Any regular reader of this blog knows that we tend to take ourselves pretty seriously. I mean, we’re serious consultants with serious work to do and serious policy areas to ponder! We’re passionate about the issues of the day that will affect our work, our clients, and life in general out there in the wild blue yonder; whether it be how the German elections could impact the direction of energy policy, or how the twittersphere is chiming in on Europe.
We’re also passionate about cake. Yes, you read that correctly, cake: the edible foodstuff that is sweet and moist and can be blamed for ever-expanding waistlines of office workers, worldwide.
Now it seems, as the resident baking enthusiast here at FleishmanHillard (and instigator of semi-regular, now infamous ‘cake competitions’), I’ve begun to get a bit of a reputation. So when colleagues spotted an opportunity to form a team to participate in the BritCham Great Brussels Charity Bake Off competition, they knew exactly who to call. We pulled together a team of bakers (me, Jane, Sandrine, & Maria Chiara), gave ourselves a name “FHun in the Oven” (apparently makes Brits chuckle – thanks James), and decided to bake a good ol’ fashioned Hummingbird Cake – a specialty of this famous London bakery (Like a carrot cake, but not. See the recipe below).
After some fun Sunday-evening adventures (Batter tasting! Bowl licking! Icing-testing!), and one happily-averted mishap that almost ended with the top layer of our cake on the pavement of Rue Goffart, we were feeling pretty good (read: in a sugar-induced coma) about our handiwork…
…Until we started checking out the twitter feed #BxlBakeOff and saw the seriousness with which our competitors clearly take themselves.
The competition was fierce and I mean fierce. 24 cakes. There were cakes with squirrels and acorns fashioned out of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts…
There were orange=frosted covered Halloween cakes that tasted like my childhood and were adorned with creepy little edible marzipan bats and rats!
There was even a cake depicting an EU legislative timeline! I mean, these people really do EAT, breathe and sleep their work!
Needless to say, our humble little hummingbird cake, despite its deliciousness, found itself a little out of its league amongst the worthy competitors.
The winner was a 3-layered cake, with each layer representing a color of the Belgian flag. It was wrapped in a Belgian flag banner, covered in what I think was chocolate ganache, and had a 3D edible version of The Grand Place atop its chocolate & edible-flower be-carpeted self. Hmpf. I know it’s hard to believe. I didn’t get a picture, so recommend checking out Judge Emma Beddington’s instagram’d capture for photographic evidence. She has also written, in hilarious fashion, about her experience as a judge in a post on her own blog, Belgian Waffle – and it’s well worth a read (plus there are more pictures!)
Ok, so we didn’t win this time. And we’re not sore losers. (No really, we’re not!) But now that we know what we’re up against, well let’s just say: challenge accepted!
Roll on November, where ‘pie’ features as the next competition category….and watch this space for further tales of our competitive baking adventures!
The Hummingbird Bakery’s eponymous cake
What you’ll need:
300 g caster sugar
300 ml sunflower oil
270 g peeled bananas, mashed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, plus extra to decorate
300 g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
½ tsp vanilla extract
100g tinned pineapple, cut into small pieces
100 g shelled pecan nuts (or walnuts) chopped, and whole, to decorate* (we used both, pecans in the cake, walnuts on top)
3 20cm cake tins, base-lined with greaseproof paper
250g cream cheese
100g unsalted butter
600g icing sugar, sifted
Preheat the oven to 170 C/325 F/Gas 3.
Put sugar, eggs, oil, banana and cinnamon in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment (or use a handheld electric whisk) and beat until all the ingredients are well incorporated (don’t worry if the mixture looks lightly split.) Slowly add the flour, bicarb soda, salt and vanilla extract and continue to beat until everything is well mixed.
Stir in the chopped pineapple and pecan nuts by hand until evenly dispersed.
Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tins and smooth over with a palette knife. Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown and the sponge bounces back when touched. Leave the cakes to cool slightly in the tins before turning out onto a wire cooling rack to cool completely.
In a separate bowl, beat icing sugar & bitter together in a freestanding electric mixer with paddle attachment (or use a handheld electric whisk) on a medium slow speed until the mixture comes together and is wel mixed. Add the cream cheese in one go and beat until it is completely incorporated. Turn the mixer up to medium-high speed. Continue beating until the frosting is light and fluffy, at least 5 minutes. Do not overbeat, as it can quickly become runny.
