28/09/12 - Freshers Week Extravaganza 4: Studying

[I am so sorry I missed yesterday's blog post - I had one half-written and intended to finish it, but I've been struck down by the dreaded Freshers flu and just was not up to it.]

And of course we can't forget the most important aspect of university, the reason you're there in the first place, what you worked so hard for all those years of high school: a higher education.  As important as all the other stuff is - the independence, the socialising, the new experiences - ultimately a degree should be what you're focussed on.  It's an easy thing to lose sight of.  I won't deny that I often do the same.  I know the temptation to roll over and smack that alarm clock into submission after a heavy night.  I know the feeling of dread when you look out the window and see the torrential rain/driving wind/dangerous icy aftermath of snow, and the urge to return to your nice warm bed with a cup of tea.  I know the leap of joy when you realise that your lecturer puts all their lecture notes, word for word, online and you never have to leave your bedroom again.  But believe me, you'll regret all those lie-ins come results day.

Most first year courses only require you to get at least 40% in all your assessments in order to progress to second year.  I know there are a lot of discrepancies between different universities and different courses, but the majority operate this system.  My main piece of advice is do not use this as a set-in-stone rule.  If you focus on scraping 40% in first year, second and third will come as quite a shock.  I can't count the number of times I've heard, and even said myself, "If I get forty, I'll be happy.  I only need forty."  It becomes every fresher's mantra.  And yes, there will be some essays that you worry will only just get you that much-coveted forty.  Nine times out of ten, it's never that bad.  If you've put in even a little bit of effort, you should do better than barely passing.

Keeping your notes organised is key.  My personal system is to use an A5 simple reporter's notebook in lectures, making sure I put the date and module title at the top of each new set of notes or I get really confused.  Then I write all the notes up neatly on A4 lined paper before separating them into a different ring-binder for every module.  I do my best to keep on top of this, or my notes are all messy and it makes revising and essay-writing really tough.  Personally, I find that writing and rewriting information gets it embedded in my brain, but use whichever method is easiest for you (and if you have any handy note-taking tips, leave them in the comments!)

I feel like a hypocrite with this next point but try and do your work in advance of the deadline.  Pretty obvious, I know.  But it's a rule I have never abided by.  It's one of my worst habits.  I'm always the girl doing marathon sessions in the library, downing Relentless and black coffee with Pro Plus, and sobbing silently into a pile of textbooks.  I will reluctantly admit to pulling all-nighters before a deadline, and last year I wrote two 2,500 word essays in the space of forty-eight hours.  That was horrendous.  This is the point of this piece of advice: do not make my mistakes.  It's not big, it's not clever, and it will leave you looking zombie-fied for days afterwards.  

I find that keeping track of deadlines and other commitments is easiest when you have a calendar or diary to make note of everything in.  At the Freshers Fair, my university provides huge wall-planner posters which a lot of people take and never use, but without mine I would be a lost cause.  I keep it above my desk and write everything on it.  I also have upwards of two diaries on the go at any time - my academic planner from uni, my personal handbag diary with social commitments, and another one just to be on the safe side!

Everyone reacts differently to certain methods of revision or organisation - I won't get into the whole visual learner, kinetic learner, blah blah that they always shoved down your throat in school...but it's true!  These are just my personal tips and I've tried to keep the advice as general as possible.  Please share your own handy hints in the comments, and let's help everyone have a wonderfully productive year!

26/09/12 - Freshers Week Extravaganza 3: Socialising

This aspect of university life is the one that most people look forward to and focus on, especially in Freshers Week.  And I won't deny it; it's an essential part of the university experience.  You can enjoy your newfound freedom without worrying about what time you get home or waking your parents up with your drunken stumblings.  The opportunities for socialising will be endless - themed club nights, events every night at your Student Union, cheap drinks.  It will probably be hard to resist.  And I'm not saying you should resist.  

