Monday, 26 December 2011

Book Review: Cooking Without Recipes

For some reason, I got given a lot of cookbooks yesterday.  Do you think that maybe people might be under the impression that I like cooking?

One of them was this.  My mother's note with it said 'saw this and thought of you' - and she was so right.    This book says what I have been saying for many years - that recipes are all very well, but that they are only a guideline.  Except when baking, you can usually just ask Nigella what she thinks chestnuts are for and just wing it.  Even when baking, start with a basic sponge mix at 180 and whatever else you put in it (except too much liquid) can't go far wrong.

The book starts nicely with a bit of family background, with the author talking about his aged, widower father finally learning to cook all the dishes he loved best.  It's a bittersweet tale as father dies before he achieves his goal of effortless cooking, but it's a lovely example of the 'if so-and-so can, then you can' school of encouragement from food writers.  Delia tries it with herself but I don't know if any of us believe her.

Moving on, he describes the basic tools needed for decent cooking - big pan, frying pan, pestle and mortar. Not much else.  The pestle and mortar is a very nice touch, non-obvious and an encouragement to get mashing unusual flavours.  No-one uses enough marinades and rubs in this country.  The big pan is the Etch-A-Sketch of the kitchen - create anything you like by twisting the gas knobs, and if it goes wrong just shake it all up and make soup.  Soup is Mr Dundas' fallback cock-up dish, which is again a philosophy I can get behind.  What happens to cocked-up soup however remains a mystery.

Then he goes into the main description of what sort of cooking you might try with various ingredients.  They're divided very roughly into meat, fish, veg, nuts and seeds etc. and there are some great suggestions for combos (eg. seafood and vermouth) and basic sauces with which to experiment.

Influences and flavours
There is a lot of French in this book I think, but then I was never quite sure what 'French' cooking was as a child.  To me, using a lot of garlic and herbs became second nature watching my parents, so I never made the distinction between French and British.  The big 5 flavours in this book are virgin olive oil, garlic, salt, peppercorns of various colours and lemons.  Not unfamiliar to many I hope.  I've already vowed to have more lemons in my kitchen when I get one of really my own, partly because the Man and I drink a lot of G&Ts and partly because Dundas is right - they are a very versatile flavour.

Suggestions, Hints and Tips
The biggest tip in the book, most repeated and consistent is 'look at the food.'  Look at it, poke it, prod it, smell it, know it, and start to work out what it is for.  Is it a crunchy thing, an oily thing, a gamey thing, a slow-cook or fast-cook thing?  Then you can start to mix and match it with other things.  He gives some guidance on meats, and how to get the best out of them; a couple of not-really-recipes along the way like 'squash whole tomatoes into the English Breakfast pan so that they explode tomato over everything else' (I'm paraphrasing).  Generally though you are left to make up your own mind, mistakes and -along the way -cock-up soup.  There is also the usual (nowadays) tiresome evangelisation of local shops and farmers markets etc, which we all know we should shop at more but won't.  I forgive him.

I forgive everything because the writing is so very lovely.  Pretty unsubtly Significant Othered (the mention of the many men in his life comes early in the intro) Dundas is constantly referencing how good it will be to cook for friends -or a lover.  Favourite turn of phrase about the necessity of lemons -'Being ill without hot toddy with lemon and Scotch whisky is like being in love without Champagne.'  Possible, but not nearly as nice.  Brilliant.  Unlike my other favourite gay cook, Nigel Slater (who Dundas is also justly fond of), his writing evokes not the simple, tasty but rather lonely supper for one man and his food but the joyous shared experiment.  There is a 'we're all in this together' about the whole book.  None of Nigel's small, perfect, seasonal portions here - it's all bold, random, hearty and 'whatever you fancy'.

I recommend that everyone read this book.  It's great inspiration for even the most established foodie, and the best call-to-arms I could think of for anyone who's just trying to make it on their own.  Dundas and I share the despair at the cook-by-numbers, Delia generation who have no idea how food actually works, just do as they're told until it comes out 'like it should.'  Shake off the shackles of How To Cook, and pick up Cooking Without Recipes.  Then put it down, buy a pestle and mortar, pour yourself a G&T and wait for inspiration to strike.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Sharing Christmas Traditions

It is Christmas Eve.  I am about 2 or 3.  A family friend leans down and asks me, "What day is it tomorrow, Elisabeth?" in an encouraging tone.  I think for a moment, and solemnly answer,

I'm going home for Christmas this year.  It's not far, but it feels like a world away from the subtly different family traditions which I have been invited to at the boyfriend's for several years running.  For me, Christmas is not Christmas without:

  • Films - all seen a million times before - Die Hard, Muppet Christmas Carol, Wallace and Gromit  and/or the Great Escape
  • A tree of sorts, and decorations around the house
  • A cake of sorts which must be more durable (yet considerably more edible) than a cockroach
  • Stockings, real big wooly ones, at the end of the bed in the morning, to be opened before everything else on parent's bed.  Must contain socks, posh colouring pencils and paper, and a Terry's chocolate orange at the bottom.  Optional small Lego figures and sugar mice.  I am now too old for stockings at my dad's, but still get given a very different and equally generous kind by boyfriend's mother. 
  • The Food: Goose for tea, Eggs Benedict for lunch, chocolate croissants for breakfast with lashings of Bucks Fizz
  • The Events: a photograph of my Dad's foot, a tradition which started accidentally after he took photos of my toddling brother and I opening presents on the floor two years running and put his foot in it.  The foot is now the star of the show.
  • The Schedule: Presents happen after breakfast.  Everyone knows this.  Then you have the rest of the day to play with them.  Everyone takes turns to open one present each, and watch the delighted (or not so) face of the recipient.   I cannot understand the idea of presents after lunch, unless you have a second go when friends arrive for tea with more presents.
  • The Delayed Reaction: Almost every year my un-godmother remembers to get or make my brother and I presents, and forgets to send them.  There is then a brief revival of the Christmas spirit in February, about the same time as the last of the cake is binned.
This is not to mention all the usual people who ring, or call round; the great aunt who always sends a £20 note and yet is almost never seen; the Family Walk which may occur and is an occasion of great sniping, windiness, and Family Fun Corrie-style; school carol services; pictorial advent calendar (never chocolate); defrosting the car; drinking far too much, and getting my mother to make the huge Lego set because we can't be arsed to spend two hours following the instructions.

