Saturday, 10 December 2016

It's Christmas All Over Again

Lots of people require Slade.  There are those who tell me it must be Mariah Carey. I'm sure there are a classy few who insist on the Unthanks with In The Bleak Midwinter, and I would happily agree but for me* Christmas starts with John Denver singing Silver Bells, Tom Petty singing It's Christmas All Over Again, then I Believe In Father Christmas for Mark. That one makes him a bit weepy.

So, Christmas playlist blasting out, we tackled The Tree today.  I've talked before about my deep and abiding love of Christmas trees.  The tree and the present wrapping are my favourite parts of the whole holiday season.  We opt for the less attractively shaped Norway Spruce rather than the beautifully regular Nordman Fir because the Spruce smells so wonderful.

We schlepped out to East Keswick Nursery twice this year because they had very few Spruce trees the first visit and promised they were cutting more the next morning.  When we returned the following afternoon they'd not got them yet and were very apologetic that we'd made a wasted trip.  They sent a young lad off to the fields to cut one down for us, which was very sweet of them and made me feel quite the Special Snowflake.

The one he chose was a bit shorter than we'd wanted but was ridiculously thick and bushy.  He struggled to get it through the netting gadget - and we had to shove it through the doorway at home. Raised up a few inches on railway sleeper offcuts, it fit perfectly in the space.  Well, perfectly after I pruned a few places where it sort of overwhelmed the couches.

The tree is decorated in a particular order. It's getting it straight in the base unit in the middle of the room, then moving it in situ  between the two couches and screwing the base down.  Next is pruning extra twigs off so those sitting on a couch over the next two weeks won't find themselves with pine needles in their ears. Then lights, then tinsel, then all the red baubles so they are evenly distributed, then all the silver ones, and finally all the decorations that aren't baubles.  There are zillions of those, so the least favourite ones get ignored if we run out of twigs to drape them on.

I do the lights and tinsel myself, faffing about until I'm happy it looks relatively even, and the kids move in to decorate. When they were little they tended to select a branch and pile decorations on it until that branch touched the ground or caused the tree to list rather alarmingly. These days it's all beautifully done.  If I were a better mother I'd probably miss the inexpert early years but actually I'm just relieved. I like my tree to be Just So.  And I keep forgetting it's 'our' tree and not 'my' tree**.

I was 17 when we moved from Canada to the UK. Back in Ontario we'd walk around the tree plantations in the snow, choose our tree and Dad would saw it down. My parents sold most of our decorations in the yard sale we had to slim down our possessions when we emigrated. Our first Christmas here they were nearly starting from scratch. Rejecting the colourful choices of the past they went for the plain white lights and a theme of white, silver or glass decorations.
Like the stroppy ungrateful teen I was, I had a fit.  Yes, it was absolutely beautiful, but I didn't care - it looked like it belonged in a department store window, not in my family home. I wanted the multicoloured lights, the homemade decorations, the red baubles I grew up with. I was further outraged a couple of years later when they bought an artificial tree.  Now it didn't even smell of Christmas! Like many kids, I hated change, wanted my Christmas to be like it always had been, down to the same Christmas films and soundtrack. You can add to a Christmas, you can't change it.

(NB - 30 years on Mum and Dad still have the beautiful white and silver tree, and I still think of it as the New Tree. But I like it now because I know the 'proper' tree is in our house!)

Miss B seems to be following in the same path.  She commented today how nice white lights look around the house but that Christmas trees need several hundred multicoloured lights to look like A Proper Tree.  She insists the boys hand the decorations with their names on and she hangs the ones that are special to her. She made a slightly pitying comment about people with false trees  - "Their houses don't smell Christmassy at all." The smell is a massive thing for all 5 of us.

Tree up, Mark and Zach gave 'gentle' hints about the urgent need for mince pies.

I use my former tutor Judith's recipe for German Paste when making pastry, which is 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat (Trex, butter or a combination depending on your preference), 1 part sugar and an egg to bind it.  It's the crispest, lightest melt-in-your-mouth pastry of all the recipes I've tried.  Personally I find all pastry a bit of a faff and would rather bake cakes or cookies, but needs must.