I love a night out.  Yes, I'm a bit of a geek and spend a lot of time on the Internet.  Yes, I'm quite a girly girl sometimes and don't like the thought of a stranger pouring drinks down my new dress.  But ultimately, I like to let my hair down on a night out as much as the next person...in fact, I am writing this in the early hours of the morning with a full face of make-up and aching feet from killer heels (I had a quiet one, hence my legible typing!)  And let's be honest, I'm a (sort of) Scouser at heart.  We have a reputation to uphold!  But, despite all that, I can appreciate that there are some people who aren't like me.  Some people can't think of anything worse than going to a darkened, noisy room with a bunch of inebriated idiots who are undoubtedly being obnoxious.  Some people just don't like alcohol or the idea and practise of getting out of control.  If you are one of these people, don't worry.  Not everyone will want to go out every night of Freshers.  The girls I lived with in first year all skipped one night out to eat brownies and watch 'The Parent Trap'...and it was one of the best nights we had; a chance to actually get to know your new housemates rather than just getting drunk with them.  Don't feel pressured into doing anything you don't want to - it may be tough to get away without some gentle (or otherwise) teasing if you choose to stay in.  But I regularly choose a night in front of the telly over a night on the tiles.  There's nothing wrong with it, particularly when you're feeling knackered or are running out of cash.

When you do venture to out on a drinking extravaganza - which is likely to happen unless you are bless with an iron will for self control - just...be careful, yeah?  I don't want this to turn into one of those PSHE videos you get in school about drinking in moderation and all the bad stuff that happens when you get drunk.  Those videos make valid points and it always pays to be sensible...but everyone knows it isn't always that easy.  I will grudgingly admit - and my friends will tell you with glee - that I have made some bad decisions and made a fool of myself whilst under the influence.  Most of us have at one point or another.  And I don't recommend it.  Particularly not in Freshers Week.  A bad reputation is easy to gain and difficult to shake.  Nicknames and anecdotes relating to things you'd rather forget will not go away.  Trust me, your drunken antics will haunt you for years to come.  I am still reminded of things that I did two years ago, and I constantly remind my friend of a certain incident at a house party back when we were in high school.  This stuff isn't easily forgotten...especially when it's funny.  So I'm going to get the dull stuff out of the way here: never get in an unmarked taxi, stick with a friend (and random guys who seem lovely are not friends), use protection, drink lots of water, don't walk home alone, always have your key, etc etc.  You know the drill.

Don't be afraid of fancy dress.  It's all part and parcel on the university experience.  There will be obscene amounts of opportunity to put on a silly outfit and hit a club.  Most SU clubs do themed nights once a week, encouraging you to wear anything from school uniform to your pyjamas to the guise of an extra on The Only Way Is Essex.  And it's so much fun!  Personally, I don't understand people who don't like fancy dress...although I know there are those people out there.  I feel like it makes getting ready to go out easier - you already know what you're going to wear and it doesn't matter if you look funny, because everyone will.  So embrace it.  You can pull a costume together out of a few bits and pieces you have lying around, so it doesn't have to be an expensive or time-consuming habit.

Hallowe'en 2010
Toga party
Favourite musicals social

Back to School theme
Northern Monkeys vs Southern Fairies social
Hallowe'en 2011
999 themed night
See?  So much fun!

If you have any handy hints for staying safe as well as having a good time and making the most of Freshers Week, leave them below!  Also, let me know what fancy dress themes you've taken part in...it's always interesting to see what different universities do.

25/09/12 - Freshers Week Extravaganza 2: Eating

Believe me, the food at university is one of the biggest shocks to your system.  Or at least, it was to mine.  Going from having my parents cooking plenty of delicious food at mealtimes and cupboards which were always well-stocked, to a grotty shared kitchen where things consistently went missing and catered halls which were more akin to school dinners than real food and where the only vegetarian option tended to be pasta or chips?  Not fun.  Especially not for someone like me, who would rather have a goat's cheese and beetroot salad than a Pot Noodle and baked beans.  

This is NOT cooking!
Healthy eating can be a struggle in your first year of university.  I found that the freedom of living away from my parents seemed to equal the freedom to order takeaways and live primarily off ice lollies and crisps.  This is probably the reason I put on so much weight in my freshers year - that, and the alcohol...but that's another point for another blog post.  And then when I went home at Christmas and was confronted with all the lovely home-cooked food and other trappings that the festive season brings...well, it was becoming a problem.  After Christmas, I did join the gym and gave up crisps, my biggest vice, for Lent which helped a little.  But overall, it was not an attractive year in Hannah Land - I gained a stone, give or take, just in my first few months of uni and didn't drop it again until the summer.  