Of course I won't be getting all of these things when I get home this weekend, because as I mentioned last year, there is a new family set up and new traditions are forming.  I have grown older, and there are fewer presents and more bottles on the table.  But there will be the memories, the ghosts of Christmasses past, in the air, in the conversation, and on the screens.  There will be people to regale with stories such as the anecdote at the head of this post.  I encourage all my readers to share their own traditional, ideal Christmas in the comments - and if you can, with your significant other.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Orange Festive Layer Cake

I've been watching a lot of Jamie Oliver on 4od recently, and he really really seems to like putting orange zest in almost everything at this time of year.  It is an awesome flavour but it's one of those things which is a hassle to get at if you don't have the right equipment.  One of these days I will work out how to steal the other half of the zest back from a traditional grater after using the little diamond-punch-holes; in the meantime, I recommend you acquire one of these:
You can get them from Lakeland and they really really are the best.  More dangerous for your fingers, sure, but they are the Global Knives of the grater world.  I am struggling to justify getting one for myself after spending money on Christmas presents and really needing my own camera to take photos for this blog!

The whole point of watching cookery shows is not (in my humble opinion) to try and learn or steal the recipes there shown but to work out which general flavours and techniques the chefs are using and steal them.  One such I learnt was marmalade and game - another was a reminder to break out the orange zest.   This is my Jamie tribute, and a change from both a traditional Christmas fruitcake and my usual Nigella Lawson Certosino with candied fruit on top.

Orange Festive Layer Cake
You Will Need: shallow rectangular tin, greaseproof paper and scissors; little plate, cheese-grater, lemon squeezer; small saucepan, scales, chopping board and sharp knife, large bowl and wooden spoon, whisk, plate, teaspoon, large plate.

4oz caster sugar
4oz Kerry Gold butter (I should get a sponsorship deal from them one of these days)
3 star anise

1/2 tsp ginger
8 cloves
2/3 oranges
2 eggs
4oz self-raising flour

1) Preheat the oven to 180degrees C.  Line the bottom of your tin with a sheaf of greaseproof paper. 
2) Zest the oranges onto a little plate.  Juice one of the oranges.  Add the juice to the sugar in the saucepan over a low heat and stir until dissolved.  Simmer very slowly.  Add the anise, cloves and ginger to the sugar.
3) Beat the eggs in the large bowl until well blended.
4) After a few minutes, fish the whole star anise and cloves if you can find them out of the sugar. Peel the  oranges or three or four clementines and and slice them into half-centimetre rounds.  Gently add these to the pan, coat in sugar and use to line the bottom of the tin. 
5) Cut the butter into small chunks and melt into the sugar.  Stir until blended on a low heat, then gradually  whisk into the eggs in the large bowl.
6) Add the orange zest to the eggs.  Stir to mix.  Add the flour a little at a time. Gently pour the cake mix over the oranges in the tin and spread out evenly.
7) Bake for 15-20 mins or to clean skewer stage.
8) Allow to cool completely before turning out onto a plate, so that the bottom orange layer is now uppermost.  To do this, put the plate over the top of the tin upside-down, grasp the bottom of the tin firmly and turn over.  Remove the tin and papers.  
9) Serve cold or warmed, with a glass of Grand Marnier and something creamy.

Pro Tip:  If you doubled or even tripled the quantities, you could layer these one on top of the other to make an even fancier concoction.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Knitting Reblog: Hurricane Hat by Andrea Goutier

It's great to be knitting again after a while, and now that I've booked the flights to go and see my mother in the Colorado Rockies it seemed only fitting to start myself a skiing hat.  A quick search on Ravelry turned up this lovely pattern by Andrea Goutier

I have to admit that mine has not got the lovely swirls on it much at all - I was convinced I had misaligned my purl stitches for the first two inches, and then decided to abandon the decoration and do all knit stitches for speed as I needed my earwarmth quickly!  But looking at it now, the swirls are putatively visible and I'm sure you can make them work.

I am in awe of this lady for being able to think up a pattern in the round.  One day I hope to be a much better designer than I am, but in the meantime borrowing the genius of others to create necessary warmth will do.

I've also been following the blog Dances With Wool on Blogger, which is a beautifully written diary from a lady in Finland.  Her Advent posts, counting down the few hours of daylight in the harsh Arctic December, are particularly touching.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Gingerbread Stave Church

If you made the gingerbread house from last post, and fancy knocking things up a notch, why not put another couple of layers and some chocolate fingers on it and make a small stave church?  It's the perfect mix of Jesus and Vikings for the Christmas season, and you can even destroy it like a marauding pagan later.

Gingerbread (well, Pepparkakor) Stave Church
You Will Need:
Remaining pepparkakor dough; ruler, pencil, squared paper, scissors; greaseproof paper, baking trays, rolling pin; royal icing; dinner knife; small bowl, small amount of dark chocolate; 2-3 packets dark chocolate Cadbury's biscuit fingers; cake decorations of choice. 

1) Using your house pattern as a template, draw out another wall/roof layer, a tower and a pointed steeple onto squared paper, each about 3cm high.  The second layer should start about 4cm from the eaves of the first.
2) Retrieve your remaining dough, and roll it out to 3mm thick.  Cut out two of each wall, gable and roof, and four triangular steeple-pieces.  With the remaining scraps, make dragons, crosses and a weathercock to stick to the roof.
3) Make a batch of royal icing using 1 egg white and 8oz of icing sugar, and/or use any remaining from making the gingerbread house.
4) Stick the gable pieces to the roof of the house.  Add Wall 2 between the gables on each side, using skewers to prop up the bottom edge.  Allow to set for a good while before attempting Roof 2.  Glue everything together well with icing.  Allow to set.
5) Add the tower pieces to Roof 2. Complete with the steeple pieces.
6) While the steeple is setting, melt a little chocolate in a small bowl in the microwave on a low setting.  Use the chocolate to stick chocolate fingers to the large gable ends and walls of the church. Leave some space on one end for a door.
7) Spread more icing on the roof, and use to stick Shreddies, flaked almonds, jelly diamonds or other small tile-like sweetnesses on.  I only did a row per roof as I ran out of icing, but may do more later.  This is a good point to involve any small children you may have hanging about.
8) When you have finished decorating the walls and roof, add the dragons to each corner, crosses to each end, and weathercock on top of the steeple: Break the pointy end off a skewer to roughly the height of the triangular steeple, plus 2cm.  Insert the pointy end into the edge of the weathercock carefully, supporting with icing if necessary.  Post the blunt end through the top of the steeple, to rest on the top edge of Roof 2 inside the tower. 

