Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Summer round-up

So I’ve kind of got out of the habit of blogging. There are 2 main reasons for this: the first is that I now have a newer iPhone. This is much better, and quicker, at accessing everything Internet-related than our laptop, which is now on the older and creakier side, so I only really switch on the laptop when I’m word-processing. However, the WordPress app for iPhone is A PAIN, chiefly because whilst writing is fine, anything else (linking, adding pictures) is a really struggle, so if I think of blogging I have the choice between awkward app and laborious laptop, and neither tends to appeal.

The other reason is just that I have’t thought of it as much. I used to have thoughts that I wanted to share, things I’d seen that sparked off a chain of ideas which came together on the page, but lately that hasn’t happened so much. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as in some respects I’m just living my life, rather than looking at it through the lens of how I’ll report it later.  But I do still want to record and share things, so I’ll do that sometimes and maybe get back to being a more frequent blogger eventually, or maybe remain as an occasional one.

Over the summer I’ve enjoyed a lot of things.  Here’s a round-up of the best, some of which I’ll describe in more detail in future posts.

Meeting up with all my family, on my dad’s side, at my Aunty’s 75th birthday party in July.   I wasn’t looking forward to this much.  As a family we’re not into big regular get-togethers in the same way as Southern Daddy’s family is, so the last time I’d seen some of these people was at my sister’s wedding in 1999.  Now, that’s not a problem in itself, and obviously we’d have plenty to catch up on from the last 15 years, but I’m not great with people I don’t see on a regular basis – my dad’s neighbours and church friends, mainly – because of one main reason: they can’t tell me and my sister apart.  I don’t know why this is.  We don’t look alike – I am short with brown eyes and look like my mum, she is tall with blue eyes and doesn’t look like anyone much.  I studied languages, she studied sciences.  I married my university boyfriend and we live in the North East with our two children, she married her school boyfriend and they live in the North West with their three children.  Her in-laws live round the corner from my dad, my in-laws live at the opposite end of the country.  And so on.  But for some reason people can’t remember which one is which, who recently had a baby, who’s the linguist, etc.  So there I was thinking that if people I see a couple of times a year can’t work it out, what hope do we have with people I haven’t seen for over a decade?  Plus the fact that people like to point out that I look like my mum, which might be interesting/exciting for them to notice, but for me it’s boring and also annoying after almost 40 years of these comments.  The Bookworm already has to put up with this too.

So anyway, we went to the party, and guess what?  It was lovely!  And amazing.  Everyone knew who I was – because of course (as I realised later) we family, and they all (with the exception of my youngest cousin) remember me from birth, with my proper name and who I am!  And they knew Southern Daddy’s name, and the girls’ names too.  We had a delightful afternoon tea in my eldest cousin’s garden and the weather behaved perfectly the whole time, and we all chatted on and on, and we tried to leave about three times before we made it to the car without being waylaid by someone else who wanted to talk!  And the best part of all?  Everyone there looked like someone else – in fact we’re all just turning into the generation above us.  My aunty has turned into my Grandma, my dad into my Grandad (which I hadn’t noticed till I saw him next to my aunty!), my cousin’s children are all turning into my cousins.  And nobody mentioned it at all.

Attending a performance of Götterdämmerung to complete Wagner’s RingMy best uni friend and I have been meeting up once a year to see part of the Ring cycle, and we’ve now managed the whole thing!

The Bookworm moving from primary to secondary school.  The Bookworm’s year in our tiny primary school went out in a blaze of glory, paired as their final year was with the school’s 120th anniversary celebrations.  This meant exciting activities all year through, culminating in the school play at the end of the summer term.  Usually this is based on a popular children’s book, with the Year 6 pupils taking the lead parts and the rest of the school coming on in groups to play lesser parts (anything from Indians in Peter Pan to chocolate bars in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, depending on age), but this year the play was a retrospective of the school’s history.  All the parts were played by Year 6, with other years coming on to perform a dance, each representing a different period of history.  We saw Edwardian chimney sweeps, 20s flappers, 50s rock’n’rollers, 70s disco dancers, 80s pop-steppers and 90s ravers (the Butterfly’s class dancing to Rhythm is a Dancer).  The Bookworm played the part of the school bell, narrating everything she’d observed over the development of the school from then till now, and it was all fantastic.  We have it on a DVD, I’m glad to say.

Her transition to secondary school has been smooth and relatively straightforward, despite the journey being a fairly long one each day and very few of her former classmates moving to the same school.  It was a difficult decision and it’s good to know we made the right one.

The Handlebards’ second tour.  After last year’s wonderful experience we were keen to see the Handlebards again this summer.  Sadly, the UK tour was in the opposite direction (south to north), meaning that there was no way we could get to Stratford for another visit to The Dell.  We opted to see them in early July at the Cycle Hub in on Newcastle Quayside instead, and we were not disappointed!  It was a much more intimate performance as it took place in the small café seating area outside the hub, so it had a different feel – especially with the noise from boats down on the river interrupting at times (but only adding to the comedy!).  We saw The Comedy of Errors this year, we sat with friends (one of whom got to take part as an impromptu extra), we had a fun picnic… we’re already looking forward to next year!

Visiting 3 different branches of Bettys!  I’ve always loved a trip to Bettys, and this year I decided was the year to try out some branches I’ve never visited.

A holiday in Norfolk.  We hadn’t realised when we booked it, but the holiday rental this year turned out to be part of a Country Club resort which reminded me very much of Kellerman’s in Dirty Dancing!  Most of the time we were out and about exploring the local area, but there were activities provided all week for families and we took part in a couple.  The Bookworm came second in the scavenger hunt which meant that we had to go to the awards ceremony and get-together on the last night, so she could be presented with her medal.  As we all sat there in the bar, in our little family groups, I couldn’t help expecting Patrick Swayze to turn up, complaining about Baby’s being put in a corner and asserting that he always did the last dance (it didn’t happen, despite the entertainment leader’s name being Johnny).

Our trips out and about were wide-ranging and varied – a boat trip to see seals, our first attempt at geo-caching (which resulted in our getting rather wet in a sudden storm!), crabbing on Blakeney pier – and even our usual stately home visits had a different feel.  We’ve been members of the National Trust for many years, but until recently we’ve definitely been a “lunch in the restaurant, trip round the house and adventure playground if you’re good” kind of family, as mine was when I was growing up.  But last year our eyes were opened to more possibilities.  Whether it was the good weather, the fact that our children were growing up or just the increasing range of activities dreamed up by the events team, we ended up spending almost a whole day at Nostell Priory on our way home from holiday – from just after opening time to just before closing.  I’ve never really been an outdoorsy person but there was just so much to do!  This year we visited Blickling, Oxburgh and Felbrigg Halls, as well as Sheringham and Clumber Parks and Peckover House, and on each occasion could have stayed there the entire day (at Blickling we did, and still had more we could have done before we came away!).  There are self-guided garden tours, scavenger hunts and trails for children (indoors and out), second-hand bookshops to browse and giant garden games to play (think Jenga, draughts, snakes and ladders, connect 4 but on a larger scale) at all the places we’ve been this summer.  At Felbrigg there was a box of traditional toys such as skipping ropes, hoopla and balls and cups.  In addition, the 50 things to do before you’re 11¾ scheme means that most places are offering the chance to do some of the 50 things on any given day, from tree-climbing and hill-rolling to nature art and bug-hunting.  One of my children has now passed the 11¾ milestone but doesn’t mind continuing to participate, and I can see us being members of the National Trust for many years to come, since if anything we’re getting more out of it as time goes by.   And some of them are ideally placed for a stop on a long journey that’s much more enjoyable than a motorway services!

New web-based TV seriesSince The Lizzie Bennet Diaries came to an end I’ve investigated several more similar series, some of which I like and some I didn’t so much.