The variation on Rachel Allen's mincemeat recipe (see here) is still my favourite. This year I forgot we'd run out of dried apricots and prunes so there are loads more cranberries to make up for it.

I made 3 dozen mince pies, have pastry for another couple dozen in the fridge and a tupperware containing about enough mincemeat for 5 dozen more. The kitchen smells of warm spices and brandy, while the living room smells of pine tree. All was going swimmingly until I burnt my finger through a hole in my oven gloves, which caused me to drop the tray of mince pies.  A hefty dollop of ice cream should fix that. Mince Pie Jumble is definitely a bona fide dessert, right?

So now I'm sitting in the dark with just the tree lights on, reflecting on our day's work.  Z's at a friend's house, Miss B is wrapping presents, L's taking a break from revising for mock A-levels with a bit of gaming and Mark's cooking dinner. This has been a hard year for many reasons but these quiet moments make everything better.

My very best wishes to you and yours,
xx

*I'm taking Bing Crosby as a given for everyone. He's non-negotiable.

**It totally is my tree. I'm just pretending I share. Everyone knows this.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Gingerbread recipes

Talking to my Very Excellent Mate Kirsty today, I waxed lyrical about gingerbread houses.  I love making them. In fact,  I have to fight my control-freak urge to let the kids decorate them with sweets. I like piping tiny icicles on eaves, I like making daft gingerbread people in different themes. When I baked for a living, I churned out at least 100 gingerbread people a week, and yet I still find the smell oddly soothing.

I have two favourite gingerbread recipes - a normal one and one suitable for vegans.  As two of our closest friends in the toddler years were highly allergic to dairy and egg, that was an absolute necessity for all our early parties.

First the usual one - 
400g plain flour
1tsp bicarb
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp cinnamon
180g soft butter
125g soft brown sugar
125g treacle
1 egg

Mix everything, roll out quite thinly, cut into shapes and bake at 180 for 10-15 minutes depending on the side of the biscuits.

Then the vegan one - 
250g plain flour
100g stork or other veg fat
100g soft brown sugar
1tbs treacle
1tbs golden syrup
1 tsp ground ginger
1-2 tbs of orange juice, just enough to get the dough to come together.

Mix everything, roll out more thickly, cut into shapes and bake at 190 for 8-12 minutes.

Despite being on a hideously low calorie, no-carb diet while I sort my blood pressure out, I thought it would be nice to bake some gingerbread the kids for Hallowe'en. However, having spent 90 minutes processing Bramley apples for applesauce, I'm tempted to ditch kitchen work and sit in the gift of autumnal sunshine. 
Also, I have a sneaking suspicion it might all be too much for me, and I'd sneak a gingerbread witch or two.
Hmm, maybe one to leave for next year...

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Thou Shalt Have a Fishy

Gone fishin'

It's a cliche for doing nothing, sloping off, taking it easy.  And it's been an aspiration of mine for a-g-e-s

Number 1 on my list of Things To Do Before I'm 50, fishing for my dinner, was a highlight of my summer.

Thanks to miscalculating how long it takes to get from Teeside to Whitby, and then the total lack of availability of parking spaces Whitby in the summer, my reservation of 4 places on a fishing boat came a cropper.  Luke had obviously opted out as he doesn't eat fish, hates strong smells, and refuses to be involved in the death of animals but I'd booked the rest of us.  As we got more and more frenzied, stuck in traffic with no parking, Mark told me to ditch them and head straight for the boat. Despite the lack of travel sickness pills, Zach agreed to join me.

The day couldn't have been lovelier. It was hot, still and beautiful.  The swell of the tide was pronounced as we were half an hour outside the harbour, but I was fine. This was not the case for everyone.



We fished with just hooks and feathers. Zach was first to reel in two enormous mackerel on his rod, although he was horrified at the prospect of wrenching the fish from the hooks. Sadly, that was it for Zach; seasickness overwhelmed him and he spent the rest of the 3 hours curled up in a ball trying to hold it all together. His good humour whilst feeling wretched was astonishing. He is the most gracious human being I've ever known. "I wouldn't have missed it, Mummy. You were having such a wonderful time that I was happy to be there, no matter how sick I felt. I know how long you've waited to do this."
I wish I could take credit for Zach's aceness but he does it all himself. He's honestly that lovely.

