About ten years ago, back in my days of working for a luxury lingerie brand, I (Elisalex) was covering a shift in our Selfridges concession when I spotted Xanthe Milton, aka Cookie Girl. Carrying a basket of cookies, dressed in red gingham and frilly aprons with brunette locks and red lips, she looked like Red Riding Hood crossed with Bettie Page. Style nirvana as far as I was (and still am) concerned. We got to talking, I snaffled a few of her delicious cookies, and she went on her way. In the years that followed, for one reason or another we just kept bumping into each other! I'd go past her stall in Portobello, she'd swing by the shop I was working at, my Mum gave her a couple of dresses for her book shoot... and we've ended up living around the corner from each other!
Xanthe is as her alias suggests - the poster girl for all things sweet and delicious. But, and like most independent business women these days, there's so much more. As she gears up to relaunch Cookie Girl since the birth of her two latest babies, we asked Xanthe if she might want to share some of her wonderful recipes with us on this here blog every now and then. Luckily for us, and believe me I'm salivating as I type, she agreed! And even better, Xanthe has offered all BHL readers a 20% discount off all gift certificates purchased before Christmas Eve!*
What follows is my absolute favourite recipe from her book, "Eat Me!" - and what I now pass off as My Famous Christmas Breakfast Buns. But first, let's find out a little more about Cookie Girl...
About 10yrs ago I was in a situation where I needed to find a way of earning an income and supporting my daughter and partner. I didn’t have any qualifications or a proper career having been making an erratic living working as an actress in TV ads and print work so I wasn’t sure what I could do. Then it occurred to me that everyone loved my baking so I thought I could do something with that. I decided to go with cookies rather than cupcakes as they are much quicker to cook and you can stack them.
I was down to my last £10 and I invested that in ingredients, baking 100 Belgian chocolate cookies. I had a basket, which I filled with the delicious warm cookies. I then went to my wardrobe and cobbled together an appropriately ‘Olde Worlde’ outfit and set off to sell my wares. The first place I went to wouldn’t let me in so when I got to the next office building I buzzed directly to one of the studios so I didn’t have to deal with management! By the end of that day I had sold out and realized I could make enough money to support my family.
When I went into one building the receptionist called out to the employees saying, ‘Would anyone like a cookie ‘cos the cookie girls here.’ And I thought ‘Ooh that’s a really good name, I’ll use that….’. I also realised what a great foot in the door it was and I began blogging about all the fascinating people I met and the stories that unfolded. This was soon picked up by Grove magazine for whom I ended up writing my ‘Cookie Chronicles’ column for five years.
During this time lots of things happened. I started a stall on Portobello Market where I got to be more creative extending my range with cupcakes and large cakes as well as the ubiquitous cookies of course. I then caught the attention of Selfridges who approached me about supplying them with a cake and cookie range. I was soon supplying their stores nationwide. It was then that I was approached by Random House to write a recipe book. I was also receiving requests from people who wanted to learn how to bake and decorate cakes and cookies with me. I soon found that this was far more appealing to me than working in the corporate sector so I pulled out of Selfridges to focus on teaching and writing the book. Although I let go of a lucrative arrangement with Selfridges, I’ve never looked back as I knew my passions lay in other areas at that time.
Writing my book ‘Eat Me!’ was a real labour of love. I made it a lot more work for myself as I decided to write 8000 words of descriptive, nostalgic prose as well as the 80 original recipes, which had to be triple tested. We also created five, slightly bonkers photo setups with me as different fairy tale characters.
I felt justly rewarded when the book came out and went to number 17 in the National Book Charts. I got an amazing amount of press, as the fairytale concept seemed to really capture people’s imagination.
I now have a successful business, teaching people from all over the world to bake and decorate. I also host corporate events, team building, hens and birthday parties. And I have just gone back to writing my blog after rather a long hiatus.
I’m glad that you have this image of Cookie Girl, although the reality was a lot of hard work. My customers never saw the ongoing mess I had to deal with and the hard skin on my palms caused by the wooden spoon. It always felt like I was playing a part with Cookie Girl and however I was feeling I knew I couldn’t inflict a bad mood on my customers. I always felt that my customers relied on me to be upbeat and smiling. And the interesting thing is that after behaving like that for a bit I would actually start feeling happy. I actually put off having babies for a long time as I knew I couldn’t schlepp up and down stairs of buildings whilst heavily pregnant or with a baby in my arms. It was only once the book came out and the teaching took off that I felt I could finally stop going on my cookie rounds. It is now a constant juggling act. My husband and I are both self employed so we always seem to be passing babies back and forth to each other. I limit myself to only two days teaching a week and I try and do all my other work such as writing, ordering, emailing etc. once the kids have gone to bed. This means I often go to bed later than is ideal with two little ones but my husband and I often do a kind of relay where one of us gets up whilst the other sleeps in and then if needs be the early riser goes back to bed for an hour or two.