Reading some great books. As usual I’ve been doing lots of reading over the year, and have some thoughts on some of the books I’ve read.

Cooking and baking.  I enjoyed watching Mary Berry’s cooking series earlier in the year and have managed to find some of the recipes published online.  Her lamb dhansak is a particular favourite for a Saturday tea in our family now and it was such a surprise to my spice-hating Butterfly to find she liked it, that she’s been able to try some other new dishes off the back of it, on the grounds that she might like those too!  I’ve also made Mary’s Very Best Chocolate Fudge Cake several times this year, including for each of my daughters’ birthday cakes!  We all enjoyed the Great British Bake-Off too, and I’ve been baking a lot from Recipes from a Normal Mum, a book by Holly Bell who was a finalist in 2011.  A friend and I were lucky enough to go and meet Holly at an event locally, where she was interviewed, signed our books and chatted whilst we enjoyed various cakes and goodies made to her recipes by the hosts of the event.  One of my favourites is the Turkish Delight friendship cake, which isn’t available online, I’m afraid, but comes highly recommended!

That’s it for now – hopefully a bumper post with several little off-shoots should make up for the long silence!

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Magimix cooking part 2: my fail-safe bread recipe

Photos will appear once I’ve remembered to stop and take some, rather than just getting on with it every time!

I’ve already explained that one of the aims of the Year of the Magimix was to see if I could make better bread by hand than by using my breadmaker.  Since then I’ve been working quite hard to find a recipe that would work for me, so that I could make the kind of bread my family would want to eat on a regular basis.  At first it seemed that I was not going to be able to use the food processor for the kneading stage, which I was disappointed about because I had hoped that would be another purpose for having it out on the counter all the time, but the size of mine means that most recipes for ordinary sandwich/toasting loaves make too much dough for the machine to handle.

I began making it completely by hand, which at first I enjoyed because it gave me a sense of achievement, but then I began to notice that the weather, and the humidity in the kitchen, made it difficult to predict how the dough would turn out and how long it would take to knead.  I’ve read that it’s important to the texture of the bread to add as much of the water in the recipe as possible, so I did do this, but on occasions I was getting so tired from working the dough for 20 minutes or more and it didn’t seem to be getting any less sticky or any more stretchy!  It was time consuming, difficult, unpredictable and, besides everything else, I found the sensation of scraping the wet dough off  the board with my fingernails deeply unpleasant.

I was on the point of giving up the idea of making my own bread when – for the sake of speed – I used a packet bread mix and mixed it in the food processor.  I began thinking about how the quantities of flour, etc, still yielded a 2lb loaf (or at any rate a loaf cooked in a 2lb tin), despite being smaller than the recipes I’d been trying.  I searched for a recipe with a smaller quantity of flour and tried it, with some success.  I think it’s the maximum amount of dough my machine can manage (400g flour) because it tends to get a bit hot during kneading, but I find this contributes to the speed of the first rise, so all to the good – and the machine’s only cut out once from overheating, when I left it going too long!

It’s taken another few weeks of working and tweaking to get it the way I want it, and of course weather and humidity are still variables which make the end result slightly unpredictable.  Sometimes it’s fantastic, sometimes it’s fine but nothing spectacular, and I’ve accepted that that’s beyond my control but at least I don’t have to do any more fingernail scraping or risk becoming too muscle-bound!

My annotated food processor bread recipe

400g strong bread flour – any kind, or a mixture.  Whilst I was struggling with too-dense wholemeal loaves (the kind we eat most often) it was suggested to me by many that I should substitute about 25% with white flour to lighten it, but this seemed like cheating to me!  Thankfully I’ve found other ways of lightening the loaf (see below) but I do sometimes mix in 50-100g multi-seed flour with my wholemeal, just for variety!

2 tsp easy-blend/fast-action yeast – I’ve read up on my yeast as I really didn’t understand the differences, and this is the easiest kind to use.  It comes in sachets (in which case just use 1 sachet) or little tins or packs like mini packs of coffee (more cost-effective than sachets if you’re using it a lot) and you don’t have to soak it or anything, just put it straight in.

1 tsp table salt – I use low sodium salt as that’s what we have in for putting on our chips, and it works fine

2 tbsp oil – Olive oil is nice in wholemeal, but you can really taste it in white bread so use a flavourless oil or just leave it out.  It helps to lighten the bread and keeps it moist longer, but it’s not essential.

270 ml tepid water – This is the amount for pure wholemeal, which I make most often.  If you’re making white bread you’ll only need 220ml and you might want to make your own adjustments for the climate, etc, but these work for me.

Fit the dough blade in the food processor and pour in the flour.  Add the yeast in one side and the salt in the other so they stay apart till the last minute.  Pour in the oil and the water [swoosh it round the bowl to try and make sure all the flour is dampened – for some reason my dough blade has quite short arms and it’s easier to get all the flour mixed in if it’s all wet first], then fit the lid on and switch on to process for 5 minutes [you’ll probably need to stand nearby and make sure the machine doesn’t fall off the counter as it tends to jump around quite a lot!].

Lightly grease a large bowl with more oil [really lightly is fine, I just use the dregs of oil left in my measuring cup, wiped out on some kitchen roll and spread round the bowl], then scoop out the dough with oiled hands and shape it into a ball, which you put in the bottom of the bowl [if the dough is more sticky and won’t come out all in one go, scoop it out with a spatula and pat it together with your hands in the bowl, then lift it up and shape it into a ball].  Cover with cling film and leave for the first rise, until the dough has doubled in size, which will take around an hour, depending entirely on the temperature in your house.   I have a dedicated “proving corner” in my kitchen, namely the top of the cat food storage container, which sits quite near, but not too near, the radiator – it’s warm (either from the radiator or the weather) and sheltered from draughts and has the advantage of being visible when you pass the doorway, so you don’t forget about it unless you go off and watch back-to-back episodes of The Office all evening. I once managed to make a loaf from start to finish in 2 hours (which was lucky as it was all I had before I needed to go out) because it was a very warm day!

When this has happened, remove the cling film (keep it though, you need it again – waste not, want not, and all that!) and scoop out the dough, which will immediately deflate as you puncture it.  Put it on a scantily floured or oiled board and punch it with your fist to flatter in it out, then fold the edges into the middle, flip it over and repeat.  Try to flatten it into a square and then fold both sides into the centre, pressing down on the join to give it better structure.  Oil your 2lb tin and place the folded dough into it, tucking the ends under first and pressing them down if the shape is too long for the tin.  Cover with the cling film and leave to prove.  Preheat your oven to 220C or 200C for a fan oven.  Keep a close eye on the dough – from experience I’ve learned that what you want is to catch it just as it reaches the top of the tin, especially for a wholemeal loaf (white ones are far more robust).  If you leave it till it’s all round and risen and towering above the tin, for some reason it will shrink down while it’s baking (will still taste fine but look small and flat), whereas if you catch it before it’s done all its rising it will do a bit more in the oven and you’ll get a better shape and texture to your loaf.  Either way it will be better than the ones with concave tops that my breadmaker insisted on turning out, after we’d seen the loaf rise handsomely all through proving and baking, only to give up in the last few minutes and collapse.

Bake the loaf for 25-30 minutes, then take it out, remove it from the tin and knock on the bottom as if you’re knocking on a door.  If the bread is ready it will make a hollow sound [it’s brilliant, honestly – my favourite bit every time!], otherwise pop it back into the oven, tinless but upside down, for another 5-10 minutes.  When it’s done, cool on a rack.  DO NOT WORRY that the top feels really hard – you have not overcooked it and this will soften up as it cools.  Also try not to eat it before it’s cooled for a little while at least, as it can give you a bad stomach.