Possibly the nicest human alive, and his mum
I was as happy as it is possible to be when surrounded by slimy fish guts and having not eaten for many hours. That is far happier than I would have expected. The skipper moved us to 4 different sites over the afternoon and we brought up unbelievable quantities of fish.

Mostly I caught mackerel. However, there were whiting, a member of the cod family, and one very small but exciting gurnard.
The skipper yelled, "Don't touch it!" while the rest of the fishing friends leapt backwards.  Gurnard isn't venomous but the spines can deliver a very nasty injury. We removed the gurnard from the hook, threw it back in the sea and it swam off to freedom.
Little gurnard to lived to swim another day

While we paying punters fished and fished, the skipper kindly gutted our catch.  We motored back into Whitby harbour and transferred our fish into great big bin bags.  Zach emerged from his cocoon  of queasy and we joined Mark, Luke and Bonnie on the path.  Being the type to plan ahead, I'd put a styrofoam cooler in the boot. I picked up three bags of ice from the supermarket and tipped it into the cooler with the ice so we could drive the fish home in good condition.

We got home late that night, having detoured to my Very Excellent Mate SJ's house to collect The Great Gonzo, our new kitten.  He's exceptionally naughty and quite spectacularly cute. Sorry, Mark! I can't resist a tabby cat, in whatever colour.

Then Mark cooked a couple of fillets so we could enjoy the very fresh fish.

The next day Mark filleted the many, many fish and I invited friends for a meal. We had potato salad, horseradish dressing, chilli and lime dressing and grilled toasts. It was fantastic sharing food I'd caught. I loved it and so did our friends. I'm delighted than my chance to catch this sustainable and delicious fish resulted in meals for my family and friends.  I couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Hail, Caesar!

That Hadrian was a top bloke.

Not satisfied with building ace stuff in Rome like the Pantheon - a building so perfect it made me come over all emotional -  he schleps himself to the furthest northern reach of empire and builds ace stuff here too. The jury's still out about whether introducing hipsters to the empire by making beards fashionable was a good or a bad thing, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt.

As I said in my last post, Hadrian's Wall is something I've wanted to see since I was back in Highland being taught History by Mr Regan. Jim Regan was a wonderful teacher. I've never met anyone here in the UK who was taught history in such a fantastic manner - from prehistory to WW1, hopping countries and continents to look where the most interesting stuff was happening. I learnt to think about how one event led to another and ideas spread from place to place rather than knowing a list of dates and battle names. Mr Regan inspired me to want to see these remarkable places we were hearing about.  I'll always be grateful to him for bringing so much history to life for me.

So, off Mark and I went first thing on Saturday morning for points North.

For my pals not from the UK:
 I live in Leeds, Yorkshire.  Hadrian's Wall is about 125 miles away roughly due North, about 2 and a half hours drive. On the map below, if you follow down the east coast from Hadrian's Wall to a downward pointing snag on the coastline ( the River Humber estuary) Leeds is inland from that. Not an unmanageable distance but quite a long way for a day trip.


We grabbed our breakfasts of choice - toasted cheese bread with marmite from Haley and Clifford for me, a McDonalds sausage McMuffin for Himself. I definitely win at breakfast - and made for Gateshead to pay homage to the Big Man, the Angel of the North.




He's a good looking fella, the Angel. I'm immensely fond of him.

Something I hadn't seen before were young trees planted nearby with decorations, stuffed toys, artificial flowers and memorabilia hanging off them.  They appeared to be shrines or memorials to people - a sort of Christmas tree to the dead.  Is this now A Thing?
Most unexpected.


Driving past the Sage and over river Tyne on the bridge those nice people from Springwatch tell me is a major nesting site for kittiwakes, we cut through Newcastle and headed out to drive alongside the Wall for as much of the journey as we could.

My ridiculously fit and active cousin Gaz O'Connor once ran the entire length of the wall in 13 hours 42 minutes.  Gaz is three weeks older than me and a world apart. He's amazing, and he mystifies me completely. A fun run is a contradiction in terms in my experience. I chose the more indolent option and navigated while Mark drove. I love maps.

