Saturday, 26 July 2014

The 52 Project: 30/52

'A portrait of my daughter, once a week, every week in 2014.

Dear Ruby, since you were four months old, we have followed the same bedtime routine every evening, which consists of bath, baby massage, milk and sleep. Recently, you seem to have had a bit more energy in this last waking hour before you settle for the night, and so we have started reading you a bedtime story before you have a massage. (As I write this, I'm kind of wishing that I had the same bedtime routine as you!) Here you are, just after your bath, your hair is still wet and you are eagerly exploring your book. This week, Daddy has read you The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson, and I have read the old classic, 'We're going on a bear hunt' by Michael Rosen. Both of these books have such a lovely rhythm to them, and I love seeing your enjoyment of stories. Here's to a lifetime of listening to and reading stories, my little one.
With love,
Mum.

Friday, 25 July 2014

photo books part five // editing images


Hello, and welcome to the final post in my series on making photo books. Today, I am sharing with you a few of the ways that I edit my images. I would like to preface this post by saying that in all honesty, my editing knowledge is rather limited. However, there are a few very simple things I have learnt over the years, that I do on a regular basis, to enhance my photos.

PC Software
In the past, the thought of editing my photos was a bit of a misnomer to me. I didn't want to faff around with things that ultimately might not improve my original images. Photoshop seemed like a minefield, and in the beginning, I was just very content to have a digital camera at all. I still don't do an enormous amount of editing, but there are a few steps that I frequently go through when organising photos to include in blog posts, and to share on Instagram, that are not at all scary, and only require free software.Years ago, my Dad introduced me to Picasa.This is a free piece of software that enables you to organise and edit the photos that you upload to your computer. Currently, I only use it for the editing side of things, rather than photo organisation. (I talked a bit about how I organise my photos in this post.)
Basic Editing Tips:
My top three tips for fast and simple editing would be to do the following to your images:
1) Straighten
2) Crop
3) Contrast

It is possible to do all of these things in a program like Picasa, but I would also suggest that you hold these principles in mind when you are in the process of composing and taking a photo, to save editing your images once the photo has been taken. However, when speed is of the essence in capturing a moment, sometimes it is hard to take the time to remember each of these elements.
I have provided the examples below, so that you can see the difference a little bit of editing can make, bearing in mind the three tips of straighten, crop & contrast.

When I open a picture in Picasa, this is what I see on my screen. On the left hand side are the basic editing tools, and you can see within these tools are all of those that I have mentioned, making it very quick and easy!
As you can see in the screen shot, I have made little attempt with the composition of this shot, other than thinking about the lighting (I liked the shadows cast by the natural light coming through the kitchen window) and the positioning of the tartlets on the board. The first thing I did to slightly improve this image is straigten it:
This image provides a good example of how perspective affects an image, which is something I talked about in my previous post in this series. The chopping board has perfectly straight lines, which should help my composition, however, because I didn't take the photo from above, looking directly down at the egg tartlets, even with straightening the image in Picasa, I can immediately see that what would make this a more pleasing picture, is if I had stood on a chair and taken the photo looking directly down.

Next, I cropped the image to get rid of the 'clutter' around the main subject - ie both ends of the chopping board, and the metal ring. It is helpful to think about what else you have captured in the edges of your photos that might detract from the main subject itself.
My third editing step was to increase the contrast between the colours. This creates a subtle difference, but can often help the colours in a photo 'pop' a bit more.
.
And for a bonus step, because I thought that this further improved the picture, I increased the exposure to add a bit more light

Phone Editing
In terms of editing photos on my phone, I probably edit about 60% of those I share on Instagram with the VSCO app for iPhones, which is free. I originally used the filters that are available on Instagram to change the lighting and feel of some of my images, but got to a point where I preferred to have total control over each element of the image (exposure, contrast, warmth, etc), which VSCO allows you to do. If you're interested in reading a far more detailed blog post on how you can use VSCO to enhance your images, I can highly recommend Mary Beth's blog post? She has a beautiful and distinctive style to her photos, and her blog is one of my favourites. When I use VSCO, I tend to just go through the same process as I described with the photos I edit in Picasa - straightening, cropping, lightening, to improve the quality of my images in small but significant ways.