When the cakes are cold, put one on a cake stand and spread about one quarter of the cream cheese frosting over it with a palette knife. Place a second cake on top and spread another quarter of the frosting over it. Top with the last cake and spread the remaining frosting over the top and sides. Finish with pecan nuts and a light sprinkling of cinnamon.
It’s that time of year again. The time of year when the populace of the EU Quarter abandons Brussels like rats from a sinking ship and those few of us left on board are trying to wrap up all of the ‘admin’ tasks that we’ve put on hold for the several previous, hair-raisingly busy months.
It’s also the time of year when I, as an American, have to go through the annual bureaucratic rigmarole that is renewing my Belgian work permit. This is now my third time down the path of renewal and every year it’s the same somewhat maddening procedure (though the first time is always the worst!). This year, however, I’ve found myself pondering the question that I always find myself answering for curious Europeans who say something like ‘But, it’s normal for Europeans to want to go to the States, but you’re an American, how did you find yourself here, in Brussels?!’, and so I decided to take a little poll around the FH Brussels office to see why the other Americans (there are 5 of us in total!) are here.
Carey Evans, from Los Angeles, California
“I came for the weather… clearly.”
Jessica Henderson, from the Twin Cities area (Minneapolis/St. Paul), Minnesota
“Because I couldn’t afford London, Paris, or Geneva.”
Tatiana Hulko, from Evergreen, Colorado
“I blame the Brit in my life for trading in sunshine for rain.”
Katie Wolicki, from Asheville, North Carolina
“Belgian chocolate, frites, waffles, and the little boy peeing….what more could you ask for? ”
That leaves me. So why am I here? Well, I can’t say I came for the weather and I, too, am probably unable to afford the luxury of life in London, Paris, or Geneva. Nor can I claim that it was the infamous beer, waffles, or chocolate that lured me here – though they didn’t hurt. And although my colleagues have all provided (what I like to assume are) tongue-in-cheek responses to my query, I have to say that I originally landed in Brussels sort of through happenstance and, like most Europeans here who are not natives to this fair(ish) city, I guess I got sucked in. It started innocently enough, with an internship here during my undergrad studies, but living in Brussels piqued my interest in EU affairs and the policy making scene. I returned after graduating to do a Masters’ in Leuven, got a job in a public affairs consulting firm in Brussels, then another job, et voila, little by little, before I really realized, the exciting world of the EU had gripped me and the slightly more laid-back lifestyle of the Brussels-scene kept me close. Despite the rain and the endless red tape, the lack of friendly service, and the inconvenience of much of everyday life (I’m sorry, but it makes NO sense that all of the shops and stores close on bank holidays when people actually have time to spend their money!) I find myself willfully going through this renewal process that keeps me here for at least another year.
And so, as much as this writer likes to complain about the above mentioned issues (and more!) I have to accept that actually, we do have it pretty good here. The international work environment that I’m lucky enough to be a part of is a unique one. The friends I’ve made who live here and who depart to the far reaches of the globe are largely friends and contacts I’ve made in Brussels. The proximity to the heart of European policy making and the opportunity to have interesting interactions with policymakers means that my job is interesting every day – not something that can necessarily be said even for my counterparts who live and work in America’s version of Brussels, Washington DC. These are the things that brought me here and which keep me here still.
That said, for now I’ve had about as much of Brussels as I can take for 7 months at a time without ‘escaping’ and I’m off on hols back to New England as of Monday. So ‘bonnes vacances’ everyone! See you in a few weeks when I’m back – refreshed by the warm weather, sunny, blue skies, and ocean breezes of the Maine and Massachusetts coasts and ready to face the gray skies and Bruxellois lifestyle that we have all come to, err, know and love.
Lindsay Hammes, from Augusta, Maine
“The show must go on,” “the world stops for no man (or woman)”… just a few clichéd phrases that seem to apply to everyone in the world… everyone that is, except those relying on planes operating in and around the general European airspace.
With the ash-spewing volcano, Eyjafjallajokull (and no, my fingers didn’t slip on the keyboard, that is really what it’s called), bringing most European and trans-Atlantic travel plans to a crashing halt, tourists, business people, and even world leaders have been left stranded across the globe and left to find innovative ways of continuing their business or not, as is the case for many.
However, it seems for one very determined Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, the show does go on. This brief article from CNN highlights Mr Stoltenberg’s digital savvy as he runs his country from an airport lounge in New York via his new iPad.
Seems that not even a havoc-wreaking volcano is a good enough excuse to stop the world from working these days…