9) Place the church in its final resting-place, and sift icing-sugar snow over the top if desired.  I did this to mine at the last minute before Christmas to prevent icing sugar getting everywhere in the meantime. 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Gingerbread House

Last year I tried to make a gingerbread house, and it didn't work *super* well because it was too house-shaped.  Most templates on the interwebs have very steep roofs and short walls, as this makes balancing easier.  When I drew my template for this year, I made it steepy too.

Yaay shoddy MS Paint diagrams are back!
The numbers are measurements in centimetres.  Cut the shapes out of squared paper to make them easy to measure.

Gingerbread House
You Will Need: (Squared) paper, pencil and rubber, ruler, scissors; one batch of dough to make pepparkakor; greaseproof paper, baking trays, rolling pin, cooling rack; teatray, tinfoil; scales, small bowl, whisk, dinner knife, piping bag (or a freezer bag with one corner cut off to make a tiny hole), wooden skewers; cake decorations of choice.

1) Using my recipe from last year, make the pepparkakor dough.  While it is resting in the fridge for at least half an hour, draw out the templates.  The squared paper will make it much easier to get straight edges.  Cut out one of each shape.
2) Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C.  On a floured surface, roll out half the dough until it is about 3mm thick.  Cutting around the templates, make two of each shape.  Save all the remaining dough clingfilmed in the fridge.
3) Cover the baking trays in greaseproof paper and lay the shapes out on the trays with plenty of room to spare.  If necessary do them in two or three batches.
4) Bake for 10-15 minutes until really golden and getting dark around the edges.  This ensures stiffness.
5) When they are ready, take the shapes from the oven and allow to cool for a good while on the trays, before transferring to cool completely on the rack.  Go and do something productive for half an hour to make sure they are completely cool.
6) Select where you want to put your house, and make sure that the teatray can sit there without any danger of being bumped into.  Cover the teatray in a single layer of tinfoil, sellotaping the foil to the back of the tray at the edges.
7) Make the royal icing to stick the house together:  whisk an eggwhite in a small bowl until frothy.  Incorporate eight ounces of icing sugar a little at a time until really thick and glossy.
8) Assemble the house, using the piping bag or erzatz piping bag to draw straight 'foundations' of icing on the tinfoil for the walls and gables.  Using volunteers, wooden skewers broken to size or a combination of both, hold up the walls and roof until you are sure you can leave the house alone.  This should be at least 3 hours to be on the safe side.
9) Using more icing, stick cake decorations, sweets and so forth to the roof and gable ends of the house.  If you wish it is safe to involve small children at this point.  If you have a really steady hand you may be able to pipe icing icicles down from the roof. 
10) Place the house in its eventual home, and scatter icing sugar over for snow if desired. 

You may notice that you have some dough left over.  Well noticed!  Save all the bits, because if you feel in the need for something a bit more ambitious, skip stages 9 and 10 and come with me to the next post for a Gingerbread Stave'll need all your remaining dough.  If you don't want to do that, you could make more happy shapes to surround your house with or to hang on the tree threaded with ribbon.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Christmas decorations

As you may know my father and his girlfriend N got married recently, so they had a wedding photographer.  This meant that wedding photographs, and hence an album for them, had to be chosen.  I muscled in on a meeting with the smudger to decide on the format of said album, because it was in Kettner's and I had nothing better to do than drink white wine and talk about pretty books.  During the course of the evening some samples of bookbinding leather were produced, all dark reds, and someone said  "Here Girlie, you might have a use for these".  I love being crafty at these moments - it's amazing what people will give you for free knowing that some use can be made of it, that you'd never have found elsewhere except for money.

Back home Dad and N had got a very small and stylish wooden christmas tree decoration, which was too little to hold even the littlest of our baubles really.  Inspired, I fetched some thread, my riveting tool/holepunch (from John Lewis of course) sewing scissors and the leathers.  It was a simple matter to draw rough designs on the leather in hard pencil, cut them out and punch holes in them with my marvellous tool.

A little thread or fine wire and they were ready to hang up.  For the angel on the top I devised a different method - as he was flat, I gave him a square base with a square hole in it which folds back.  This allows him to slot down onto the tree and then rest against it.  He does look more like Mephistopheles than Gabriel, but I blame this on the inherent evil of commercialising the birth of Christ and celebrating it with bits of peeled cow.

Monday, 28 November 2011


The boy and I were reflecting again recently on how much our culture in Britain has been steeped in Christianity - how it has permeated everyone's cultural consciousness to the point that we no longer notice.  It was brought home to us most recently when we tried to expose some Malaysians to Monty Python by showing them Life of Brian.  It wasn't the weird humour which went over their heads - it was the whole 'Brian is a bit like Jesus lols' thing.  It had just never occurred to us that anyone would be so unfamiliar with the New Testament as to go 'oh, so that's the three wise men is it? oh yeah...'

Christmastime for obvious reasons is another one of these cultural events with a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle Jesus in there to trip the unwary.  But sometimes the Jesusy bits are the best bits.  The above photo is an Advent wreath - the candles are supposed to symbolise key virtues or people, depending on tradition, and are lit one per Sunday in December counting down to Christmas.  Lovely.  Trust the Germans to invent a way of celebrating the birth of Our Lord which involves setting things on fire for an extended period of time.

I've never made an Advent wreath, and we don't have room for one in either of my current residences really, but I am beginning to count the days in my own way.  The present-buying has started, and I am starting to think about the number of biscuits and cakes I should make this year, and what kinds.  I never got round to posting my christmas cake recipe last year, but I have some good ideas for 2011 already. 

I'm looking forward to spending this festive season at home with my family, for the first time in some years.  We're big biscuit-eaters and present-appreciators, and there will be viewing of Muppet DVDs and old friends and emphatically not turkey to eat.  Bliss.  Now all we need is a little snow (and accompanying bucket of grit).

Friday, 18 November 2011

Leek And Pig Pie

It would seem from the titles of pages I brought up whilst seeking the above image that there are many people who don't know what to do with leeks.  Have never tried them.  Never realised they liked them.  They aren't the most staple vegetable in the world - being a little more expensive than broccoli (to take a staple veg at random) does not help them.  But they are well worth the extra few pence a pound.  There's nothing like that smooth, onion-ish greenery sweet taste.

I always knew I liked them, or rather was going to be brought up to like them, because a favourite dish of Dear Mama's was leek and bacon pie.  It's a classic, just as good cold as hot, a lunchbox standby when buttering sandwiches was too much to bear.  I used to get strange looks pulling a corner slice out at school but who cares.  With the man away on holiday again, I can eat whatever I damn well want, and as he doesn't like leeks (!) I rustled up the following just to spite him.