In conclusion, I realise that this post is far less specifically about photo books, and there is every chance that you have no interest in doing anything to your images, other than getting them from your electronic device into a book. But for those of you who have perhaps wanted to make some minor changes but did not know where to begin, I hope that this might be of some interest to you.

Next week, I'll be concluding the series by sharing with you the people who have inspired me in how I go about documenting our family life through photos and words.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Our Classic Pizza

Homemade pizza is an almost weekly feature in our diet. Everytime we make it, I intend to take a photo to share with the recipe, but I always have this thought right after I've devoured half my slice. I finally managed to hold off munching on my hearty slice long enough to take a photo.

We have adapted the recipe for the pizza base over time to include a higher proportion of wholemeal flour, but if you wanted to only use white flour, the base works brilliantly like this. Our sauce has a lot more ingredients to it than the average sauce - you might think it's slightly odd to add carrot and celery to a tomato sauce on a pizza, but we love it this way. Everything is very finely diced, so the texture of the sauce is not adversely affected by the extra ingredients.

Pizza
ingredients for the base (makes 2 large bases)
400g strong wholemeal bread flour
100g strong white bread flour
7g dried yeast
half tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
325ml water
Cornmeal for coating the dough (optional)

ingredients for the sauce
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 onion
2 cloves of garlic
1 stick celery finely diced
1 carrot finely diced
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp soft brown sugar
1 chicken stock cube (for flavour - no need to add water)
squeeze of tomato puree
1 tsp paprika

method for the pizza base
1) In a jug, combine the sugar, olive oil and yeast with the water, lightly whisking to bring everything together. Set aside for 10 minutes to allow the yeast time to activate. I often put my jug in a warm place to aid this process.
2) In a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a freestanding mixer, combine the flours and the salt.
3) Gradually stir in the liquid from the jug, bringing it together with a fork. As the dough starts to come together, it's time to get your hands involved and mix in the rest of the flour.
4) If the dough is sticking to your hands, pop a bit of olive oil on them and see if that helps. If it's still sticky, add a little shake of flour and that should do the trick. Knead the dough for 5 - 10 minutes (5 if using a freestanding mixer), until the dough is stretchy and has a bit of a shine to it.
5) Rub a little oil on the inside of the mixing bowl, then place the dough back in the bowl and cover with a clean tea towel. Leave in a warm place for one hour.
6) Once the dough has doubled in size, knock the air out of it, divide it in two and roll out. We like the texture that cornmeal adds to a pizza base, and so sprinkle both surfaces of the dough in turn with some cornflour, and roll it into the surface of the piazza base.

method for the pizza sauce (makes enough for 2 bases)
1) Heat a little oil in a large frying pan. Saute the onion, garlic, carrot and celery, along with the sugar and balsamic vinegar, until softened (about 10 minutes).
2) Add the stock and paprika and stir.
3) Add the tinned tomatoes and stir, then allow the sauce to simmer over a gentle heat for about 20 minutes. Keep an eye on the sauce and add a splash of water if it looks like it's drying out.
4) Finally, add the tomato puree at the end to help thicken everything up.
5) Spread the sauce on top of the rolled out bases.
6) Once you have added your desired toppings, bake in a pre-heated oven (200C / gas mark 5) for 20 minutes.

As for toppings, this is where you can freestyle. I love how versatile pizza is when it comes to adding different toppings. Being creatures of habit, John and I tend to stick with the same old toppings, which tend to include:

chorizo
cooked, shredded chicken (we normally use leftovers from roasting an entire chicken to use for multiple meals)
sun dried tomatoes
mozarella (always, without fail, mozarella)
gorgonzola or other blue chees (though this is more of a rarity for us)
fresh chilli
fresh peppers
onion
sweetcorn

How about you? What toppings do you like on your pizzas?

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The 52 Project: 29/52

'A portrait of my daughter, once a week, every week in 2014

Dear Ruby, you have enjoyed your first lido experience this week. had your first taste of a smoothie ice lolly, slept through your first storm, attended your second wedding (of your Auntie Mary) and chewed on your first balloon. Your expression betrays your great fascination with this activity. Thank goodness your top two teeth haven't fully erupted yet, otherwise you might have been distraught at the sound of a balloon bursting in your face! 
With all my love, little one,
Your Mama.