My main advice would be:

  • Don't let yourself get overwhelmed by the abundance of takeaway menus you will find everywhere coupled with the money that appears in your bank account every term nearly as magically as the food used to appear in the fridge at home.  Give yourself a few weeks of excitement and then try and settle into a routine.  I know the temptation will be strong, particularly if you're not in catered halls and have to feed yourself every night.  The occasional hungover McDonald's breakfast or late night cheesy chips won't kill you - although both those options turn my stomach - but trust me, in the long-run your waistline and your skin will thank you.
  • Buy a wok.  You can stirfry anything.
  • Never go food shopping when you're hungry.  It is a recipe for disaster - everything you see that's on offer will seem like an amazing purchase, and when you get home you'll be left with a cupboard full of Jaffa Cakes, pre-packaged cake mix and weird flavoured Pringles...and not a lot else.
  • On a similar note, always make a shopping list of the essentials you need.  Work out what you need before you go and try to stick to it as closely as possible.  And don't forget to shop around to find the cheapest way of buying things; you may be used to your branded ketchup at home, but supermarkets' own brands work out much cheaper and are often just as nice.
  • If possible, travel further afield.  Although the little convenience supermarket at the end of the road may be the quickest way of doing your weekly shop, they are always much more expensive than larger city centre or retail park branches, and the stock is much more limited.  Either man up and get the bus, fork out for a taxi (extortionate) or make sure you have friends who own cars - I love you, Charlie and Charlotte!
  • Be realistic.  Yes, bulk-buying frozen ready-meals because they're on a great deal sounds logical, but when you get home to a tiny freezer you share with eight other people (again, just my own experience) and try to shove it all in, the bargain soon begins to look a bit silly. 
  • Don't be snobby.  This is something I have had to learn myself.  To this day, I admit to being a bit of a snob when it comes to certain types of food - mostly bread and cheese.  But face facts: you simply can't afford to be.  Doing your week's shop at your local Lidl or Aldi may seem like a blow to your reputation from which you may never recover, but it's sometimes the only way.  And it will grow on you - Lidl is a haven for bizarre cheap food, but they also stock loads of popular brands at a fraction of the price you'd pay other places.

And don't think just because you're not living at home means that you'll be deprived of all your favourite meals - just learn to cook them yourself.  My Quorn chilli, in my opinion, is now of a standard to rival my dad's...and that is saying something.  I am of the opinion that everyone can cook, just not everyone knows how to.  To help you along on this task, I will be posting regular student-friendly (i.e. cost-effective!), healthy and super-duper easy recipes on here for you to try out.  The best things to cook are ones you can make a lot of and freeze or refrigerate the leftovers - it's possible to feed yourself for a week from a minimum of ingredients if you know what you're doing. If anyone has any healthy recipes or money-saving suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

24/09/12 - Freshers Week Extravaganza 1: Cohabiting

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For most students, the first year of university will be the first time they've lived with anyone other than their families.  So living on your own for the first time can be scary.  But what's scarier than that?  Living with strangers.  Because that's what you're doing.  Unless you've somehow managed to wangle accommodation with someone you already know (unlikely, although it does happen), this is something you can't avoid.  And it's a shock to the system, I won't pretend it isn't.  But it can also be the best thing you've ever done.

The key to cohabiting, I've found, is to keep calm.  In all situations.  Things will go wrong.  People will argue, people will drink too much and make fools of themselves, stuff will get said in the heat of the moment that no one means.  Your cutlery will go missing, someone will use the last of the milk and not buy a new one - it's not the end of the world.  And if you kick off about everything, you'll gain a reputation as that person who kicks off about stuff and then people will be scared of you.  I've seen it happen.  It's a rule you can apply to life in general, not just living with people - very few things are worth getting worked up about.  But every flat has a nutter and I can guarantee that there will be someone who gets in a flap about every little thing.  You will learn to tolerate this, as you have no other choice.  Take a deep breath, turn the other cheek and don't allow yourself to get dragged into conflict over something silly like an unwashed plate.  Of course, don't let anyone take advantage of you, but just try and keep things in perspective.  This isn't like having a spat with your siblings or your parents - these people don't love you unconditionally and won't forgive so easily.