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Stuff and nonsense

I realise it’s been a while since my last post (a different season, in fact, with a different blog background!) so I thought I’d do a bit of a round-up of things I’ve been enjoying lately.

 

First of all, I’d like to introduce you to my new kettle.  As you probably know, I’m a big fan of tea and this is, in my opinion, the ultimate tea-drinker’s kettle.  It’s a lovely kettle in itself – very sleek and shiny and silver, and has useful features like a lovely spout that pours really smoothly, a slow-opening lid so you don’t get splashed with hot water if you need to refill it soon after use, and a transparent water measure so you can see from every angle how full it is, even when looking inside.  However, its most useful feature is its variable temperature options.  Like all cordless kettles, it sits on a base which is plugged into the wall, but in this case the base is host to a range of buttons which control the final temperature of the water, in order to bring it to the perfect temperature for various different teas.  The fact is that the younger the tea when picked (green tea is the youngest, black is the oldest), the more readily it gives up its tannins, and if the drink becomes to tannin-heavy it tastes bitter, so a cooler temperature is required to get the best flavour.  The instruction booklet includes a page listing dozens of different drinks and their ideal brewing temperatures, which I’ve photocopied and stuck inside the cupboard above the kettle for easy reference.

Now I’m expecting a couple of  negative responses at this point: the first being “Surely it doesn’t make that much difference to the flavour?”  Well, after a few weeks of research (I bought the kettle over Easter weekend) I have come to the conclusion that for me, it does.  Even the teapigs’ Mao Feng green tea, which I’ve raved about before as being nicer-tasting than other green teas, tastes better when brewed at the correct temperature – before I was just boiling the kettle, leaving it to go a bit off the boil and then adding the water so it was usually still too hot.

The second objection I’m anticipating, from those who have now googled this appliance, is “That’s a lot of money for a kettle!”  And it is, there’s no denying that (I received an unexpected windfall and we decided to buy it out of that).  But would a lover of coffee meet with the same reaction when treating him/herself to a gorgeous, state-of-the-art coffee machine with all the available bells and whistles, or would the response be more of a “Lucky you!”  That’s the way I’m looking at it – a machine to make myself the best cup of tea I can get, whatever kind of tea I want.  I don’t drink coffee as it makes me ill (and, actually, even before when I did used to drink it I always found it a slight disappointment because the taste never lived up to the beautiful aroma!), so teas are my “thing”.  And since my kettle features a “coffee” button too (95C) I feel it’s far more hospitable than a prejudiced and exclusive coffee machine!

 

As a result of this purchase I’ve been introduced to two new kinds of tea.  The first is Oolong, which I can recommend if you’ve never tried it!  There’s an “Oolong” button (90C) on the kettle and apparently this is the only kind of tea which brews at that temperature, so to make full use of my kettle’s features I decided I needed to try some.  I was placing a repeat order of Mao Feng so I added a sample pack of teapigs’ Tung Ting Oolong to my order and my only regret is that I didn’t order a bigger pack!  It is truly delicious.

A few days later a friend, who had noticed my Oolong recommendation on Facebook, handed me a packet of teabags and told me that if I liked green tea and Oolong, I needed to try these.  The tea in question is Kukicha, or Japanese roasted twig tea.   Sounds… unusual, doesn’t it?  I have to admit I was dubious, especially when I read that it really is made of twigs (specifically, the stems of the tea plant rather than the leaves), but I do really like it.  I totally disagree with my friend’s recommendation based on similarity to green and Oolong, because I don’t think they’re at all the same (despite the fact that Kukicha is classed as a green tea).  For me it’s actually closest to coffee, in a strange way, because of the definite aroma and flavour of roasting that it has.

I’m pleased, anyway, to have added these two teas to my range, not least because I’m trying to restrict my calorie intake for a little while following a period of over-indulgence (in passing, the Hilton Gateshead gets an impressive Cream Tea award score of 17) and very little exercise over Easter, and I find that drinking a large mug of milkless tea is a good way of preventing snacking.

 

Apart from drinking tea I’ve been pursuing other interests, including continuing to enjoy our subscription to Amazon Prime Instant Video (formerly Lovefilm Instant).  I’ve finally been able to catch up with the second series of Once Upon A Time, which was every bit as good as the first (if not better for the inclusion of some new characters) and which I’m not ashamed to say I completely raced through.  Now that’s over (till series 3 appears in the dim and distant future) I’ve returned to my habitual film night on Wednesdays whilst Southern Daddy is out at his church housegroup.  I usually go for a rom-com but there have been some included in the list which have turned out to be more than just a generic girl-meets-boy story, such as The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill And Came Down A Mountain which I saw last week.  I felt it had a perfect combination of touching team spirit, historical interest, romance and general daftness!  We’ve also enjoyed some films as a family, including Mrs Doubtfire (which I suddenly realised my children had never seen) and Frozen which they bought on DVD with some Easter-gift money.  I’ve heard it said that it’s the best since The Lion King for a combination of story and music and I can see why.  The songs in particular are very good and (we thought) reminiscent of  the work of Ashman and Menken in earlier Disney films such as Beauty and the Beast.  And on the subject of Frozen, here’s something I enjoyed – hope you do too:

 

The Bookworm and I are still enjoying a bit of one-to-one time together on our journeys to and from piano lessons on a Saturday morning and have been taking advantage of my Audible subscription to provide entertainment en route.  We’re about to start listening to a dramatisation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere tomorrow, but recently we’ve enjoyed Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully starring Julian Rhind-Tutt as a very polite alien commander who’s observing human life in an English village before he rolls out his invasion world-wide, and before that four series of Elvenquest, a Lord of the Rings parody with Stephen Mangan and Alistair McGowan.  And Southern Daddy and I were able to see Mr McGowan in the flesh a couple of weeks ago, appearing in Pygmalion at the Theatre Royal.  Once again we received theatre tokens for Christmas and the only difficulty has been narrowing down the choice of plays to see this year.  We thoroughly enjoyed our first selection – particularly McGowan’s energetic Henry Higgins – but are still choosing between The Mousetrap and Jeeves and Wooster later in the year.  In the meantime, though, we are planning to see The Handle Bards again.  Unfortunately they are doing their UK tour in reverse this year, which means that by the time we’re further south, where we caught them during last year’s glorious summer, they’ll be in Scotland, but they’re appearing near us in early July so we intend to treat the girls to a late night and see The Comedy of Errors.  I strongly recommend you see them if you can, so check the dates on the link above and see if they’re appearing near you!

 

That’s all, I think, for now – I’ve been working away at my Magimix experiments with mixed success, so look out for another post on those soon.

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Magimix cooking part 1: successes and disappointments

So, as planned, I’ve managed to try a few recipes in my food processor over the past month. Four, to be precise.

The first one was to try my usual chocolate chip cookie recipe (from the Hummingbird Bakery book) in it, rather than using a hand-held mixer. This was a relative success, although it didn’t go exactly to plan.

I chopped the chocolate in the small bowl, which was good as it usually takes much linger to do by hand. Then weighing up the ingredients and the instructions (which are really for a stand mixer), I decided to use the dough blade in the main bowl, so put in the starting ingredients and got to work. The dough blade, for some strange reason, has very short blades, which meant that a lot of the mixture was left round the edge and not picked up by the blades. I changed part way through to the regular metal blade (a bit of a messy procedure, but worthwhile) and continued: the remaining mixtures was caught up in the dough after that and it worked fine. When I came to add the chocolate, however, where a dough blade would simply have folded it in, the sharp blade of course shredded little bits off it at the same time, mixing lots of chocolate crumbs into the dough along with the bigger pieces. This turned out ok in the end, though, as they flavoured the biscuit part of the cookies and made them a bit more chocolatey. Probably not better, but no worse either.