Friday, 18 July 2014

photo books part four // the thought process behind my photos

Happy Friday Friends! If you are new to this series, then Welcome! It's lovely to have you, and I appreciate that you are taking a little time out of your day to read my words. My plan for this week had been to share with you some of the very basic tools I use for editing my photos, but when I came to write about it, I was just not that inspired. The other posts in this series have come fairly naturally to me, and I have not struggled for the words to write, but the plan I had for this weeks topic? I think it needs to wait for another week. You see, one of the things that I am all about is being flexible. While I absolutely think that planning is an important thing to do, I also think that if a plan needs to change, then change it. I am sure this has been part of my character for a long time, but working with young children definitely helps when it comes to developing a willingness to change plans. So if you have been following along with this series, I hope that you don't mind too much that I am changing tack a bit this week. Instead of discussing apps and editing, I will share some of the thought process that goes into the photos I take and how this then determines the photos that end up in my Instagram photo books.

Depicting life with a newborn
When I started making photo books for our family, I intended to include a variety of photos that told a story about our life right now, rather than just photos of my baby daughter. This was surprisingly hard for a couple of reasons:
1) Newborn babies sleep a lot. There's only so many interesting photos you can take of a sleeping baby.
2) Ruby was born in Winter, which meant that there was a real lack of good natural light to help take good quality photos. (This is a bigger deal than it sounds.)

So I felt like photographing my daughter as a baby challenged my creativity and photographic skills, in order to create images that varied. Looking back at my first photo book, I feel like it gives a fairly clear reflection of what life was like for the first three months of having a newborn in our home. If a complete stranger were to look through the photo book I made from January 2014 - March 2014, and I asked them to comment on what they saw, I would imagine they would note the following things:
- Our baby spent a lot of time asleep in the sling
- Spring was well on its way
- Hannah (me) likes to bake
- Our baby spent a lot of time lying on the floor looking up at things

These themes are repeated throughout the photo book that tells the visual story of our first three months with Ruby. Rather than seeing the repetition as a negative thing, the reality is that life is full of routine and repetition. Sometimes this can be boring, and when it gets this way, we switch things up a bit. I hope that this is a lesson I am learning and able to put into practice when it comes to photography. I also think that this is part of what defines artists - a common theme, style or thread that runs through their art and makes it distinctly their own.

Developing Your Own Photographic Style

When I take photos, there are a few things that I always try to bear in mind:
- is this the best perspective and angle?
- what is the main subject of this photo? (You can determine this by looking at any given photo and noticing what your eye is immediately drawn to. It is not always what is in the foreground.)

- have I given enough context for the photo to tell a story?
- is there enough natural light to make this a good photo? (If you are planning on printing photos from your phone camera, it is particularly important to take photos with enough natural lighting to avoid grainy shots that might look ok on your phone, but will not print well.)

If we take the example of the two photos below, you could say that they are essentially just two shots of a baby in a sling. But I think they portray two different things because of what I have made to be the main subject of the photo. In the first photo, the subject in the foreground is a mixing bowl, which implies that I am making something. You can't see what I am making, but the element of movement in the photo adds an interesting dynamic. I could have just taken a photo that focused purely on the movement of the sugar I was pouring, and excluded Ruby and myself from the shot. But it tells a greater story for us to be included. And the greater story is that I found a lot of joy in the discovery that I could still bake with a newborn baby, while enjoying having her close to me.
A little bit more on Perspective
As I mentioned above, one of the questions I ask myself when taking a photo is about perspective. In the photo pictured below on the left hand page of the book, my initial aim had been to capture the incredible light that was shining on the beach in Rhossili Bay in Wales. It was an incredibly windy day too, and rather than being perturbed that my hair was flying in front of the lens, I used this to my advantage to help communicate just how windy it was that day. An added bonus of this photo was that my husband and daughter were just behind me and I loved the way that my billowing hair framed them into the shot. I also had in mind that as I take 99.9% of our photos, I had to be creative to be featured in some more of them. I realise that this is a rather unconventional 'family portrait', but I love that it tells a story.
In the second post of this series, I talked a lot about how Instagram helps me a lot in the process of compiling my photo books in that the photos I share on Instagram are most of my favourite photos from my phone, which takes a lot of the time out of pondering which photos I want to put into my photo books. Going a bit further into the details of this, my Instagram profile gives an immediate overview of the things that have been catching my eye. When I share photos on Instagram, I try not to post too many similar images consecutively, as I realise this would make for a dull photo book, and an uninteresting photo feed for those people who take the time to look at my photos. You can also see from the thumbnails that I have taken photos from a variety of perspectives:

- from above looking directly
- directly in my line of sight
- looking up
- on the same level as my daughter

A snapshot of my Instagram feed gives the viewer an instant idea of what I like to photograph.