Leek and Pig Pie
You Will Need: Rectangular pie dish, ovenproof and about 25cm x 15cm; scales; rolling pin; large bowl; dinner knife; chopping board; sharp knife; small saucepan; small bowl.
Plain flour
Semi-skimmed milk
about 400g thin-cut lean pork, or pack of bacon, or mixture
One large or two small leeks
Three or four eggs
Cheddar cheese

1) Make the pastry (YES YOU CAN don't be a wuss).  Measure out 4oz flour and 2 oz butter.  Cut the butter into lots of little slices.  In the large bowl, rub the flour and fat together with your bare hands until you have a fine breadcrumby mess.  Hot tip - take your rings off first and put them somewhere safe, pastry is hard to get out of gem fittings.  Add a large pinch of salt and a slosh of milk.  Stir about with the dinner knife until it looks solid enough to get a handle on.  Handle it into a ball.  Wrap said ball in clingfilm and jam it in the fridge until needed.  SEE WAS THAT SO HARD**
2) Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C (as usual).  Chop the leeks into 1cm circles, and push the middles so that they fall apart into rings.  'Sweat' these with a little more butter in the saucepan, by melting the butter, adding leeks and putting the lid on over a low-medium heat.  Toss the pan (with lid on) occasionally to stop them sticking. Do until softened.
3) Set the leeks aside in the bowl.  Cut the pig into small pieces.  Brown the meat in the same pan, until all browned.  Drain off any watery fatty liquid (this will only sog the pie).  Mix the leeks back in off the heat.
4) Scatter flour on your worksurface.  Take the pastry out of the fridge and roll it into a rectangle about 3mm thick.  Shuffle into the pie dish.  Trim the edges; if there are places where the pastry reaches over and under the edge, cut the overs off and press them into the unders.  Scatter the pig/leek mix into the pastry case.
5) Beat together a few eggs, enough to mostly cover the meat.  Pour over.  If you think you'll be short of egg, beat in some milk to make it go further.
6) Cut slices of cheese and lay them over the surface.  Bake for half an hour until golden brown at the edges. 

**Note for pastry virgins: I was one of you once.  Never again.  But- if you feel I have been unduly harsh here, I may do a proper 'pastry 101' post soon.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Sun-dried tomato beef sauce

One of the first things that my mother taught me to make - or the first dish that I internalised - was spaggy bol.  It's not spaghetti bolognese, the real thing, the way the Italians make it; I highly doubt that they put julienned carrots in theirs, or use quite so much Lea and Perrins.  But it's bloody good.  Having said that, it can be improved upon.

The man puts red wine in it.  And more Lea and P.  And sun-dried tomatoes.  And he likes the mince to be in big lumps - or does he?  Maybe that's just how it ends up.  And slow-cooked in the Le Creuset in the oven.  And not on spaghetti.  Because spaghetti is a recipe for white-shirt-death.

Today I'm making something mincey and red and (according to the man's mother) 'oh my god Elisabeth garlic'y - but I can't even call it spag bol.  It's just going to be hearty and pleasant on something starch-related.  Here it is.

Stuff To Put On Stuff What Is Beefy And That
You Will Need: Chopping board; chopping knife; vegetable peeler; cheese grater; casserole pan; teaspoon; wooden spoon/spatula; oven gloves

1 jar of sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil
400g beef mince
(small lump of steak, thinly sliced (leftover from the other day))(optional) (lots of brackets)
one carrot
one onion
half bulb garlic
half bottle red wine
Lea and Perrins
tomato purée

1) Preheat the oven to 150 degrees C.
2) Heat a few teaspoons of oil from the jar of tomatoes in the casserole.  Finely chop the onions and garlic; into little squares, or half-rings if preferred.  If you have some, finely slice the steak.
3) Fry the onion and garlic on a high heat for about 2 minutes, then turn the heat down.  Add the mince and steak if using, and turn over until it's all brown on the outsides, more or less.  Add more oil from the jar if needed.  Turn the heat down some more.
4) Add half a jar of sun-dried tomatoes, draining them on the side of the jar with the spoon as you go.
5) Grate the carrot on the cheese grater.  Add to the pan.  Stir.
6) Slosh generously with Lea and P; add the wine.  Spooge generously with tomato purée.  Stir.
7) Bring to a simmer, then take off the hob and put in the oven.
8) Every hour or so, take the pan out, give it another stir and add water if needed to re-cover the ingredients.
9) Boil/roast starch of choice to serve.  Blob.  Nom.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Recipes - How To, and How Not To

Today the man and I were wandering in Waitrose looking for lunch ingredients, when we spotted a pork loin.  'What are you supposed to do with that?' asked boy, to which I replied 'This' and held up the accompanying cunning marketing strategy, i.e. a recipe from Delia Smith on smooth stiff leafletty paper.

Having got most of the ingredients home, we discovered that we didn't as we had thought have any creme fraiche, were going to need a pastry brush, and that the apple we had got was quite deliberately the wrong sort.    We also decided not to add the demerara sugar to the caramelised apples, for healthy purposes.

My point being - most recipes are just for inspiration.  Waitrose uses them to inspire you to buy creme fraiche as well as meats.  I use them to find out (for example) what other people think goes with salmon so that I can impress people with tasty combinations.  When it's your recipe, you don't even need any instructions - just quantities, like in the picture above.  But there are proper ways of doing it, laid down since the beginning of Cookery Time by folks like Mrs Beeton, and Delia is not good at it.

When making a recipe for someone, I feel that you should:

1) Mention any unusual equipment at the beginning.  Make it clear if for example, very small jelly moulds are required, or if you can just use ramekins; if a large or mini version can be made.
2) Order the ingredients in the order in which they will be used, in groups as they will be mixed.
3) Explain what weird ingredients are, where you can find them, and what a good substitute would be, at the top of the page.  Ideally, only use one weird ingredient as a feature.
4) Don't just put 'carrots - chopped' in Ingredients; put 'chop the carrots' or 'prepare the vegetables' or something in the instructions at the appropriate point, so that people remember it needs doing.
5) Sprinkle the instructions liberally with 'meanwhiles'.  Most cookery is a 3 or 4 -stage deal, with different tasks overlapping - make the icing while the cake cools, make the gravy while the meat rests, saute the onions while someone makes you a G&T ;P.  Worst offender for this sort of thing is putting 'Preheat the oven' at the END of the recipe.  I have seen this.  It should be a capital crime.