On balance I shall probably not use the Magimix for cookies again, as it didn’t really save me any time over my usual method with my hand mixer being pretty powerful. I might use the small bowl for chopping the chocolate though.

My next experiment was to make dough for scones. I would say this was an unmitigated success. I was amazed how quickly the ingredients were whizzed into fine crumbs (the booklet suggested the dough blade for scones, but after the cookies I eschewed that in favour of the sharp blade), especially as I’d forgotten to take the butter out of the fridge in advance so it was still cold. I added the liquid through the spout as the motor was running and the whole thing was ready in moments. I was concerned the scones wouldn’t be as light as usual, as the mixture wasn’t as wet, but I needn’t have worried. They probably benefited from not being handled quite so much.

Cream tea for two!

Cream tea for two!

I made heart-shaped scones for a Valentine’s afternoon tea. The recipe I used would have made 6 large scones, but I made 4 large and 4 small as I wasn’t sure how they’d turn out. I processed 8oz (225g) self raising flour, a teaspoon of baking powder, 1.5oz (37.5g) butter and 1oz (25g) caster sugar until they were fine crumbs (really quick!), then, with the motor running, poured a beaten egg (minus 1 tbsp reserved for glazing) made up to 5floz (150ml) with milk down the spout to bind the mixture. I turned it out onto a board, flattened it with my hand and cut out my hearts, which I glazed with the reserved egg and baked for 15 minutes at 200C (in the Over-Zealous Oven this made them very brown, but they weren’t burnt or dry).

 

 

Heart-shaped scones

Heart-shaped scones

 

They came out unusually rounded and bun-like for scones – not sure if this was the heart shapes or the food processor preparation, but as I’d broken my maxim If you’re going to tweak a recipe, make sure you only tweak one thing at a time, there was no way of working that out!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next thing I made was the most disappointing, not least because I’d made it from the recipe book that came with the machine. The Butterfly and I decided, as it was half term, to try a plaited brioche. We followed the instructions about dissolving the yeast in warm milk, making sure it wasn’t too warm, then adding it to the other ingredients and processing. All went well with the proving and plaiting but then we hit a snag. Prove for a second time in a very low oven, said the recipe. But what is a very low oven? I know from previous baking projects, involving Mrs Beeton recipes and the like, that very low often means about 110-120C, but that seemed a bit warm for proving bread, so I went for 50C, which is the lowest setting on the O-Z O. After half an hour (as stated in the book) I removed it – not looking very different – egg-washed it and returned it to a hotter oven for its allotted baking time, but when it came out it looked rather sorry for itself. We let it cool and then I sliced it and found – as expected – it was rather dense-looking and under-proved. It didn’t taste bad, and we are it with jam for tea, but it was much less sweet than we’re used to and had a rather doughy, steamy flavour. Undeterred, I’ve been looking at alternative recipes and plan to try another one soon with longer, slower proving at room temperature. On the plus side, the dough blade did prove effective for this one!

Finally, today I made an apple crumble on the spur of the moment.  I was making pot roast beef* for Sunday lunch and, as I’d put it all in the slow cooker overnight, there was only the Yorkshire pudding to be made (Southern Daddy always does the steamed veg at the last minute) and I found I had time to think about a pudding.  I used Delia Smith’s recipe, but made my own adjustments – I used eating apples (because it was all I had), I didn’t add any almonds to the crumble (because I hadn’t any), I did add sultanas to the apples (because I like them) and I made half the amount of apple mixture but the full amount of crumble (because we were only four for lunch, but I like a good thick layer of crumble with my fruit!). I could probably have used the slicing attachment and the medium bowl for the apples, but I only thought of this after I’d done most of them!  But I made the crumble in the large bowl really easily and was very pleased with the way it turned out – much quicker than rubbing in by hand when you’re doing something on a whim and don’t have much time.

So, that’s my first Magimix report. I already have plans for a focaccia loaf next week, as well as the second brioche, and I’m constantly on the look-out for more ideas!

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* If you are interested in a recipe for the slow-cooker pot roast, this is what I used.  It’s an amalgam of Delia Smith’s and Martha Stewart’s recipes, adapted to suit the veg we had in.  Serves 4ish.

In the bottom of the slow-cooker dish, mix 1 tbsp cornflour in 2tbsp cold water.  Put in 6 shallots, peeled and halved, 2 parsnips and 2 sweet potatoes, all peeled and chopped, and 2 celery sticks, each cut into 3.  Season with salt and pepper and toss with the cornflour mixture.  Season a 600g brisket joint and sit on top of the vegetables, then pour over 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce.  Put on the lid and place the dish in the slow-cooker.  Set to Auto.  (I cooked mine for 15 hours and it came out nice and moist and completely cooked through.  Obviously if you’re desperate to have your meat rare you’ll have to cut down the cooking time).  Remove the brisket and leave under foil to rest for 30 minutes before carving.  Keep the vegetables warm and bring the liquid to the boil in a pan and serve as gravy.  If you want more gravy you could press the vegetables through a sieve into the juices.

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The Year of the…. Magimix?

Hello, I’m back!  Have you missed me?

It’s been almost a month, but I’ve been poorly for a bit of that time and, without the Austen-themed reviews to spur me on, I didn’t have all that much to write about.

Some lovely things have happened during January, though:

  • We spent a few days staying with my parents at the start of the year, as the girls and Southern Daddy didn’t have to start back until 6th January, which felt like a real treat as it’s often quite a rush back after New Year.
  • We booked our family summer holiday, which this year will be in a self-catering lodge in Norfolk.
  • I had a good day out at the Sage (now an annual event), learning and then performing choral songs from light operas with hundreds of other people and accompanied by the Royal Northern Sinfonia, which set me up for another season’s singing with choir (whose rehearsals resumed the following week).
  • I booked a spa session in February, with a voucher my parents gave me for my birthday – two hours at a hotel spa (accompanied by my lovely Stepmum) including a massage and a pedicure – looking forward to that!
  • I switched my online grocery deliveries to Waitrose (sounds like no big deal but when you’ve been “locked in” to a 6 month delivery plan with a supermarket who was rapidly becoming more and more disappointing, it’s a really nice feeling to be freeeeeeee! Plus, Waitrose brought me a free bottle of champagne with my first delivery and 4 discount codes for subsequent orders, and I’m very happy with the way it’s going.
  • We had a Burns’ Night Supper with haggis, “neeps and tatties ” and a very delicious cranachan.
  • I had a fun day out with the Butterfly’s class at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, exploring their mini rainforest (and enjoying a good chat with the other mum-helpers in the café while the children had their lunch!)
  • Southern Daddy and I have watched all of How I Met Your Mother season 8, which he got on DVD for Christmas (meaning we watched the whole thing in a month!)

Anyway, now we’re nearly at the end of January.  Friday, as you’ll probably know, is Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year.  Apparently, the coming year is the Year of the Horse, but I’m planning to make this year the Year of the Magimix…

SD gave me my Magimix food processor for my birthday several years ago.  In those days my kitchen was full of clutter with no available workspace, and any gadget I happened to own sat out somewhere.  I used the Magimix reasonably often.  But when my friend Wonderwoman helped me to blitz my house and make it less cluttered and more restful and generally nicer to live in, the Magimix and its accessories were relegated to a cupboard because there wasn’t the space to accommodate everything and I used things like the breadmaker more.  And so I all but stopped using it, because it was such a hassle to drag all the pans out of the cupboard to get it out (it’s heavy), and fish out the appropriate blade/attachment, and it’s been languishing in there for a few years now.  Today, though, I wanted to make a chocolate beetroot cake (it’s from this book, but I think for copyright reasons I’m not meant to give the recipe out here) which requires the beetroot to be blitzed in a food processor.  It has to be a food processor – I’ve tried it in the blender, with very messy results.