Focus on the details

I love noticing the beauty in the small details of things. From the tightly clustered petals of a peony before it unfolds, to the little dimples in my baby's hands. These subjects can make for striking photos, but I try and use these images in moderation in my photo books. For me, these intricate details are so important to capture (one day my baby will have knuckles rather than dimples and I wouldn't be surprised if this alone made me broody), but they don't tell enough of a story to make a photo book interesting without other photos that have more context to them. Nevertheless, I never shy away from capturing details because this is part of my preferred photographic style. I also like to include the detailed photos I take of flowers and trees in my photo books because it communicates a sense of the seasons, adding to the story that the photos tell. What about you, lovely readers? Do you enjoy capturing the small details with your camera, or do you try and include as much context and landscape into your images as possible?

Next week I will share some basic editing apps and programs that require minimum time and skill to subtly enhance your photos.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

around here


baking these brownies & adding extra chocolate chips
adventuring in Cornwall
dancing in the kitchen to George Ezra
eating blueberry quinoa for breakfast
swimming at the Lido with friends
exercising at Zumba (and being horrified by having to see how uncoordinated I am in the studio mirror!)
researching exciting things like reuseable baby wipes
dreaming about the next quilt I would like to make

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The 52 Project: 28/52

'A portrait of my daughter once a week, every week in 2014.'

Dear Ruby,
We have spent this week in Cornwall. Our time there was characterised by sand tasting, ice cream sampling, gorge walking and sling-sleeping. Your reaction to your first fistful of sand was exactly the same as your response to the taste of ice cream that Daddy gave you: nonchalance. You, my daughter, are brilliant. 
With great love,
Mum.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

photo books part three // photo organisation

Welcome to the third installment in this series. In the first two posts in this series on photo books, I have discussed the format and frequency with which I make photo books, along with how I use Instagram as a tool in helping me sort the photos I want to make into books on an ongoing basis. In this post, I will be talking about photo book themes and how I organise my photos in a way that helps me when it comes to making a photo book. 
Photo book themes.
Over the past five years, I have made photo books in varying shapes and sizes, but up until having a baby, I just made photo books to document our holidays. Each of the albums pictured above feature a different country (Spain, Scotland and France, in case you are wondering!) and there is a unifying theme in my front covers of sky. In all honesty, I don't think this was deliberate, it's just the natural outworking of my inclination towards taking photos of the sky!  I had often thought about making more books of just our daily lives, as I would have liked our children to be able to get a glimpse into what life looked like before they came along. However, I just didn’t ever manage to. Having a baby is such a significant life changing event that I feel it has given me a renewed sense of wanting to document our lives more consistently.

My current plan is to make a selection of photo books this year which document daily life, our holidays and the growth of our daughter. This is what my plan looks like for this year:

Instagram books: I will print these every three months throughout the year in a 7” x 7” hardback format, designed with children handling them in mind.

Pregnancy & Portrait Series: This book will include the blog posts I wrote at different stages of my pregnancy, alongside the weekly portraits I have taken of Ruby since she was four weeks old, as part of The 52 Project.

The Stories of our Days: This is an idea that was inspired by Pink Ronnie. I loved her idea of documenting family life during each season of the year, accompanied by photos reflecting the seasons, both in nature and in the family. Initially, I was not sure whether I would have enough to say about our small family of three to constitute making an entire photo book, feeling like our days often look very similar to oneanother. And yet, in these seven short months since our daughter was born, I am frequently aware of how things change regularly in a subtle way, and if I do not write about them, it’s these small details of life that I know I will forget about in years to come. I am envisaging that this photo book will feel a little bit more like a journal, as there will be chunks of text as well as photos. This book will tell a greater story of our year than the Instagram books will, as they will tell the stories behind the pictures.