Delia reckoned that her roast pork took 40 mins to make, from start to finish.  Where she puts the start line to end up with a figure like this is a mystery to us, because it sure as hell didn't take ten minutes to prepare with two of us doing it.  But maybe too many cooks spoiled the broth on that one.

A friend of mine stayed at my granny's house once, and granny served her blueberry pie.  When he asked for the recipe, she sent him an absolutely exhaustive recipe for how to make the perfect pastry from scratch and so on.  Slightly daunted, he has still never actually made the pie, but is confident of his ability to do so.

This blog was started with the idea - the overarching idea - that if I can rustle something wacky yet impressive up on a whim having read BBC Food and watched a couple of YouTube videos, you can too - given comprehensive-enough instructions.  I hope I have succeeded.  If not? Moan at me in the comments :)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Autumn Leaves

Copyright RondayPhotography
"You know what's weird?"
"Walking through dead leaves in flip-flops."

We did have a bit of an Indian summer this year (as I'm sure those in the UK have noticed) and during the heatwave I was comissioned once more to make a birthday cake for my Dad's friend A.  Previous inventions have included an apple-and-Calvados Arctic-themed thing, with meringue icebergs and marzipan polar bear; and last year, a chocolate-orange loaf stack with candied orange slices and candied peely squiggles.  This year I went for an autumnal vibe, because when I'm stuck for a birthday in autumn I go with Nigella Lawson and plump for maple syrup and pecans.  The cake will follow, but I decorated it with these.

Autumn Leaves
You Will Need: Rolling pin, baking tray, greaseproof paper, dinner knife or specially-shaped biscuit cutter, chopping board and knife / food processor, cup, pastry brush

One slab frozen/ready-rolled puff pastry
Plain flour for rolling
Pecan nuts, finely chopped
2 egg yolks
Maple syrup

1) Roll out the puff pastry quite thinly - between 2 and 3mm thick.  Cut, using a knife or specialised implement, into the shape of mapley/chestnut/sycamore leaves, with 5 points, or single tear-shapes.  (n.b. Usually when rolling and cutting pastry, ones saves, balls up and re-rolls out the snippets left behind from the first cutting.  With puff pastry, which is made in layers, this process mixes the layers and causes second-round cut-outs to rise unevenly.  Save any leftover pastry for simple quiches and put it in clingfilm in the freezer.)
2) Lay the leaves onto baking trays lined with greaseproof paper and scattered with flour.
3) Beat the egg yolks in the cup to a uniform consistency.  Brush each leaf with yolk.
4) Chop or blitz the nuts (approx. half a packet for one slablet Waitrose' own puff pastry). Sprinkle over the egged leaves.
5) Very carefully drizzle a smidgen of maple syrup onto the leaves, being careful not to get any on the baking paper if you can.
6) Bake in a hot oven (200 degrees C) for 5-6 minutes, until well risen and golden brown.  When cool, remove from the tray and present or save on a plate to eat as biscuits or use to decorate a cake.  Don't worry if smaller leaves rise oddly and spill over themselves; you can eat those and hide your shame... nom nom nom

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

'A Little Promptu'

Such was the conversation which resulted in this little fellow, and actully a little friend for him as well...

He is a 'little promptu', or 'promptu' for short - and they are very easy to make at short notice - impromptu promptus!  He is an odds-and-ends creation using wool from making chicken-wattles, felt from Socky and cuddly stuffing from John Lewis (because all my cuddlies have quality inner cuddleness).  I was able to take all the tools and bits needed to make him to the slightly promptu barbeque in question, and whip up one for D in about an hour.

Little Promptu
You Will Need: Wool (half a ball or less of thickish stuff) knitting needles, 6mm; sewing scissors; felt; needle and thread; wool needle (with large broad eye for sewing with wool); stuffing.

1) Cast on 4 sts, leaving a long 'tail' of non-working wool.  Work 2 rows (the promptu is a stocking-stitch or smooth creature).
2) Increase at the beginning and end of row 3.  Work another couple of rows.  Increase at the beginning and end of the next row.  Continue increasing every other row or so until you have an even snouty triangle about 12 stitches wide at the needle.
3) Increase at the beginning and end of each row until you have 16 stitches altogether.
4) Knit approx. 3 inches on these 16 stitches; this will form the promptu's body.
5) Knit halfway across the row (8 sts).  Turn the work and purl these 8 sts.  Turn and knit 8. Cast off the next row, and leave a long 'tail' end.  Pick up the remaining 8sts on your needle and do the same on the other side.  These will form the promptu's legs.
6) Using the first long 'tail' from casting on, sew the promptu's snout together and as far down the middle of his tummy as you can get.  Roll his legs into little cylinders and sew down the inside edges with the tails from casting off, making a good strong seam in his groin and going up his tummy a bit if you can.
7) Cut out circles of black felt for the soles of his feet (not visible in the photo but very cute) and stitch them on with ordinary needle and thread.  Cut hands, with a slanting edge for the 'wrist' out of more felt and stitch them to the sides of his body.
8) Stuff your promptu tightly and fat!
9) With a new piece of wool if necessary, sew up the gap in your promptu's tummy.  Reaching his chest, make a strong stitch through his chin and pull his head down onto his chest.  Fix his head here firmly with a few more stitches.  Pass the needle through the back of his body to come out near his bottom, and cut off the wool to make a tufty tail.

Promptus have no eyes because I am lazy and they live underground like little moles.  But you could give them eyes if you like - very small beads or buttons.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Poultry Puppets

These poor souls have been off the blog since I made them, and I can't even remember when that was. It was definitely months ago, but then that's what you get for breaking your own digital camera and not visiting your brother often enough so he can provide piccies for you.  I insist on having pictures for knitted creations because otherwise the instructions *make no sense*.  Hence delay.  Apologies.

Unfortunately having finally got round to acquiring a picture at a lovely barbeque (with the beneficiary of the chicken modelling it beautifully in the background) I have now almost forgotten the instructions.  I was making the pair (yes, pair) of chickens up as I went along basically, fitting the sock to my own hand, so I can only give you a very rough guide indeed.  If you have any trouble and really want to know? I could work it out from the originals and message you, but you can't go far wrong here as they were designed to be pretty shapeless and crazy items.