Another thing you will learn is that a cup of tea (or coffee, whichever is your poison of choice) has the ability to solve all ills.  It can be an ice-breaker on the first day, a peace offering after a dispute or a hangover cure.  If you put the kettle on, make sure to ask anyone who is around if they want a brew.  It takes an extra thirty seconds to stick a tea bag in a mug for them and it can make the world of difference.  I can't count the number of DMCs (Deep Meaningful Conversations) I've had with people over a hot beverage at all hours of the day and night, and those are the moments that bond friendships.  To this day, my housemates and I get back from a night out and stick the kettle on while we wolf down our Subways and dissect the events of the evening.

Two rules in one!

Be respectful.  Again, a rule for life.  If you know that your immediate neighbour has an early lecture on a Thursday, try not to make too much noise on Wednesday night.  If you need to borrow something, be it an egg or a fork or anything, ask first.  Clean up after yourself.  Don't be the person who always finishes the milk and never buys it.  Try not to leave crumbs in the communal butter.  Simple as that.  It's common courtesy.

If you do need to address an issue - despite being the world's least confrontational person, I realise that sometimes you can't just let stuff roll off your back, particularly when people aren't offering you the same respect you're giving them - do it in a reasonable way.  Remember you have to live with these people for a whole year, so don't make any enemies.  Don't rant and rave without giving the other person a chance to explain and for the love of God, pick your moment.  Not when someone's rushing off for a lecture, not when someone's hungover and not when you're in the pub surrounded by a huge group of your friends.  This was the tactic favoured by a girl I lived with in first year - rather than talk to you about a problem when you both had a spare moment, she would announce it to all and sundry which made the person on the receiving end of that complaint feel about this big.  It was unnecessary and made her look like a total bitch.

For second year, I decided to live with five of the seven other girls I shared a floor with in halls and other than one who caused a huge drama and ultimately moved out and of whom we no longer speak, we very rarely have any conflicts.  I recognise that I am very very lucky in this respect and I do appreciate how blessed I am to have such great friends to live with...and if they read this, I'll never live it down!  Living with people you get along with makes the world of difference to your university experience, but by following these tips you can try and make living with anyone as painless as possible.

If you have any other tips on cohabiting, or even any tales of woe about housemates from hell (I have plenty from first year, I have been very restrained!), share them in the comments below!

22/09/12 - Freshers Week Extravaganza!

Freshers Week fast approaches and I have totally wasted my first week back in my university house.  As I intended to be mega-productive but instead spent a lot of time in my pyjamas, I felt like I needed to do something...useful.  And therefore, for the whole of the next week (my uni's Freshers Week, I know a lot of universities do it at slightly different times) I will be posting a new blog containing student lifestyle advice every day - everything from eating well, living well and of course, getting that all-important degree.  

I really hope you find these posts helpful in some ways.  Even if you don't, it's given me something to do this week and even if just a couple of my tips can make someone's first university experiences a little easier or more enjoyable, I'll be a very happy bunny.

So get ready for the tidal wave of my 'infinite' knowledge on all things studenty!  If you're not interested in this stuff or don't find it relevant to your life, don't worry at all - the normal rambling and unstructured service will resume soon.

17/09/12 - New (Academic) Year Resolutions.

So here I am.  Back at university, sitting in my pyjamas and surrounded by boxes and bags of all my worldly possessions that I decided would be vital to get me through my final year.  So far, I've organised my make-up drawers...and not a lot else.  And instead of unpacking, I'm watching repeats of 2 Broke Girls and writing this blog post.  Priorities are my strong point.