We explored the Roman fort and village at Vindolanda, and the museum there. My lovely internet mates Sarah and Katie agreed with WI mate Morticia that it we should definitely visit it. I love having recommendations from mates, it makes trips more exciting somehow.

Amongst the remarkable discoveries in the excavated site there was a mystery. A body of a child had been found under the floor of a room in the barracks. It was against Roman law to bury people in forts or towns; the mausoleums were just outside. Whoever hid the body of that 11 year old girl didn't want her found, poor love.

Vindolanda is most famous for the Roman 'postcards,' the wooden tablets with letters, pleas and a birthday party invitation written on them.  There are photographs, translations and fragments in the museum, but the main collection is with the British Museum. However, the other finds there were also amazing.  The domestic details, the shoes, the child's sock and woman's hairnet are incredible. such small, human touches. I loved the betrothal pendant with two heads kissing on one side and clasped hands on the reverse. The carefully painted glasswork was crazy - two pieces of the same piece found 20 years apart.

One fascinating aspect of Vindolanda was a result of their reconstruction.  In the mid 1970s they built a reconstruction of both the earthworks and timber wall and tower and the stone wall and tower.  In the 40 years since, the earthworks have settled so much the height of that wall is now two metres lower than its stone counterpart.  No wonder they rebuilt in stone!

We had a lovely lunch sitting out in the roman style garden of the museum. Daring little chaffinches, tits and robins were darting from a nearby bush to pinch crumbs from under the tables. There were martin nests at the top of window lintels and a great many swallows zigzagged across catching insects.  It was a delightful way to spend a warm afternoon.

Driving on to Steel Rigg we had a short stroll to the Wall itself. It's a lovely thing. It snakes up and down the hills, sometimes disappearing where stones have been taken and used for other things over the centuries, sometimes rising up from the farmland abruptly.  Steel Rigg is absolutely beautiful, and I had my Wish You Were Here moment.



I am a tactile soul at heart, so I climbed over to the Wall to feel the warmth of the stones. I was there, I touched it, I saw the stonework follow the contours of the landscape and I thought of the men who built it and the men and women it was designed to keep out.

I only wish Mr Regan had been with me.


Friday, 29 July 2016

Looking forward

It's been a pretty rough couple of weeks. Most significantly, my beloved new Vespa, my pride and joy, my ticket to freedom and self-reliance, was stolen from outside the food bank where I was volunteering. I'm heartbroken.
Through assorted coincidences, mistakes, and glitches, I faced the equally devastating news that there will be no insurance pay out and I am not going to be able to have another bike.
This also means no more volunteering in the Food Bank Office, as I can't get there by public transport. That's a blow to me and them both - I'm pretty good at admin. I felt like my insides had been kicked out.

Wallowing isn't going to do me any good.  There are people in real distress in our community, and while loss of a vehicle is a significant dent in a life it's something I can push past. So I am attempting to direct my attention towards more positive things.

I'm 47 years old. In 3 years Mark and I will both turn 50 and we will celebrate our 25th anniversary. Rather than my usual "Things that scare me that I will try this year" list, I'm going to write a list of things I'd really like to do before the end of that big year - not challenging necessarily, but pleasing.

For example, I've never been to Hadrian's Wall. I'd really like to, it sounds cool.  History was my favourite subject in school and actually seeing the things I've only learnt about in books always gives me a thrill. I was ridiculously overexcited the first time I saw the Rosetta Stone (back before the boxed it away in a big case.)

So, like the National Trust's 50 Things To Do Before You're 11 3/4, here's the first 10 items on my list of things to do before 2020:


  1. Go fishing. I'm serious. I've been trying to do this for 6 years and it just never quite happens. Mark's promised it me as a birthday present twice, for heaven's sake. I want to go fishing for mackerel and then eat them.
  2. See the Giant's Causeway. The first time I saw a picture of it was in National Geographic's kids' magazine, World, back in the mid 70s. I couldn't believe it was real.  I've always wanted to see it, and unlike the Northern Lights is isn't hard to find. Nor, unlike Petra, is it prohibitively expensive to get to.  So I am determined to go.
  3. Try salsify and Jerusalem artichokes. Somehow despite 26 years as a vege- or pesce- tarian I've never had them and I want to know what they taste like.
  4. Go rock pooling. Not a new experience, but something I completely love to do and rarely get the opportunity.
  5. Sing in a choir. Singing out loud with a bunch of people is scary as hell - what if I'm terrible? - but I also think it would be amazing fun. I even know of a choir I could try out for, but previously fear and now my lack of transport conspire against me.
  6. Grow cut flowers. I'd like a change from my total vegetable gardening focus to grow some lovely cut flowers for the house. My Very Excellent Mate Kirsty got me thinking about it, and I do fancy being able to have flowers in my room.
  7. See live music. I tend to use any money for going out on ballet tickets or comedy. I tend to think of music as not for me, really, because I have terrible, uncool taste and had A Thing about singing badly. I've determined to get past that now.
  8. Visit Hadrian's Wall (see above)
  9. Spend all day at the movies. Mark and I did this all the while before we had the kids. There are very few films from the mid 80s to early 1999 that I didn't see, excepting scary films. Don't like being scared. Pulling a 3 or 4 movie marathon would be a blast from the past. 
  10. Learn to apply make up properly. I only occasionally feel like wearing makeup, but when I do, I feel uninformed. I have favourites, I have skin care standbys I know how to use but I can't do flicky eyeliner, smokey eyes eyeshadow, apply false lashes, prevent lipstick bleeding or do contouring. I'd like to have a clue how to apply makeup that enhances my appearance rather than slapping on a lippy and hoping for the best.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Let's talk about scones.

What feels like a very, very long time ago, the marvellous Val Berry, owner of Haley and Clifford asked me if I could make scones for her as well as the cakes I was already supplying.

Actually, that's not quite true. What she really said was "I bet your scones are great, aren't they Jay. I'm not happy with the scones we've got. Could you do some?" To which I obviously said, "No problem," whilst thinking to myself, "I've never made a scone in my life."

That led to 2 weeks of mad recipe testing, trying to find the nicest rise, the lightest texture without falling into the burn of too much raising agent. The egg versus no-egg recipes, the egg wash versus milk wash, then standing in the school yard with various trays of scones and coloured counters to get people to try several and choose their favourite.

I was VERY thorough.



Seven years on, I've made an awful lot of scones.  I've demonstrated scone making at a church ladies' group,  taught kids and adult groups and once, to my bloke's endless amusement, insisted on talking to the chef in a guest house that served utterly revolting tough hockey pucks as their 'cream tea' and told him what not to do and gave him a decent recipe. (Poor man. He looked most uncomfortable. But for God's sake, he kneaded the mixture in a machine. He HAD to be stopped)

Just this Saturday morning I got up early to blast out 6 and a half dozen for my lovely WI Darling Roses to serve at the local Wool Festival. 

All this is my pitch for Why You Should Listen To Me When It Comes To Scones.  Because you should, you really, really should.

Scones are the single easiest things to bake as long as you know how.  They are an absolute doddle. No kneading, no creaming butter and sugar, no technique beyond Doing The Minimum.

So, how to make scones:

First, what not to do - Don't work the mixture. Don't knead it, don't roll it out. Barely touch it. You don't need to and the less you do the better your scones.  Lazy bakers make the best scones. You don't even need to do that rubbing the butter into the flour thing if you don't fancy it. You can stick it in a food processor if you like.

So - 500g of plain flour and 6 tsp of baking powder
OR
500g of self raising flour and 2 tsp of baking powder
(whichever you've got, it really doesn't matter)

50g of caster sugar
75g butter

You can sift the dry ingredients together and rub in the butter until it's like slightly damp sand
OR
You can tip it into a food processor and blitz it until completely combined.

See? Easy.

If you've used the processor you need to tip things into a big bowl for the next bit.

Pour in 300ml of milk. If your milk is on the turn, all the better. You can swap out 50ml of milk for yogurt if you have it in, you can sour your milk by warming it slightly in the microwave and sloshing in a dash of lemon juice, or just use it as is. It's totally fine.