And as I was getting it all out, and cleaning the sticky, kitchen-y grease off it, and cutting my hand on one of the blades, I thought I should use this more, and not let it get so grubby through lack of use.

And then I thought I haven’t used the breadmaker in ages, because really the bread it makes is pretty poor, and so I only really use it to make dough, and to be honest a machine which only makes dough doesn’t really deserve a place on my counter, especially when I could make dough pretty easily in this instead.

So then I cleared off the recipe books, old paperwork and Christmas card from 2012 from on top and took my breadmaker and stuck it in the garage ready to be thrown out/given away if anyone wants it, and put my newly clean and sparkly food processor in its place.

2014-01-29 19.36.42

Apologies for the appalling photo quality, the current state of the weather means we’re getting practically NO natural light at any time of day.

So now I need to use it.  I plan to find, try out and share recipes this year which make as much use as possible of this versatile gadget.  And I plan to find out what all the attachments do, having only ever used the big whirly blade and one of the graters.

I also plan to replace the children’s artwork, which has been on display since approximately 2005, with a shelf to hold all the accessories (in the case behind the machine) and maybe some of my favourite recipe books.  And Southern Daddy is hoping that this doesn’t result in our redecorating the kitchen!

Some of the stuff which will be going! (The lady with red hair is not me, by the way - it's my mother-in-law! I think I might be the one with the blue arms though!)

Some of the stuff which will be going! (The lady with red hair is not me, by the way – it’s my mother-in-law! I think I might be the one with the blue arms though!)

So I look forward to sharing the Year of the Magimix with you as time goes by, and please, please do share any food-processor-based recipes with me that I might like to try!

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New Christmas recipe

Happy Boxing Day!

I’ve been rather quiet of late, I know. It’s been a difficult few weeks for me – I always struggle this time of the year with feeling low and lethargic and slightly bewildered, but some years seem to be worse than others, and this year seems to be one of Those Years. So I’ve struggled with doing more than the basics, and of course it’s been a time when more than the basics has been required of me – come to this carol service/Nativity play/concert, order presents/a turkey/tickets to things, write Christmas cards and letters (and I confess that my Christmas cards this year were written with very little joy or good will), remember birthdays which people keep on having, even though it’s Christmas. I feel I might well be part-human, part-small aestival creature when part of my brain seems to be bellowing Just hibernate – HIBERNATE, for goodness’ sake! from late October onwards. Although this year I, and a couple of friends, have noticed that this experience has had a later onset, which I put down to the beautiful summer weather we had – it appears that we can store up so much sunlight to last us further into the darker times.

Ann Voskamp‘s book The Greatest Gift, and her advent posts in her online journal have helped me enormously by reminding me to keep turning my focus back to Jesus when things get fraught, remembering that he’s what it’s all about – all the time, not just at Christmas. Something she said that really struck me (and I might be paraphrasing here as I’m typing this on my phone and it’s hard to crosscheck) is that whatever we do/don’t do, we’re not “ready for Christmas” until we’re ready for Christ.

But even with that in mind, gifts do need to be given, and especially to those to whom we’re really grateful for all they do. Southern Daddy and I have felt truly blessed by the school our girls attend and by the effort and sheer hard work the teachers so obviously devote to encouraging, challenging and enthusing the children in their learning (so much so that we’ve had to work quite hard ourselves seeking a suitable secondary school for the Bookworm next year that’s as similar as possible. But that’s another story for another time). Each year, as I’ve said in the past, I try to make or bake something special for them as a Christmas gift, and again in summer, to express our gratitude. This year I had the particular challenge of catering for a teacher who is gluten-free and another who is dairy-free. One or the other would be quite straightforward, but it’s much easier and more economical to whip up a couple of batches of something and give the same to everyone, so I worked on a gluten- and dairy-free recipe and was quite pleased with my final result (particularly as I’d been putting off trying it for so long I’d reached the point where if it hadn’t worked I’d have been in trouble!). Based on Mary Berry’s recipe, it’s a shortbread with (I think) a Christmassy twist that uses gluten-free flour, polenta as a gluten-free substitute for the semolina which gives it crunch and a combination of dairy-free margarine and vegetable shortening in place of the butter (as I felt the margarine on its own would not have provided the shortness you’d get with butter). I’d read that those fats would provide a rather less enjoyable flavour than butter, hence the inclusion of my Christmassy flavourings, which, at a different time of year, could be substituted with something else, such as lemon zest or lavender.

Spiced Satsuma Shortbread

225g/8oz gluten-free flour (I used Dove’s Farm)
100g/4oz caster sugar
100g/4oz dairy-free margarine (I used Pure)
100g/4oz vegetable shortening (I used Trex)
50g/2oz polenta
50g/2oz cornflour
Grated zest of 2 satsumas (and possibly the juice of 1)
Ground cinnamon and cloves, to taste (I used about 1tsp cinnamon and a pinch of cloves)
25g/1oz Demerara sugar

1.Grease a tray bake tin of about 30x23x4cm/12x9x1.5″ and line the base with a sheet of foil if you are worried about marking it with a knife. Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/G3. (In the Over-Zealous Oven I do it at 140C, this may be a good guideline for fan ovens in general but you know your own oven!)

2.Rub the flour into the margarine and shortening, then add the other ingredients and work together to form a ball of dough, or process everything together in a food processor.

If it’s not coming together add the juice of one of the satsumas (more likely with gf flour as it requires more liquid).

3.Press the dough into the tin and spread it as evenly as possible. Sprinkle the top with Demerara sugar.

4. Bake for 30-40 minutes until pale golden and cooked through. Allow to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then cut into about 30 fingers. Lift out and finish cooling on a rack. I do recommend you try at least one warm, as there’s nothing to beat the delicious crumbliness of fresh shortbread straight from the tin!

There are no photos of these at present (another casualty of my bleak mood, I’m afraid), but in appearance they are not so different from ordinary shortbread. Everyone seems to have enjoyed them and I had a lovely email from one teacher (the dairy-free one) to thank us for considering her.

I’ve also had a couple of goes at 2-ingredient fudge from Beth Woolsey’s blog. I was skeptical about fudge you made in the microwave but I’ve now tried it twice (once with whisky and once with crushed candy canes) and it really is as good as she claims and useful for handing out to delivery people over the festive season!

Do share your Christmas cooking discoveries with me, I’m always on the lookout for new ideas!

Thankful for

The readings and the friends that sustained me through the busy, difficult weeks

The chance for a big rest for all of us!

Hearing my girls playing together and having the chance to “just be”

The sunshine in between the abundance of grey weather

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Spring things

Despite the fact that I dreamed last night that it had snowed (which for some could be a dream and for others a nightmare, and I am firmly in the nightmare camp), it seems that spring has finally arrived in the UK. Apparently we’ve experienced one of the driest Aprils for some time and are even in danger of facing a drought. (Those of us who remember what happened after they said this last year will now be starting to laugh, partly at the irony and partly with a certain amount of nervous hysteria).

But to look on the bright side, I was able yesterday to hang out my first load of washing this year (our garden is to the north of the house and gets very little sun so line-drying is a difficulty) and was out in town at 9pm after a rehearsal, wearing cropped jeans, Crocs and a sweatshirt. And as the temperature climbs, albeit slightly at the moment, we’re able to contemplate a different menu.

I love my slow cooker and throughout the winter it’s frequently pressed into service producing soups and stews to warm us after a busy day or coming in from church. But the rest of the year it doesn’t really see much action and I’ve been thinking recently what a waste that is. On Wednesday I experimented with a more spring-like recipe which went well, so I thought I’d share it with you.

Leek and Lemon Chicken with Tarragon Dumplings

Serves 2 adults and 2 children (approx – I was actually cooking for a small woman, a normal sized man and a tallish guy in his 20s for whom I’m always worried I’ve not made enough food!)