Poultry Puppets
1) Cast on about 40 stitches, and knit a tube in the round on your double-pointed needles as far as you would like the puppet to extend below your thumb joint.
2) Turn the heel; the heel flap will go up the back of your hand
3) Make the gussets and decrease etc. according to the tutorials from Socky.
4) Based on how big you want the beak, decrease a bit into the 'toe'.  To join on the beak, alternate first yellow-body-body-yellow-body-body, then yellow-body-yellow-body, then all yellow coloured stitches.  Tie off the body wool safely.  For knitting in two colours, see Lizard.
5) Divide 2/3 of your stitches onto a 'top' needle, and the remaining 1/3 onto a 'bottom' needle.  On each needle, knit an hourglass shape, i.e. starting with many stitches decrease carefully on both sides to a point, then increase on both sides again to many.  Measure onto your fingers as you go along.  Cast off the finished hourglasses.
6) Stitch the hourglasses together into pouches which can fit your thumb and fingers into them.  Join the back of the throat together carefully - the lower edge of the top triangle to the upper edge of the bottom triangle, leaving holes for fingers and thumbs to get in.
7) Cast on 6-10 stitches in fat red wool, and knit two rows garter stitch (all knit sts both sides).  Follow Step 9 of Socky's ears to make a comb, possibly a little blunter than Socky's ears, and then cast on 5-7 sts and make two 'fingers' or spikes to make wattles.
8) Sew on comb, wattles and buttons for crazy eyes in appropriate places.  If wanted, get a bit of red felt for a rabid, pointy tongue.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Cartacake, or Mappe-Monde on a Gateaux Projection

Since starting work at Jonathan Potter Ltd (shameless plug) I've made many rookie errors and seldom had a chance to show my appreciation and gratitude to the rest of the staff.  So when it started being my-birthday-time-of-year, I resolved to bring a cake in like we used to at school, and to theme it appropriately.

With one of us being on holiday, it needed to keep until he got back, so a fruitcake with plenty of integral booze seemed best.  This also gave me an excellent opportunity to use up some of the old dried fruits in the larder which had been giving me funny looks for years and threatening to go crunchy.

Map Cake
You Will Need: Large bowl, wooden spoon, scales, small bowl, fork, medium bowl, knife, sharp knife and chopping board, 24cm Springform tin, greaseproof paper, rolling pin, small plate, paintbrush, cup of water, plate for display.

3 medium eggs weighing 6ozs. total
6ozs. butter (Kerry Gold for preference, it squidges so well)
6ozs golden caster sugar
large handful of apricots, finely chopped
tablespoonful of mixed peel
a dozen glacé cherries, finely chopped
tablespoonful of currants, with any stalks removed
tablespoonful of sultanas
Armangac, Madeira, sherry or other cooking alcohol
6 ozs self-raising flour
2 ozs dessicated coconut
icing sugar
lump of marzipan
silver balls, food colourings
apricot jam

1) Preheat the oven to 180degrees C.  Grease and line the tin with a circle of greaseproof paper.  Set aside.  Chop all the fruit that needs chopping.  Put all the fruity ingredients in the medium bowl, and glug over a generous measure of the booze by putting your thumb in the neck of the bottle and drizzling as though you are a real chef.  This is quite fun, but only do a coating, not so you can see a puddle at the bottom.  Leave to soak.
2) Cream the butter and sugar.  Beat the eggs together in the small bowl with the fork, and mix well into the sugar/butter a third at a time.
3) Stir in the fruit and booze.
4) Weigh out the flour and coconut together and mix them.  Add to the cake mix a quarter at a time.  Fold in carefully to get lots of air bubbles into the cake.
5) Pour the mixture into the tin and spread carefully so that there is a slight depression in the centre of the cake.  As it rises this will fill out, creating a flatter surface to rest the cake on.
6) Bake until golden brown and cleanly skewered, about 35-40 mins.  Meanwhile, roll out a piece of marzipan into a circle big enough to cover the whole cake.  Use icing sugar to 'flour' the surface and your rolling pin.  On the little plate, blob food colouring like paint onto a palette and paint your design onto the marzipan with the brush.  Rinse in the cup of water.  You can't get much detail on marzipan; if I was doing this again I would make Royal Icing with eggwhite and use a smaller brush, but not everyone likes crunchy icing.  This was a cake for all.
7) Take the side-tin off the cake and flip it onto the plate for display, by putting plate on top of cake, grasping the tin-bottom firmly and turning over.  The tin-bottom and paper can now be removed.  When cool, spread the cake with a little apricot jam and lay the marzimap over the surface.  Trim any unsightly dangly bits with a knife.
8) Add capital cities or other places of interest with silver balls. 

Safe to say the cartographic content (and indeed the cakey content) was appreciated by all, which is gratifying.  And one of my rookie mistakes today (not getting a potential customer's name and number) came good too!  So, all is well in London Town for the beginning of another year...

Friday, 9 September 2011

Luxury Snacks for The Deserving

You can actually pay to go and stay in this house, as it's owned by the Landmark Trust.  I haven't been to this particular Landmark, but it makes an excellent illustration for a luxury pudding/snack/treat/vitamin C upgrade.

Boozy Pineapple
You Will Need: Chopping board, knife, pineapple, Cointreau, bowl, cutlery (optional)

1) Cut the pineapple in half.  Chop each end off.  With the big end against the chopping board, shuck off the skin carefully, pushing the knife blade away from you.
2) Cut each skinless half in half lengthwise, and carve out the hard cores in Toblerone shapes.
3) Chop the remaining fruit as you would prefer to eat it.  I am a pig so I did fat slices big enough to pick up with my bare hands.
4) Pile the pineapple into a bowl and slug a lot of Cointreau over it.  

Omelette of Queens
You Will Need: Knife, fork, bowl, small frying pan, spatula, butter, 2 eggs, some cream, some sugar, plate

1) Melt a small chunk of butter in the frying pan and let it froth.  Meanwhile, beat the eggs together with a generous slug of cream and a sprinkling of sugar with the fork in a bowl.
2) Add the egg mixture to the frying pan.  Cook on a highish heat without touching it until the edges are beginning to cook.  Scrape the bottom of the pan so that cooked areas ripple into view.  Leave it to cook some more, until there is about 3mm of uncooked egg sloshing around on top.
3) CAREFULLY turn the omelette over and cook another 30 seconds.
4) Flop the creation onto a plate, and serve hot with more scrapings of butter.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Flower Pressing

I had a good old Tidy last week, and was surprised and not a little pleased to find my old flower press and some of its produce tucked away.  The last time I moved house I went round the garden and took a sample of each plant as a memento.  Some of them pressed better than others - white flowers always tend to go brown if they're too fleshy - but I was able to construct a couple of pictures to remind me of past glories.  Last week I found the leaves I hadn't used yet, and reckon they could be kept for greetings cards etc.