So that will be six photo books in one year. While this might sound like a lot in terms of the time and energy that goes into making each book, a lot of the process has already happened in that the Pregnancy & Portrait Series will be made up of one photo for each week of this year. I have already created a folder for each of these photos, so when it comes to making the book, all of the photos are organised and in one place. The same goes for my Instagram books.

Even if you choose to make books without particular themes to them, if you have in mind that you are working towards making a photo book, each time you transfer photos from your phone or camera to your computer, you could select a few favourites and store them in a folder designated exclusively to your photo book pictures. This would then save you a lot of time when it comes to putting the book together.
With or without text?
One of the things that I loved when I first discovered Blurb, was the option of adding text to photo books. Back in the days when I made photo albums, I would write labels to accompany photos so that I would always have a reference point for where I had been when I took a photo. So when I realised that I could not only do this, but write whole paragraphs to help tell more of a story to go alongside the photos in Blurb, I was even more excited at the prospect of making photo books. The first album I did this with was a slight disaster. After a wonderful honeymoon in Barbados, I spent many hours collating the photos to go in a great big, 12” x 12” photobook, and writing about the adventures John and I had. However, when the book arrived, we discovered that I had made an embarrassing number of spelling mistakes (I misspelt ‘helicopter’ about four times in different ways, I kid you not). Since then, I have mostly stuck to just including photos without text. But, as I mentioned before, I am keen to tell the every day stories of our lives, and so I intend to write more for photo books, making sure I edit them carefully before publishing! 

My Instagram books don’t include any text, except for the Title Page. In the format that Blurb offers, there is enough space for me to write the names of the places that are represented in the photos throughout the book. I saw the idea to do this on a very detailed blog post about how to make an Instagram book using Blurb. I love the idea of doing this, as it serves as a lovely reminder to me of all of the adventures we have been on in each quarter of the year. I realise that sometimes we will have mostly adventured in our city, and at other times, we will have ventured further afield. I think it will be interesting to see the ebb and flow of our adventures over time.

Photo Folders
Whatever the method you choose to use to organise your digital photos on your computer, my main pieces of advice would be:

1)      Keep it simple and manageable.­
2)      Upload new photos to your computer on a regular basis.
3)      Back up your images on an external device regularly.

The simplest way I have found of organising my photos on my laptop is by having folders for each month of the year. Within each of these folders, I have sub folders which separate my photos into categories. Here’s an example of what this looks like from June this year: 
As you can see, most of my folders reflect blog posts that I published in June. I suppose blogging is another way in which I categorise my photos, and this might not be something that will help you. But depending on the volume of photos you take, as well as the different subjects you photograph, dividing photos up into folders might be a useful approach. I have found this method particularly useful for referring back to things I have baked in the past.
 
The methods and processes that I use to make my photo books are ones that have changed and formed over time, and I am certain that there is other more methodical and systematic ways of organising photos. I am also sure that my ideas for photo books may well change from one year to the next as my ideas develop and our family grows. I would love to hear from you in the comments section if you have any great ideas to share with me and the other readers of my blog on the subject. 

Next week, I'll be sharing a few simple programs and apps that enable you to do basic editing of your photos that I have found useful.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The 52 Project: 27/52

'A portrait of my daughter once a week, every week in 2014.'

Dear Ruby, this week. you have popped bubbles almost as big as your head, explored cornflour gloop, almost mastered the skill of moving from lying down to being upright, and impressed your grandparents with your apple gnawing skills using those tiny teeth of yours. Keep growing strong, little one, you're doing brilliantly.

Friday, 4 July 2014

photo books part two // how Instagram helps me

Welcome to the second installment in my series on photo books. If you would like to read or refer back to my first post, you can find it here. In this post, I am going to be sharing the main reasons why I find it helpful to use Instagram as a tool for storing and sharing the photos that I take on my phone and intend to print in my photo books. If you are unfamiliar with what Instagram is, it is a Smart Phone app where you can edit your photos, then share them with an online community of friends and fellow phone photographers.

I want to preface this post by saying that although I will talk a lot about Instagram in this post, it is by no means necessary to use this in the process of making your photo books, it is just a tool that I have found to be very useful in creating my books with a consistent theme and format. Perhaps one of the most useful things to note at the outset is how much quicker it is for me to make photo books using my photos from Instagram. I will go into more detail on this later on in the post.
 