1 pack of chicken thighs and drumsticks (the ones I buy contain 2 of each so that’s what I’m assuming)

1 lemon, quartered

3 leeks

about half a head of celery (I was improvising this recipe so I didn’t take exact note – when it was chopped there was about the same amount of celery and leek)

For the dumplings (optional):
4 oz self raising flour

2 oz shredded suet (I always use vegetable)

A pinch of salt

1 tbsp dried tarragon

4ish tbsp water

Brown the chicken pieces and the quartered lemon quickly in a pan and then arrange at the bottom of the casserole dish.

Rinse the celery and chop into 2 inch lengths. Arrange in a layer on top of the chicken and lemon.

Trim the leeks and chop into 2 inch lengths, then halve them longways before washing thoroughly in a colander. Arrange these in a further layer on top of the celery.

Put on the lid and set the slow cooker to Auto. I cooked mine for about 8 hours but you could do it for longer.

About an hour before you want to eat, mix the flour, suet, salt and tarragon in a bowl and add water little by little until it all comes together, then shape it into 8 dumplings with your hands. If you add too much water and it’s too sticky, sprinkle in some more flour to make it manageable.

Arrange the dumplings on top of your casserole. At this point I like to scoop some of the liquid round them so it flavours them a little and the excess flour adds to the sauce (in this case the sauce is a thin broth but very tasty!). Replace the lid and turn up to High for 30-45 minutes.

Serve alone or with boiled rice, depending on how hungry you are!

You could no doubt make this in the oven too but you’d (obviously) need to reduce the cooking time and add some liquid – chicken stock would be fine, or a light white wine, or even just water – and keep an eye on it. After many years of making stews in the oven it took me a long time to accept that slow cookers do not need liquid as the ingredients produce enough themselves!

 

My other Spring Thing is a recommendation. Having lost a significant amount of weight before Christmas, I’ve realised recently that I’ve adopted a bit of an unhealthy mindset when it comes to diet and exercise. Obviously, I want to maintain my new weight, but the pressure always to do a little bit more, to lose a little bit more, to feel guilty if I’m not exercising (even when the exercise would be aggravating a medical problem) or if I’m having any kind of treat, had got a bit out of hand and I’ve been taking steps to get back to normal. One thing that’s helped is a feature in the June issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, called Be happy, not perfect and contains a list of tips for becoming more content with a slightly imperfect body. Amongst other things, it reassured me that my weight and shape is fine (a woman with a waist measurement of less than 31.5″ coupled with a BMI under 25 is a healthy size) and that it’s OK to use miracle swimwear if you’re not sure you have a “bikini body”, and advised the consumption of Greek yogurt and green tea to help trim the waist and belly (it’s the calcium and the catechins that do it, apparently).

I decided to try this and immediately added Greek yogurt to my weekly Tesco order. I intended to order some green tea bags too, but first checked my tea and coffee cupboard and found the samples I’d guessed might be there (whenever we receive sachets of tea, coffee, etc from supermarket promotions or as gifts with orders of something else, they go in the cupboard and get forgotten)! I spent the next couple of days trialling various different green tea brands and concluded that one was infinitely better.

Teapigs produce a variety of teas which are for sale online and in some stores. Their difference from other brands is that they use whole leaves, housed in a large, pyramid-shaped bag (sort of like putting leaf tea into one of those dangly metal ball things, but without the faff!) which they call a “tea temple”. The green tea sample I had (which I think came from Joules a while ago) tasted fresh and cleansing, unlike most of the others which were quite bitter. I lost no time in ordering a pack from their website, which is very easy to use. As I usually do when placing an online order, I googled round for any promotional codes which might be running, and found one for 15% off. On typing it in I noticed that it registered at the checkout as “15% off for bloggers”, so I decided the best thing to do in return for the discount was to share with you my enjoyment of the tea and my experience of ordering from them.

The order was placed on Sunday afternoon and by Wednesday lunchtime my tea had arrived. In the intervening time I had received plenty of contact on how my order was progressing, so I felt very up to date. The delivery charge of £3.50 seemed a lot for a packet of tea, but it was sent by Royal Mail Tracked which meant that they, too, contacted me about my delivery and I knew the exact date it was arriving.

The parcel included a sample of their peppermint tea and a couple of leaflets about their products. I was also glad to read extensively on their website about their ethical commitment, both to the environment and to the social development of the areas in which the tea is sourced. This reassures me and gives me confidence in the brand.

I’ll definitely be buying more tea from Teapigs (I’m investigating their local stockists to see what their ranges are like!) – I don’t know if anyone will ever tempt me away from Twining’s English Breakfast, but I’m certainly a fully-fledged fan of their Mao Feng green now!

Thankful for…

The continuing spring weather

Rehearsals for upcoming choral events

Time with good friends

A chance to rest and recharge today

A good laugh

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A break, a recipe and a tip (and lots of links!)

Well – it’s been a while!

Since my last post life has been super busy – the Easter holidays descended upon us and we found lots of ways to fill them.  We:

  • Ate chocolate
  • Went shopping*
  • Visited a museum*
  • Saw my parents, who came to Northumberland for a holiday
  • Ate scones (supplied by my parents and procured from a lovely bakery in their hometown)
  • Travelled first class on the train (well, I did – it was FAB!)
  • Bought second hand books
  • Watched DVDs
  • Washed all the duvets and pillows (well, again, that was just me but it was a useful job to get done while the Bookworm & Butterfly were away staying at their grandparents’ holiday apartment!)
  • Baked cupcakes
  • Learned to pipe buttercream from a piping bag (me)
  • Immediately passed on that new-found knowledge to several other women who attended our church’s ladies’ evening at the end of the holidays (me again)

*These two activities were undertaken in the company of my elderly and very deaf grandmother who was visiting for a few days, which made them equally more hilarious, more frustrating and more exhausting.  The anecdotes from her visit are becoming more humorous the more times they are told, so eventually I might believe we had a good time, despite the various nocturnal escapades and the 2-day migraine I suffered following her departure!

So, you can see that all that left me very little time to blog (I won’t mention the squandered minutes on a silly but addictive SIMS-style game I discovered on my phone).  Also, I didn’t really feel I had that much to say, so I took a break during the break (that would obviously work much better if we called it Spring Break, as someone tried to introduce a few years ago when we had an Easter holiday which didn’t include Easter, but clearly more people didn’t like that than did as it’s never been repeated, no matter how early or late the festival).

Now that we’re back into term-time again, my usual cycle of group meetings has resumed, as has the baking that goes with them.  This last week I discovered a new recipe which I thought I’d share.  A few weeks ago, when ordering my weekly online grocery shop, I discovered that several baking products (about 80 pages’ worth, in fact) were on a 3-for-2 offer.  Now I needed a couple of boxes of flour, but I couldn’t see anything else on the list that I was really short of, so I ended up choosing a jar of cherries in Kirsch as my third item.  Having them in the cupboard I then decided that perhaps a sort of Black Forest recipe was in order, so I searched for something suitable online.  I came across this one which, according to the submitter, comes from America.

Obviously my ingredients were slightly different, as I was using cherries in Kirsch (it did occur to me after I’d mixed it just how much more alcohol I’d used than the original recipe, having made the cherry purée with the Kirsch, in addition to what was in the cherries and the 60ml I used as the cherry brandy ingredient, but there is no noticeable taste!), but apart from that I followed everything closely.  I was surprised just how watery the liquid ingredients became when I’d mixed them in the pan, and then with just 4 tbsp dry ingredients and an egg obviously the resultant batter was still quite runny (I wished I’d made it in my big jug-bowl so’s it would be easier to get into the cupcake cases, but the scrudle I got in my Christmas stocking sufficed to transfer scoops of it without too much mess!).  You’ll notice (and one of the reviews points out) that there is no instruction for the halved cherries.  I decided not to go along with Southern Daddy’s suggestion that “set aside” implied “for later consumption” and mixed them into the batter last of all, which seemed to work OK – most of the cupcakes had at least one cherry half baked into it.