I was lucky enough to be given a press, several layers of cardboard and blotting paper in a wooden frame with tightening screws.  You don't need one though - just some slightly absorbent paper to go beneath and above the flowers, a heavy book and another heavy book to weigh it shut.  Be careful how you lay the flowers, as they won't all open out beautifully once you close the pages over them.  Get a few of each kind so that you can pick the best-turned-out for your project.  It'll take a couple of weeks for them to dry out completely.  To stick them to something, use a very very fine scraping of PVA glue on the surface and a DRY, SOFT paintbrush to ease the petals down flat.  Lay them out in a plan before you get sticking, and try a few different arrangements. 

You don't have to make big pieces as above - a single blossom on a small piece of card can be tucked into a clear plastic keyring-dongle.  A silhouette portrait could be enlivened with flowers in the hair or as a border.  Elderly female relatives will appreciate your efforts as cards, and even a plain picture can become more of an abstract collage than a reproduction of a garden.  Don't forget that delicate leaves also work, especially variegated and feathery types.

Now that autumn months are drawing close, nab the last blooms of August while they last, and make them keep!

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Blackberry Compote and Blackberry Diet Panna Cotta

Yes, it's that time of year again - or rather, given the amount of rain we've been having, it was that time of year again two weeks ago.  The blackberry season is over - tomorrow will be September, and according to the old wives, the Devil will be out pissing on them all making them shrivelled and sour tonight.  Not to mention the usual amount of pee at dog level.

It was moving into the boyfriend's mother's house which kept me away, and so when I finally got back to the railway 'towpath' at Wimbledon there were only enough berries for a single pudding.  Less than half a tub.  Pathetic.  I didn't even bother to weigh them.  I did however bother to eat them.  You could simply wash a meagre crop and make into a crumble or pie; I went for the slightly posher Blackberry Compost and Blackberry Diet Pannacotta.

Blackberry Compost
(Ok, 'compote' but it's supposed to have a circumflex on the O and that means 'missing S' and it's so much more amusing.)
You Will Need: Blackberries, caster sugar, small pan, wooden spoon, sieve, measuring jug, container.

1) Wash the berries thoroughly, and discard any ants or spiders.  Add to the pan and half-cover with cold water.
2) Bring to a simmer.  Dredge the berries with sugar - this is a generous drizzle which covers the entire surface in a layer 1mm-ish thick.  Stir.  Bring to the boil, and gently boil, stirring all the time, for 10 minutes.
3) When the berries have all turned red and the liquid is a lovely deep purple, strain the liquid using the sieve into the measuring jug.
4) You have some choices about what to do with the remains; they would add a little flavour to some pie or  vodka, but not much; I chucked mine.  Likewise, the liquid can be saved for decorating/saucing/tarting up gamey meats and desserts in a container, or used straightaway in...

Blackberry Diet Panacotta
You Will Need: Blackberry compote, equal amount of semi-skimmed milk, small saucepan, caster sugar, packet of leaf gelatine, wooden spoon, small bowl of cold water, smooth bowl or individual moulds, eggs, small bowl and whisk

1) Measure how much blackberry compote you have made.  I made 200ml of it, so you can use my proportions to scale up to how much of everything else you will need.
2) If 200ml of compost: Soak 3 leaves of gelatine in the bowl of cold water for five minutes.  Meanwhile,
3) Beat one egg in a small bowl.  Heat 200ml semi-skimmed milk to hot bath temperature and whisk into the egg.  Return to the pan and heat very gently indeed.
4) Add the compost to the milk and whisk to a smooth colour.  If you like, add another tablespoonful of sugar at this point for a sweeter dessert.  Allow this to dissolve.
5) Fish the gelatine out of the water and add to the compost mixture.  Stir over a low heat until dissolved completely, about 2 minutes.
6) Take the mixture off the heat to cool a while, and prepare your moulds.  I used a smooth, laquered tin pie dish for my little experiment but it struck me that the silicone muffin cases you can get nowadays (in Lakeland, yay!) would be ideal for cute individual puddings.  Pour an equal amount of mix into the moulds and leave to chill in the fridge for approximately four hours.
7) Turn the pannacotti out onto little plates, garnish with a few blackberries if you have any good ones left and a dribble of red wine Creme d'Mures.  Serve with vanilla ice cream.

The preceding dessert is a little liver-coloured which is why garnish is so important, but tastes deliciously cool and fruity.  Because the milk is semi-skimmed and there's so little sugar in it, it's relatively suitable for those watching their figures.  Unless you dump in the optional extra sugar.  Or use single cream instead.  Both of which I will be trying as soon as I'm not in a dieting household...

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Hangover Omelette

So, on Friday night I went out.  To make new friends, who knew some of my old friends.  It's a simple concept - you all arrive at a pub, share a table with some strange faces and at the end of the night - two pints of cider, a double Amaretto, and a lot of ill-advised conversations about one's personal life - you invite them back to your house for some Sloe Gin.

That night you remember that you are drunk, and very so, because it has now been Saturday for four hours.  So you drink a lot of water.  Nevertheless when you get up on even-more-Saturday morning, you have a headache and not a lot of motivation.  I prescribe:

1) Lots of water, and no caffeine - coffee and tea are diuretics and will make you more dehydrated.
2) Fizzy-good-make-feel-nice (alka-selzer) or paracetemol, for the immediate problem.
3) Hangover omelette.  You Will Need:

2 eggs
a splash of milk
stirry spatula
leftover potatoes (or something)
sharp knife and board
frying pan
ketchup, to serve if desired

Melt a large knob of butter in the frying pan.  Slice the potatoes if using and fry them in the butter until browned and sticking annoyingly to the pan.  Add more butter.  Beat the eggs with a little milk in the bowl, and tip them into the hot pan.  Allow them to cook undisturbed for a minute, then try to turn over sections of the omelette one spatula at a time.  Shuffle the resulting chunks of eggy potatoey goodness around a bit until cooked through.  Flop onto plate.  Reflect dizzily how lucky it was that you didn't throw up, as that is what this creation reminds you of.  Put ketchup on it.  Remember to get a knife and fork out of the drawer to eat it with.  Serve with more water and a side of remorse.