Most people I know make New Year Resolutions.  I'm no exception to that.  I'm always full of good intentions whenever a chance of a new start rolls around.  Which means that throughout the year, I make a lot of resolutions.  After each birthday, at the start of the summer, sometimes even after Easter...I'm always striving to make major improvements to the way I live my life.  And they always fall flat.  Every time, without fail.  The only resolution I have managed to keep was when I stopped eating seafood at the age of fourteen. And even that is a resolution I regret sometimes, but am too stubborn to break.  

I know loads of people who vow to "work really hard" and "do all their essays way before the deadlines" at the start of every term.  It doesn't happen.  So I'm hoping that by writing this blog post, I'm giving myself an incentive to keep them.  Resolutions are all very well in your head or in a private diary, but if you don't keep them, you're the only person who knows.  Instead, I'm making these very public (to all of my hundreds of readers, obviously) so that when I come to give you updates on how I'm doing, it will be that little bit embarrassing if I've been awful at keeping them!

Here we go:
  • Motivation - university work, gym sessions, keeping on top of my reading; you name it, I need to more motivated towards it.  Gone are the days of getting home from a lecture and getting straight back into bed with a cup of tea and my laptop.  Even if I'm writing a blog post rather than doing work, at least it's productive.
  • Healthy lifestyle - this consists of eating well, drinking less alcohol and more water, going to the gym (as mentioned above) and getting more sleep.  The last point is the most difficult one.  While I have a fairly healthy diet, always keep a bottle of water in my bag and go to the gym more often that most people expect me to, I have such issues with going to bed early.  Living with your friends makes it tough to be the one who goes to bed at half ten while the others sit up in the living room, watching 'Keeping Up with the Kardashians' (don't judge) and chatting.  So I just need a little self-control.
  • Organisation - I'm the girl who 'invests' in colourful folders, Post-it notes, hundreds of pens to colour co-ordinate things...and then never gets round to doing anything until the week before exams.  This term, I am determined to keep all my notes neat and in order so that revision and essay work is ten times less stressful.  Also, it looks so much better than scrappy bits of paper with half-scrawled lectures on them.
  • Detox my life - this isn't just a health kick, despite my decision to drink more water and eat more fruit and veg.  I need to detox my entire life, specifically my bedroom.  As it stands, I have two good-sized rooms (one at home, one at uni) which are both absolutely stuffed with well, stuff.  Stuff that I hardly use, hence why it spends half its life in a place I don't live.  But eight months from now (SCARY), I'll have to condense all this stuff into one bedroom at my parents' house.  That is currently an impossible task. So I need to start weeding out my stuff from both rooms. 

So, wish me luck!  I'm going to need it.  I'll probably do an update at the end of the term to see how I've been getting on.  If you're starting a new school or university term, let me know your resolutions in the comments!  You can let me know how you do with keeping them, and then we can all wallow in self-loathing at our lack of control/celebrate our wonderful achievements together!

12/09/12 - Early on-set nostalgia

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[Warning: this post is entirely self-indulgent.]

So summer is officially over.  The fact that I woke up yesterday to absolutely torrential rain and spent all day in work huddled inside my jumper, cursing the fact that I wasn't wearing waterproof shoes, makes this very clear.  The nights no longer feel summery when you go out, that biting chilly wind is back, and I'm breaking out my collection of scarves whenever I leave the house.  The other thing that spells the end of summer is the mass migration of all my friends back to their respective places of education - from Wales to Hertfordshire, we're all jetting back.

It feels like the past few months have absolutely flown by!  Between my job, catching up with friends, jaunting down to London, a lovely family holiday, wasting an awful lot of time on the Internet, having some brilliant and very unique experiences and other things that I can't even put my finger on, it's been a very hectic summer.  And a surprisingly enjoyable one.  At the end of last term, I was going through some pretty heavy personal stuff which I was worried would put a dampener on my whole summer  - you know how it is; everything just seems to happen at once and it's easy to let it all get on top of you.  But with the help of my wonderful friends and particularly the music of the Script, I've actually managed to have a pretty good time of it.