Here's the important bit:
Mix the milk through the dry ingredients until there are no pockets of dry flour. I use a butter knife, you can use a wooden spoon if you'd rather, but do it S-L-O-W-L-Y. No muscle power, no energy, just barely mix it. If it's not quite come together, use your hands to gently bring it together into one big sticky mess. It will look a right flipping state but don't worry.

Tip the mess onto a very well floured surface. (I have a large thin chopping mat I use, because that's easier to remove scone dough from than my counter.) Pat it gently with your hands until it's approximately even. Don't use a rolling pin, there's no need.  Either flouring your hands or dampening them will reduce how much sticks to you.   All you are after is a reasonably even thickness of dough. At a guess I'd say about 2-3cm thick for 12 scones.

Dip your cutter into some flour, cut out your scone by pressing down, NOT twisting. You can give it a little shimmy if it's sticking, but promise me you won't twist it. If you twist you are sealing the top and bottom edges together which dramatically affects the rise.

NB - that's why using a small glass as a cutter isn't as effective as a cutter - pressing the glass into  the mixture inevitably presses the top and bottom edges together because of the air pressure trapped in the glass as it's forced to accommodate the scone dough.

Brush the top of the scones with beaten egg and bake at 220 C for 10 to 12 minutes.
Job's a good 'un. Well done you.

I want to show you the difference between a scone made the way I suggest and a scone that's been kneaded a bit.






That one on the left is the result of kneading the bits left over to make some spares for the family after doing the proper scone (on the right). Can you see how the right hand side could rise evenly whereas the left one has a split across the middle as the only place it could rise. It was made with more dough than the other but turned out the same size.  It was quite nice but not as light as it could be.
 Here's a size view - the top one is smoother, and has a much tighter crumb That's because the gluten in the flour was activated by the slight kneading. The lower one is light as air. It looks less smooth but that's a Good Thing in scones.

I told you it was easy! Mix some dry ingredients, give a rough stir to mix in the milk, don't bother to roll it out, just pat it gently, cut by pressing rather than twisting. Perfect scones.


Oh, and the rhymes-with-gone versus rhymes-with-stone thing? It rhymes with gone, in case you were wondering.

xx

Friday, 27 May 2016

What I'm really thinking

(with apologies to the weekly feature in the Guardian of the same name)

What I'm Really Thinking... The Charity Volunteer

I'm standing in a busy public space, wearing the tabard with the charity's name emblazoned across it, and I'm holding a collection bucket for people the drop coins into.

I'm not saying anything nor approaching people, just standing still and smiling, holding the bucket. There are 3 other volunteers at the train station with me - one near the barriers, one near a display about the charity, and another near the other main thoroughfare to me. We're not close enough to speak to each other, so we're each on our own trying to look friendly and approachable while people walk past.

I wish I could say to you all "It's ok. You can smile and I won't take is as a commitment to give money. I'm in the middle of you all, and I am going to look at you and smile. I'm a friendly person, smiling comes naturally. You don't have to avert your eyes so obviously.  Making eye contact, smiling back, acknowledging someone... it doesn't mean you are obliged to make a donation. "

Instead I thank those who drop coins in, and wish people a lovely bank holiday weekend.

After about 40 minutes I'm a bit bored so I amuse myself by finding something positive about each person walking towards me.  Great haircut; nice jacket; shared book taste from the WH Smith purchase; warm smile as they greet their friends.  It makes it easier to keep being friendly.

But again, the carefully averted gaze, the swerve to avoid passing near the collection bucket. I'm feeling like a pariah. I've had about 20 donations (mostly small change)  but a good 300 people carefully *not* looking in my direction as they walk straight past me.

Guys. Seriously.

I am not so desperate for your pocket change that I'm going guilt trip you into it with big puppy dog eyes. That 20p the girl dropped in the bucket just now? That's nice of her, but not the sort of contribution to badger and harangue people over.

If you'd like to drop some money in the bucket, ACE. That's kind of you. It's a really worthwhile cause. But if you don't, that's OK too. No one is judging you. So there's no need to look sharply away like you've been caught. I know everyone has her own priorities, preferred causes, money worries, busy lives or just self-absorption. Relax. Catching my eye is and smiling back is just that - a smile.

And have a great weekend.