Ever since my daughter was born, capturing the moments in our days has become even more important to me than it was before. In twenty years time, I am certain that I will not be able to remember what our days looked like, or how Ruby looked while she was sleeping, and so I love that photographs will help me to remember. If I just leave them on my phone, they are not in a format where they can be enjoyed by others. I love the idea of Ruby thumbing through photo books and albums when she is older, and being able to catch a glimpse of what life looked like when she was a baby, in the years before she can remember how things were. 
However, with the volume of photos that I take, both with my camera and my phone, I easily become overwhelmed at the prospect of sifting and sorting through all of them and deciding which ones to print and which to delete. I have spoken to a few other parents who have said they find it hard to delete photos of their babies - even if they have five very similar shots - and I know exactly what they mean. 
 
So, one of the simple and easy ways that I combat this is by using Instagram. It is so easy to share photos through this medium, and provides an immediate form of editing for me, in that if I have a series of photos of the same thing, I am only ever going to post one of these to Instagram, because I know that no one else but me has an interest in seeing multiple pictures of the same thing. Once I have shared a photo on Instagram, I then delete all other similar photos from the batch, to try and reduce the clutter in the photo albums on my phone. This is something that I have only started to do recently, but so far, it's working. Where I initially found it hard to delete photos, especially of Ruby, I can honestly say that I don't miss or regret deleting those photos that didn't make the cut, when choosing which ones to share on Instagram. 
I realise that on most smart phones, it is possible to create folders to organise your photos, so if you didn't want to use an app like Instagram as an organisational tool, this would be another effective way of selecting your favourite photos that you would eventually like to print. However, I find it useful to post some of my favourites on my Instagram feed, and I think the reasons are twofold:

1) It helps me to have photos in two different locations. I realise that to some people, this might sound a little crazy, but the way my mind works visually, means that I can mentally picture the photos that I have edited and added to Instagram, and see the story that they tell, whereas if I had simply moved them from one folder to another, I would not have the same mental record of the photos. For me, there is an element of curating the photos that I share on Instagram, which I really enjoy. I also love being inspired by photos that other people have shared on Instagram, so it's not just another place for me to store photos, it's a place to connect with friends around the world, and see the beauty that their eyes see, and I love that.

2) I don't edit every photo I post on Instagram, but, I probably edit about 80% of them. Again, this is something that is not necessary, but I enjoy the process. Smartphone editing apps provide me with a happy middle ground - I have Photoshop Elements on my laptop, but the reality is that if I am ever going to edit any number of photos, I either need a lot of spare hours, or I need to do it almost immediately. The latter of these is far more realistic, and so taking photos on my iPhone is made that much more enjoyable for me, by the fact that I can enhance the images to get them to a print-ready state. If I were to just store favourite photos in a folder within the camera roll on my phone, I would never bother editing them, because being faced with a whole batch of photos to edit is so much more overwhelming than doing just one at a time for Instagram.
The photo book publishers I use are called Blurb, as I mentioned in my first post. As part of their book making tools, they have the option of uploading photos from Instagram. This greatly speeds up the process of making my photo books, because I have organised the photos during the course of the three months, rather than waiting until I decide to print a book before sifting through hundreds of photos. Each time I share a photo on social media, part of my decision to share that particular photo includes me thinking, 'is this a photo that I would like to print and view time and time again in the future?' (I am going to write more on this topic of how I decide which photos to print later on in the series.) For me, this is crucial in making the difference between thinking about all of the photo books I would love to make, and actually doing it.

I would love to hear from you, dear readers. Do you have any tips for making photo books in a manageable way that doesn't feel too daunting? 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

chocolate orange cupcakes


I used to bake hundreds of cupcakes. I started buying cupcake cases in packs of 500 so that they would last me a little while, but for all of those hundreds I have baked, I have barely blogged about the different flavours I have made and loved. This week, I made some chocolate orange cupcakes for a birthday celebration, and gave the recipe a lot of thought.