But now it's back to the grind.  Back to worrying about money and making sure my laundry's done and camping out in the library around essay deadlines.  Third year.  Things are getting serious and scary.  This is my last chance to make a mark at university before having to move into the (eek!) real world.  But it's also back to my own space and freedom, some of my favourite people in the world and no one raising an eyebrow when I refer to returning home at half past midnight as "not too late".  There are pros and cons to every situation.  The main con of going back is that I'm going to miss everyone from home so much.  I'm really hoping to be able to visit more people at university this year, as I've only experienced two other places in the past two years.  Nowhere near enough.  But what is really hitting me now as we all prepare to return - in fact, some people will have already gone by the time I post this - is that this is our last 'normal' summer.  After this, who knows what we'll be doing?  Everyone has different ambitions and different plans, which is exciting and terrifying in equal measures.

And let's not forget my beautiful family.  I moan about them a lot, but they are honestly much more to me than free food, a taxi service and a bank.  Of all the people I miss when I'm at uni, my family are the ones I miss the most.  I won't get too soppy here, but I didn't want them to think they'd been over-looked.  Let's just say, I may be a little teary when my mum drives away on Sunday, leaving me to sort out my room and crack on with my dissertation.

But this post is dedicated to appreciating the brilliant times I've had, not getting myself all stressed out about the future.  So I'll leave you with some ahem, 'stunning' photos of my summer. 

I hope you've all had a brilliant summer and made some beautiful memories that will keep you going through the cold winter months.  Leave your favourite part of summer 2012 in the comments below - I'd love to hear about how you've spent your time!

08/09/12 - Birthday Baking with Dr Seuss

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The red velvet cake is something of a trend at the moment - I remember when I first discovered the concept and got my dad to make me one for...possibly my sixteenth birthday?  Maybe fifteenth.  There are hundreds of variants of the recipe knocking around, including one I once tried which used beetroot to colour the sponge rather than artificial colouring!  Since then, it's taken off in leaps and bounds, particularly since the whole cupcake thing exploded a couple of years ago.  I am a huge fan - my friends can vouch that a few years ago, I went through a phase of dousing every cake I made in food colouring (my rainbow cupcakes became the stuff of legend at the orchestra I went to) - so what's not to love about a red chocolate cake?  Amazing.

So when my beautiful friend Sarah's 21st birthday rolled around, I decided to break out the cupcake cases and get my bake on!

This cake idea actually has a bit of back-story to it.  Basically, Sarah and I - like the super awesome teenagers we were - made it a tradition of doing joint costumes for fancy dress opportunities.  And our favourite was Dr Seuss's Thing 1 and Thing 2.  The costume involved T-shirts with marker pen labels, denim skirts and red tights, topped off with backcombed hair and turquoise eyeshadow - ever the classy ladies.  And so, now that we're growing up and we haven't donned our red tights for a few years, I thought we'd take a trip down memory lane.

See the resemblance?
The first of many incarnations of
this costume idea, at a friend's 16th birthday.

For this recipe you will need:
60g unsalted butter - leave it out the fridge for a bit, or mixing is a bit tough
150g caster sugar
1 egg
10g cocoa powder
20ml red food colouring
Half a teaspoon of vanilla extract
120ml milk (a lot of recipes specify buttermilk, but I couldn't find any...semi-skimmed was absolutely fine)
150g plain flour
Half a teaspoon of salt
Half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
One and a half teaspoons of white wine vinegar

Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 3 (170 C/325 F) and line a cupcake tray with twelve large paper or silicone cases.
Cream the butter and sugar until it's light and fluffy.  Slowly add the egg, beating the mixture well as you do so, until everything's well incorporated.
In a separate bowl, mix the cocoa powder, vanilla extract and food colouring into a thick paste - it may take a while for the ingredients to combine but keep at it because it will work eventually.  I contemplated starting again at one point, but then it all suddenly clicked!
Add this paste to the first bowl, making sure you get as much out of the bowl as possible (a rubber spatula works wonders for getting every last drop).  Mix it all up, adding some milk and flour along the way.  Keep adding both ingredients slowly until it's all in there and combined into a lovely thick red mixture.
Whack in the salt, bicarbonate of soda and vinegar - all of which require a steady hand as the measurements needs to be as accurate you can get them - and give it all a good last mix until you think it's all ready to be baked.