Unfortunately, because I was referring to my phone for the recipe, I missed the instruction to fill the cases right to the top (and the reassurance that the cakes hardly rise at all) and ended up throwing away some of the mixture, but the cakes came out big enough anyway.  I tasted one to check alcohol levels and consistency and found it delicious – I disagree with the review which calls it “claggy” and whole-heartedly agree with the other one which calls it “moist and dense”, which would be exactly the words I’d use.  Not cakey like a British cake, but then it’s not a British cake and given the ingredients we shouldn’t expect one.

There is no instruction about topping the cakes, which I think is essential for a cupcake (I don’t know what the technical difference is between a cupcake and a muffin, but for me a cupcake should be decorated in some way, whereas a muffin should be unadulterated, or at most – in the case of a fruit muffin – have a light dusting of sugar added to caramelise during baking).  I decided that anything bearing the name “Black Forest” really ought to involve whipped cream and resolved to pipe a swirl on top of each cake to keep my hand in now that I’ve learned.

[Random learning to pipe story, for those interested: I was asked to run the “cupcake stall” at the ladies’ evening, you see, which involved anyone who wanted to piping buttercream – or having it piped – in their chosen flavour, adding decorations and taking home their finished cupcake in an individual gift box.  The only drawback was that I’d never piped buttercream before.  After an unsuccessful rehearsal that afternoon, this video popped quite by chance into my Facebook feed.  I watched avidly – twice through – and then proceeded to go off and do it many times over that evening! Amazing!]

I bought my cream and then began to worry.  Could you pipe whipped cream?  Was it difficult?  Could you, in fact, only do it out of one of those gas-canister contraptions which allow you to make your own “squirt-squirt” (as we used to call it)?  My panicked online searching revealed that the answers were yessometimes and no – but that whipped cream can only hold its own shape for a certain length of time, which is longer or shorter depending on the temperature and humidity of the day.  To counteract this problem, the cream needs to be stabilised, as is done by bakers, confectioners and caterers, by one of various methods.  Gelatin can be whisked into the cream, but it can’t be hot as it would normally be, so needs to be “bloomed” which sounded complicated.  Cornflour can be used, but sometimes gives the cream a grainy texture.  Icing sugar can be added if you don’t mind your cream being sweetened, but having coated my kitchen in a fine layer of white dust the previous week, I was keen to try and avoid it if I could.  I’m not a fan of icing sugar.  I can appreciate the purpose it serves, but honestly!  The mess!  You’d have thought someone would have come up with something better by now!

And then I found another stabilising method.  It’s so easy I’m amazed that anyone bothers with any of the others:

You take large marshmallows – one per cup of cream to be whipped (a 300ml pot is between 1 and 2 cups, so I used 2 marshmallows).

You whip your cream to soft peaks.

You put your marshmallows in a little bowl in the microwave and heat on full power for 5 seconds at a time until they start to inflate.

You stir the marshmallows and scrape the resultant viscous liquid into the cream.

You continue to whip the cream to stiff.

And that’s it!  You can’t even tell that the marshmallow is in there – honest!  It looks and tastes like whipped cream and, once piped, mine stayed in exactly the same position and shape for over 24 hours, sitting in the fridge in a plastic container, sitting out on a counter in a warm room, being lifted in and out of my car and carried in a box, bumping against my leg, on the mile’s journey home from school.

Here is one after enduring all of that, about 27 hours after I piped it (the chocolate is just a small amount of Green and Black’s Creamy Milk, chopped into shards with a sharp knife).

Black Forest Cupcake

Thankful for…

Time to be refreshed

Family

The excitement of summer plans

The improving weather

A Krispy Kreme doughnut with my lunch!

Some clarity about what’s important in life, and what’s not

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Seasonal/Unseasonal

The Bookworm and I have been ill this last week with a kind of not-quite-flu thing.  She’s had 6 days off school and is hoping to go back tomorrow.  I’ve had 5 days off school-run duty (and today was able to go by car which made it easier) and am beginning to feel my usual self again (although I’m writing this, pyjama-clad, from the comfort of my own bed, and not just because it’s so ridiculously cold today…)

So this post is a somewhat haphazard collection of seasonal items which have crossed my befuddled mind over the past week, during a bout of seriously unseasonal weather.

I can’t say I didn’t have fair warning. On 23rd March (a date commonly considered to be the first day of Spring) in 1993 I attended a day of interviews at the University of Durham.  After a morning in the School of Modern European Languages I decided to head out in search of lunch with some of my fellow interviewees, and we emerged onto New Elvet to find that it was snowing.  Thankfully we were to discover that one had practically only to trip over outside the department to land in one of the 5 nearby pubs, so we didn’t suffer much on the way to seek food, but it did make me question what I was doing there.  Briefly, anyway.  By the time I stepped onto the train home I knew I had fallen in love with it all –  the buildings, the bridges, the river and everything else, and that no amount of inclement weather would stop me from returning. So that was that and, of course, falling in love in a different way (but also in Durham) has meant that the North East is my permanent home 20 years (almost to the day) after that interview (goodness, I am old!).  Although the weather is still as bad: every time we start to think Spring has sprung – not needing to wear gloves or maybe even to zip our coats quite so high, a glimpse of a daffodil bud beginning to open, the first hint of growth on the trees – another blast of Arctic wind brings in snow, hail and what the weather forecasters like to call “wintry showers”.  A couple of years ago we did actually have snow during the Easter holidays, and I remember a plan for an Easter egg hunt with friends at Wallington hastily shelved in favour of an indoor get-together.  And these weather-related issues have spread further south as well, now, so maybe I wouldn’t have been any better off choosing to settle elsewhere.

Lavender biscuits

Lavender biscuits

Despite it all, we do our best to turn a blind eye and pretend that it’s Spring, and when I recovered sufficiently to think about a gift for the 3 very kind people who brought the Butterfly home from school on various days last week, I thought of lavender biscuits.  Some people think of lavender as a more Summery ingredient, but to me the colour and the fresh, flowery flavour embodies Spring and all its energy and life.

I use Mary Berry’s recipe for lavender biscuits, which are a kind of shortbread cookie, made from butter into which the lavender flowers and leaves have been beaten quite hard to release the flavour, caster sugar and flour. The mixture is shaped into long cylinders which are then rolled in Demerara sugar, chilled and sliced into rounds before baking.  Mine never look like the ones in my book, partly because the cylinders develop a flat bottom during their chilling time and partly because, even after chilling, the mixture still seems quite crumbly and will fall apart during slicing, leaving me to reconstruct the approximate round shape, often with a lot of the Demerara coating on the inside. Nevertheless, they taste delicious and, if you’re not proud about appearance, are very simple to make. Even if you look out of the window afterwards and think that a tray of mince pies would have been more appropriate!

My Easter tree (the basket was made by the Bookworm from a kit from Poundland, which is a great place to go for cheap Easter crafty items, should you require them!)

My Easter tree.  The basket to the left was made by the Bookworm, using a kit from Poundland, which is a great place to go for cheap Easter crafty items, should you require them!

Of course, the predominant Spring festival, especially for Christians, is Easter.  As I’ve said before, it strikes me as strange that even in church circles a lot more is made of Christmas than of Easter, when Easter is the Big Deal, the one without which Christianity wouldn’t have started.  I do try to put an emphasis on Easter –  I send a few cards although they tend to be expensive and often a little dowdy looking so it usually turns out not to be many, and we give gifts (usually non-chocolate) to the girls and to our nieces, nephews and godchildren.  This year I have found some lovely ideas on Dotcomgiftshop with an Easter/Springtime feel, such as this night light and these lolly makers.  And despite the whiny articles I’ve seen online about commercialism and inappropriateness (one of them claiming that Easter is a sad festival and therefore no cause for celebration!), I think the idea of Easter decorations is quite nice and this morning I’ve created an Easter tree again for this year.