My three year old absolutely loves getting involved when I am baking and as you can imagine this is often more of a hindrance than a help! I try to keep even tempered and let her get involved, even though it makes a lot more work for me, as I want her to feel a part of what I do and to encourage her passion for it. I try to avoid doing anything too delicate while she is around. I tend to be very relaxed with allowing the girls to have cakes, cookies and chocolate, as it is always in the house it is hard to avoid it. My belief is the more of a big deal you make about children not having treats the more obsessed they become with wanting them. At least I know what goes into everything that I give them. The three year old tends to want a cupcake and then I find it crumbled up somewhere with very little of it having been eaten!
I also try and balance our diet with a lot of healthy dishes. We have a Nutribullet blender, which we use most days. I even freeze fruit smoothies with added spinach and kale for the little ones. A also give the kids quinoa, wholemeal pasta, olives, nuts and seeds. I try and have as many meat free days as possible during the week and am experimenting with raw recipes. I am really interested in coming up with as many economic, healthy and tasty recipes as possible. A big thing for me is store cupboard cooking as with two little ones sometimes it is too much hassle to pop to the shops for fresh ingredients.
It is very sweet of you to ask how I manage to keep my figure but at the moment I am still breast feeding so I feel like it will be at least 6 months til I am back to my usual size. Under normal circumstances I would say that working out at the gym has helped balance my cake consumption.
I think that balance is the key to a healthy life. It is possible to have your cake and eat it. You just need to make sure that you are eating lots of healthy nutritional meals as well. There is a tendency for people to binge when they have had something they imagine to be ‘naughty’. In fact we should factor in that we are going to eat treats and not beat ourselves up about it. I like the idea of having afternoon tea on a Sunday when you can really indulge guiltlessly. I feel a bit hypocritical saying this at the moment though as I am having treats most days but that’s because I’m still breastfeeding.
Plus I always have yummy stuff in the house, which makes it hard. As Mae West said, ‘I can resist anything but temptation!’ I’m planning to get into much healthier habits in the New Year and need to cut down my sugar consumption radically!
I’m so glad that you use my book so much. I think it has a good variety of recipes and there is definitely something for everyone. I often come up with new recipe ideas inspired by what I can find in the kitchen cupboards. I grew up in the middle of nowhere without any shops nearby so I got used to improvising, which has stayed with me. I also often find myself imagining delicious combinations that I then have to test out. I don’t have any plans to do another recipe book at the moment. I am more interested in sharing my recipes through videos so I am hoping to find more time to invest in that. They will be on my blog so keep a look out….
Christmas Breakfast Buns
Filling & Topping
6oz soft dark brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
5oz pecans, chopped
4oz golden caster sugar
8oZ plain flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
1tsp baking powder
½ pint double cream
Preheat the oven to 170 degrees and line a twelve-hole muffin tin with large paper muffin cases.
First make the topping and filling mixture by rubbing the butter into the dark brown sugar along with the cinnamon. Once the mixture has the texture of sand it is ready for you to stir in the pecan nuts.
To make the batter, cream the butter and sugar together so that it becomes pale and fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time, beating for about 30 seconds between each new addition. In the meantime, sift the flour, bicarbonate and baking powder together in a medium sized bowl. Add this to the butter mixture in two parts alternating with the double cream. Put a tablespoon of the batter into the prepared paper cases and make sure you cover the base right up to the edges. Use a teaspoon to create an indent in the middle of the cake but make sure there is still a couple of centimetres of batter below it. Use a scant teaspoon of the pecan sugar mixture to fill the hole then cover with another tablespoon of the batter mixture, making sure to cover the sugar. Top off with another teaspoon of the pecan sugar mixture and place in the centre of the oven and bake for 20 - 25 minutes so that they rise up and a little over the edges of the cases. The sugar on top should be bubbling up. Place on a rack and allow cooling a little for about 5 minutes and eat while still warm.
Makes 12 large cakes
*To get 20% off your Cookie Girl gift certificate, email firstname.lastname@example.org and quote '20%xmas14' in the subject line. Offer ends on Christmas Eve, 6pm GMT!