Pop your mixture into the cake cases, filling each about two-thirds full.  Bake them in your preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until the sponge bounces back - you should be able to insert a skewer into the centre and have it come out clean.  Leave them to cool in the tray for a few minutes before putting them on a wire rack to cool fully.

Now, here comes the fun bit!  With the red aspect of the Things 1 and 2 theme covered, now all that was left was the blue hair.  My original plan was to use blue candyfloss to decorate it, as can be seen in this photo I nabbed off Google images:

But after failing to locate any blue candyfloss, I admitted defeat and went for a simple buttercream frosting.  I don't actually know the measurements for this, as I have never used a recipe in all my years of baking.  My plan tends to be - whack about a chunk of butter or margarine in a bowl and just keep adding icing sugar until you get the consistency you want.  This can take a while, particularly if you want your buttercream to be thick and create a slight crust when dry.  For this particular batch, I added some blue food colouring to the bowl until I was happy with the shade.

All topped off with some labels I printed from the Internet - I would have liked to use rice paper, but instead I just had to tell everyone to by no means eat the paper on top!  And voila!

So there you have it!  You can decorate them in any way you want, to suit any theme or person!  Let me know about your baking triumphs in the comments - I am actually really proud of these cakes, and that doesn't happen often as I'm not a great baker.

And a huuuuuge HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Sarah - her birthday night out was such a good laugh, and I miss her now that she lives her university life in Wales.

05/09/12 - The time I ran away with the circus...

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Okay, not really.  I am far too uncoordinated and nowhere near flexible enough for that.  In actual fact, I did what is probably the closest I will ever get to actually running away with the circus, which was working on the Piccadilly Circus Circus.  If any of you weren't aware of this event - I'm sure most of you won't have been, as it was a very hush-hush thing until the day before it actually happened - the Piccadilly Circus area of central London and the streets adjoining it were closed to traffic over the weekend and the pedestrianised areas became home to 247 international circus artists over twelve different stages as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad running alongside the Olympics and Paralympics.  I spent the weekend as a volunteer, wearing a rather fetching bright orange T-shirt and liaising with the artists in order to ensure that they had a productive and pleasurable weekend as many of them had travelled a very long way to perform.  This job mostly involved keeping the dressing rooms stocked up with water and fruit, and sitting in windowless kitchens waiting for instructions from the group I was assigned to - the incredibly talented Gandini jugglers who, as a London-based and very self-sufficient troupe, needed very little assistance.  None, in fact.  Although my being there felt like a bit of a waste of time - especially Saturday, when I spent upwards of four hours sitting on the floor in a kitchen - ultimately, I had a really great weekend.  Seeing all the performances, spending a weekend in London (and seeing the darling Megan who let me use her as a hotel!) and getting some volunteer experience to whack on the old CV made it worth it.

Gandini Juggling


Opera singers in GIANT dresses

But the best part was undoubtedly the finale.  At 8pm on Sunday evening, a huge crowd gathered in Piccadilly Circus to witness the showstopping final event of the weekend.  No one knew what it would entail, just that it was one not to be missed.  And my word, was that true!  Les Studios des Cirque, a French company, performed an absolutely stunning zip-wire act more than thirty feet above the heads of the awed spectators.  With haunting music composed specially for the occasion and one and a half tonnes of feathers scattered over the crowds, it was certainly one I would have been gutted to miss (but if you did, you can watch a bit of it here).  Even after the act was finished, people stayed for over an hour more to play in the feathers - I, of course, amongst them.  Have you ever made a feather angel?  You're missing out!  It was like a classy foam party and something I believe all universities should consider as a much more fun alternative.  I kind of want one at my wedding now!  I'm still finding feathers in my bag and clothes, an amazing reminder of the once-in-a-lifetime weekend I experienced.


Even after a vigorous shaking, my clothes
were still feathery for a long time.

So there you have it.  I marvelled at the skills of performers from seventeen different countries, gasped and hid my face at death-defying circus acts, and best of all - I partied with  the angels.  

Were any of you lucky enough to be at the Piccadilly Circus Circus?  What did you think?  Let me know in the comments!

Note: photos marked with '*' are not mine.  This is probably obvious by their clearly superior and professional quality.