We’ll also be using the Resurrection Eggs again to count down to Easter, starting on Wednesday. It’s a great way to remember the Easter narrative from the Bible, bit by bit, and if you want to do it too you still have a little time to get ready!  Tip: If you’re in the UK, ASDA are selling colourful plastic eggs in packs of 12. I felt smugly pleased today to be so organised in time (mainly because we didn’t get any of the Playmobil out of them last year so there was hardly anything to do) but I’m now having difficulty getting tiny chocolate eggs to go inside them. I feel very strongly about buying Fairtrade or other ethically sourced products whenever possible and chocolate is one of those items which it isn’t hard to get. But how confusing! – even the brands who display the Fairtrade mark on their products don’t do so across the board. So I can have a Fairtrade bar of Dairy Milk but not a Creme Egg. I can get a Fairtrade Kitkat but not a Kitkat Chunky. And when it comes to the tiniest eggs there was not a one on the shelves of my local ASDA today which claimed to provide any kind of ethical benefit, which is sadly telling, I feel, about the laws of supply and demand, and the priorities of most shoppers when it comes to balancing cost with concern for others.  If you’re buying Easter chocolate this year, please think carefully about what you’re buying and make the effort, if at all possible, to buy some that’s from a known source where the producers are treated humanely and paid a fair price.  It doesn’t have to have the Fairtrade mark – other companies have their own programmes to ensure the welfare and wellbeing of their producers, such as Hotel Chocolat’s Engaged Ethics policy.  But bear in mind that if you don’t know the origins of the chocolate you’re buying, you can’t be sure of the treatment people have had to undergo to get it to you.

**UK readers, please let me know if you come across any suitable little eggs!  I need the tiniest kind – Mini Egg size, but preferably wrapped as the eggs have to go in alongside other items which might make them less suitable for eating! **

Thankful for…

  • The friends who have been so kind and encouraging during our illness, with everything from practical help to uplifting texts and emails
  • The chance to rest and recuperate
  • The Butterfly’s cheery, sunny personality being out on top to lift our spirits through so much of last week
  • The opportunity to introduce the Bookworm to some of my favourite films while we were at home together
  • The blessing of Susan‘s housework planner over the past few weeks, which has meant the house has been ticking over this week even when I lacked the energy to do anything
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SnickerWHAT?

You might not expect a recipe post to be Jane Austen-related, but this one is.  Sort of, anyway.  Because since I’ve started watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries I’ve started to hear the word snickerdoodle all the time*.  Episode 48 bears the word as its title, and they’ve been referred to a few times since then.  And then I started hearing it in other places, too – The Big Bang Theory, for example – and in the end I decided I needed to know not only what they were (Jane refers to them as “cookies” in episode 47, so I had a bit of a clue), but what they tasted like.

To this end I hot-footed it to my go-to baking blog for American recipes, smitten kitchen.  It was here that I discovered the wonderful pumpkin muffins, amongst other delights, so I was confident that I’d find what I was looking for, and sure enough, there it was!  Now, I know this sounds ridiculous, especially when you click on the link and see the picture right there under the title, but I was using my phone and eager to get the recipe to add to my shopping list, and I actually managed not to look at any of the photos.  So I still had no idea what snickerdoodles looked like.  You’ll see why I’m telling you this in a minute.

The ingredients are fairly standard and I had them almost all in, but to the best of my knowledge I had never used cream of tartar in my life before, so Southern Daddy popped out to ASDA to procure me some.  Once he was back, I set off.

DoughI prepared the dough by creaming the butter and sugar, beating in the eggs one at a time and then adding the dry ingredients (I have to confess to having stopped sifting flour etc when it is destined to be beaten, after hearing Michel Roux and Mary Berry agreeing that it’s  an unnecessary hassle if you’re going to knock all the air back out of your carefully sifted mixture with a whisk).  I then took the tip of chilling the mixture in the fridge for an hour to make it easier to form into balls for the next stage.  Having read all the information about ice-cream scoops and their numbered sizes, and discovered a helpful Wikipedia page on the subject (who’d have guessed there were so many? – I’d really like to see a number 6!) I concluded that whether or not my ice-cream scoop was the right size, it was not the right kind, having no device for the easy removal of the contents, and I therefore decided to use a spoon.Photo 4

As directed, I took spoonfuls of the mixture and rolled them between my hands to form small balls, which I then rolled in the cinnamon sugar until they were well coated, and then arranged them on the tray.  I thought they resembled tiny little doughnuts, and as I slid them into the oven and set the timer I envisaged delicious little bites of crispy, sugary doughnut. (Yes, OK, I know they’re referred to as cookies, but loads of things are, of all shapes and sizes…)Photo 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imagine my shock when I opened the door 5 minutes later to rotate the tray and discovered my lovely little morsels had apparently MELTED!

Photo 6

(On that first occasion, which wasn’t the one I photographed, my balls of dough were also too big/not far enough apart/both and so had melded, as well as melted.  They were easily separated cooling, however, and tasted just as good).

Anyway a quick google during the snickerdoodles’ second 5-minute blast reassured me that this was, in fact, their intended shape, and we had devoured almost a whole tray of hot cookies approximately 15 minutes later.

They are gooood!  Especially if you’re someone who likes cinnamon, which until recently I thought was the entire population of the world, until I discovered that a friend of mine who visited yesterday whilst I was making them can’t stand it, and that it also makes her sneeze repeatedly.  Strange.  Fortunately for me she’s on a diet so I didn’t have to be concerned for long over the fact that I had nothing to feed her on.  But generally I feel that this quotation from Jerry Seinfeld is pretty spot on:

Cinnamon. It should be on tables in restaurants along with salt and pepper. Anytime someone says, “Ooh, this is so good – what’s in this?” the answer invariably comes back, “cinnamon.” Cinnamon. Again and again.

Initially they are very airy (“deceptively light”, as another friend – this time more pro-cinnamon – described them yesterday) and put me in mind of the cake/biscuit part of a Jaffa Cake (I remember hearing a lot about that cake vs biscuit VAT debate but never any definitive outcome).  After 24 hours in a tin they are just as delicious, just as more-ish, but slightly more sunken and chewy in a cookie-like way.

When I introduce people to them, the first response is usually “SnickerWHAT?” followed closely by “So they’re made out of Snickers, then?” (which is what I’d envisaged myself before I saw the recipe).  Try as I might, I can’t find a definitive etymology for the name – some people seem to think they’re German or Dutch in origin, from a word describing a snail, whereas others believe it’s a name from folk tales.  Still others just think it’s one of those silly words people make up to describe a new recipe.  But whatever their origins, most people seem to agree that they’re a favourite once you’ve tasted them.

The only thing is, I can’t seem to stop wondering about crispy little spheres of doughnut, coated in cinnamon and sugar – I might have to investigate that idea further…

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*Not in a weird, need-to-see-a-psychiatrist sort of way – I just mean it seems to be mentioned quite a bit.

Thankful for…

Better weather – hurrah! Despite the frost this morning and the fact my feet are quite cold now, it seems spring might be on the way.

Our boiler, which broke down on Friday night, was able to be fixed very quickly and we now have information about getting a new one without a lot of expense.

I am really, really enjoying following the Confident Mom planner and her other tips and advice are working for me too.

Alice’s latest post on combating the judgemental, perfectionist side of ourselves which makes us feel perpetually inadequate, and also for the Better Voice itself.

My continued involvement in my daughters’ school.

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