way to spend a day. It’s one thing icing a flamingo cake, as I did last week, but I’d love to give it a go with paints on canvas.
Speaking of cake, it was our middle daughter’s birthday this week so double baking for me – a quick cake to have for tea on her actual birthday, then the whopper above for her bowling party yesterday. For the cake above, I used my egg-free chocolate cake recipe as some of my elder daughters’ classmates can’t eat eggs so it’s a good go-to sponge for their birthday cakes. It’s also delicious! It was three layers of 30cm square sponge sandwiched with chocolate buttercream and loads of raspberry jam. Our daughters love planning their birthday cakes and after our eldest’s 4th birthday a few years back, the comments from other parents about her cake were one of the reasons I applied to be on Bake Off.
For the cake above, I covered the cake in fondant and then used fondant for the bowling ball and the stars. The rest of the decoration was done with royal icing (the egg-free version on my vegan recipe last week), piping the outlines and then flooding with a slightly looser icing consistency. My top tip for decorating a lot of my cakes is to get yourself one of these. I use it for wood effect details on icing – but make sure your icing is dry before trying it.
Don’t forget it’s Pancake Day on Tuesday and my easy recipe is here. But as for tonight, the best thing about making a huge cake is that there are always plenty of leftovers so I’m settling in for some now. It’s my own birthday this week and hopefully I won’t have to make the cake (hint, hint). Sarah spoilt me last year with my Death Star cake so she’s made a rod for her own back now! I’ve got quite a fun weekend planned which I’ll tell you all about next week so until then, Happy Baking!