All of the recipes in my books and on the web just didn't quite do it for me. Some were too chocolatey (hard, I know, but children were going to be eating these, so I didn't want to make them too rich), some not chocolatey enough. Some used dark chocolate orange, but I wanted to convey the flavour of my all time favourite orange chocolate - Terry's chocolate orange. In England, these are a staple stocking filler, and I loved that as a child, Christmas morning was the only day of the year when our parents would let us eat chocolate before breakfast. (Confession time: As an adult, I have eaten chocolate for breakfast more times than I care to admit - especially after my daughter was born. Sometimes, it felt like a necessary and well earned reward to munch on a square of brownie before the sun rose, while congratulating myself on sustaining another life through my very own milk, while seeing every hour of the night.) I have tried a variety of different chocolate orange bars, but none of them hit the spot quite like Terry's, so I was keen to include this flavour in the cupcakes, along with the freshness of some orange zest. Here's what I came up with:

Chocolate Orange Cupcakes
ingredients for the cake (makes approx. 16 depending on the size of cupcake cases you use)

85g Terry's chocolate orange (half a choc orange)
70g unsalted butter at room temperature
210g caster sugar
100g light brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract (use the best quality stuff, rather than vanilla essence)
finely grated zest of 1 orange
255g plain flour
50g cocoa
2 tsp baking powser
240ml whole milk

for the icing (enough to frost 18 cupcakes if you're piping the icing. If you're just spreading the icing on, it'll go much further.)
600g icing (confectioner's) sugar
100g unsalted butter at room temperature
250g full fat Philadelphia
85g Terry's milk chocolate orange (other half of your Terry's chocolate orange)
60-80g cocoa, sifted
finely grated zest of 1 orange

method
1) Preheat your oven to 190C / gas mark 5 / 375F and line a muffin tin with cases.
2) Beat the butter in a mixing bowl (or the bowl of a free standing mixer) to soften it.
3) Add the caster sugar and light brown sugar to the butter and cream together until fluffy.
3) Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
4) Stir in the vanilla extract and orange zest.
5) Gradually sift in the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder, alternating with adding a little of the milk, until everything has combined into a beautiful shiny batter.
6) Cut up half the chocolate orange into chunks and add these to the mixture, stirring to combine.
7) Divide the mixture between the cake cases using a dessertspoon. A generous dollop on a dessertspoon should be plenty - you want the cases to be two thirds full. If you add more, there won't be much space for frosting!
8) Bake in a preheated oven for 15 - 18 mins. Check after 15 minutes and if they look baked but you can hear a gentle crackling sound coming from the cakes, give them another 3 - 5 mins. If you're unsure if they're baked, insert a skewer or cocktail stick into the centre of one of the cupcakes. If it comes away clean, they're baked.
9) Remove from the muffin tray as soon as possible, and leave to cool on a wire rack.

method for the frosting
1) Melt the chocolate orange in a bowl over simmering water, or in the microwave, and leave to cool.
2) Sieve the icing sugar into your mixing bowl, along with the butter, and beat together until you have a crumbly texture. (You're not looking for the butter and sugar to fully combine in the way that you get with buttercream, as there is too much sugar for this to happen.)
3) Add the cream cheese, orange zest and sifted cocoa powder, and beat until the frosting is smooth.
4) Check that the melted chocolate has cooled, then beat into the frosting. (It's essential that you give the chocolate time to cool. If you add it as soon as it has melted, the frosting will probably separate.)
5) Insert a star shaped nozzle into a piping bag, then fill with the frosting. Before piping, squeeze the piping bag over a bowl to get rid of any air pockets, then pipe onto your cooled cakes.

********************************

Notes on making frosting
+ I have found it much easier to get the perfect consistency of frosting since buying a freestanding mixer - the motor is so powerful and the blade is so efficient that it mixes brilliantly. If you don't have a freestanding mixer, you can still get a lovely consistency, it just requires a bit more patience, and just add the ingredients more gradually to allow plenty of time for everything to combine.

+ The temperature of the butter is very important. I never put my butter in the fridge, as it takes too long to bring it to room temperature (we don't have a microwave). If you try to make frosting with butter that has just come out of the fridge, it will be very difficult to get everything to combine properly, because of the hard consistency of the butter.

+ Sieving the icing sugar and cocoa is essential to avoid lumpy frosting.

+ Using full fat Philadelphia is also essential in avoiding lumpy frosting. I have tried a number of supermarket own brands, as well as low fat cream cheese, and none of them have worked as well as Philadelphia. Although it's a bit more expensive, I would say it's worth it for the texture it creates!!

+ If possible, take your Philadelphia / full fat cream cheese out of the fridge half an hour or so before making the frosting, so that it is not too cold when you add it to the other ingredients.