4) Go back to bed to think about what you've done, and add some people on Facebook.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

How To Throw A Dinner Party As Far As You Can

Tonight in the name of Friendship, Love, Career Prospects, and all good things, I am throwing a dinner party for the boyfriend, myself and two very good friends with Rather Good Jobs which I hope will rub off on me.  The food has been calculated to delight the eyes (male friend) the palate (female friend) the stomach (boyfriend) and the nerves (me).  Calculated is the right word; like the Bistromatics in Hitchhikers' Guide, dinner parties have their own ratios, sums and correlations which must be measured before you can start.  Once you have your totals, you can throw a dinner party like a Lithuanian shotputter, which is to say well.

step One: Calculate the relationships between all the people you wish to invite, and subtract or add until everybody has at least one person to talk to.  When introducing a new person to a group, calculate the contents of the group so as to include your most welcoming and outgoing friends, so as to involve the new person automatically.

step Two: Work out what you want to make.  This involves several variables:
-Dietary requirements, including allergies and so-and-so who say they hate cream and are therefore not a human being
-Time to prepare.  Starters where possible should be cold and made the night before, or easily reheated before guests sit down (e.g. soup).  I have made things difficult for myself by making a cook-on-the-day starter, but it looks posh and comes with a preparable-ahead and impressive sauce.
Main courses should be started before guests arrive and ready by the time you've finished starters.  Time the arrival of guests and amount of booze available accordingly.  Once again I have broken my own rule by making something which will need to be prepared while starters are still happening for everyone else.
Puddings should always be reheatable at a moment's notice, to go in when the main course comes out, or cold and prepared the night before.  This time I have managed to obey; the pudding is already only awaiting presentation.
-Faff.  The Faff Index is personal and varies greatly.  A general rule of thumb is that you should never expend more Faff on a dinner party than 7:5, where 7 is party and 5 is your usual tolerance when cooking for yourself.
-Cuisine.  It's often nice to have all your dishes from the same area, like Spain or Italy, as it creates a Theme (i.e. Posh) and means you can use all the same cookbook.

step Three: Calculate the amount of food needed.  This is not the same as the number of people; some (like me) can only manage halves of everything (but being hostess I will tolerate leftovers.)  Boyfriends on the other hand usually go back for seconds.  Most people will eat more main course than everything else, and more pudding than they say they will. The sums are something like this:

Size of portions of courses is inversely proportional to the number of courses
Size of portions of courses is inversely proportional to number of eggs/floz cream used in meal total
Size of portions of courses is inversely proportional to the poshness of each course

Let Starter= s.  If S=1, Main Course =2 and Pudding (P) = 1.7 (Oh, Go On Then, Just A Slither).

step Four: Shopping For Posh
Regarding the Faff Index mentioned earlier, you can reduce the Index whilst increasing the poshness of your meal by adding what is known in my family as 'Garnish, that's what that is.'  For example:
-slices of citrus fruit, thin, cut along a radius and twisted to stand on things
-corainder, parsley or mint sprigs, or chopped and sprinkled chives
-grated chocolate off an ordinary large-hole cheese grater
-cream, oil, condiment or balsamic drizzled in an artistic drizzle
-chillies cut on the diagonal to reveal the seeds
And, my personal favourite and trick for this evening:
-Colourful, foreign and where possible tiny vegetables, and a variety of them.

step Five: Schedule, Schedule, Schedule!
You don't have to be all 'T-minus etc. eighteen hundred hours' about this, but do work out before you start what needs doing in what order.  Then when you're turning back to the cooking after five minutes talking and drinking gin, you won't have really forgotten where you are or what you're supposed to be doing.

Let's see how it goes...

Tuesday, 9 August 2011


Since the boyfriend and I both started our new jobs, it has been imperative that a quick and Simple breakfast be devised which can be eaten together at the extremely stressful time of day, known as When The Today Programme Is On Radio 4.  He has gone for a mushroom omelette, being a manly man and requiring cooking.  I have settled for the default of the nation.
It's one of those delightful English words which is both a noun and a verb -  a Make and a Do.  Perhaps the simplest Make/Do of all.  The words 'I can't even make toast' are known to be a lie (always) and excuse to get out of cooking/healthy eating the English-speaking world over.  How to make really nice toast just the way you like it however is a little more of a struggle, and requires personal experimentation.
From Vogel's website

I have always had to balance the desire to make perfect toast (which has in my humble opinion to be white bread, for that golden-brown look) with my desire to make perfect sandwiches, which vary depending on filling but generally call for more 'interesting' bread.  Vogel's products, pictured, in their green-and-purple or red-and-yellow striped packets, are a good compromise.  Burgen also do a seedy loaf with slightly larger, whiter slices.  Each loaf can keep me in toast (2 slices) and sandwiches (2 slices) for the vast majority of the working week.

Seedy bread is a great way to eat slightly better and tastier food without having to go down the brown bread route.  It doesn't feel like brown bread, which even home-made can have a slightly dusty taste to the crust; with jam, marmite, smoked salmon, hard and soft cheese the little niblets add texture and vitamins without impacting much on the overall 'white' taste of the bread. 

Seedy stuff also makes good eggy bread, or 'French toast' as they call it across the pond.  Take 1/2 a beaten egg per slice, dunk the slices in the egg so they're soaked all through, and fry in a chunk of butter.  I've had eggy bread with ketchup, or maple syrup and bacon, or sugar for pudding.  Yum.

Now all I need to work out how to do is get up at 7am!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Twitter - The Surrender

I had told myself that I would never get a Twitter, that it was a pointless waste of everyone's time, and that I couldn't understand it.  But that was in the early days, when everyone's Twitter was 'going to the loo' 'on the loo' 'reading the paper.'  Now it seems to be all about the linksharing, and after familiarising myself with its uses for work, I realised that having a Twitter feed could, actually, serve me well.

I often find myself collecting items for a project, thinking about a project, or doing something tiny yet creative which doesn't merit a full blog post.  For these snippets - such as the 'invention' of DIY egg mayo which formed my first post - Twitter is an ideal repository.

There are also several websites and resources which I use/rip off/exploit whilst seeking Simple Dos, which I could use Twitter to share much more efficiently than just posting them on here.  It's also an opportunity to do some ruthless self-plugging of this site whenever I post something new, which will hopefully increase traffic and therefore creative goodness vibes in the general population.

You'll be able to see my last 3 tweets on the right-hand side of the blog now, thanks to a cunning 'gadget' available through Blogger.  Points for Blogger modders.  I encourage you all to follow me, simplymakeanddo, and make this work.  It's a co-operative effort, people!


This is really a post about leftovers, especially garden leftovers.  Whilst (very sadly) unable to grow my own vegetables, I was bequeathed some home-grown things by the boyf's mother what was probably weeks ago now.  The potatoes and beetroot have kept well in the fridge, being roots which could traditionally keep a whole winter in a freezing Lithuanian cellar.  It is time they were used up.

It was (as usual) stepmother N who introduced me to borscht as a concept for home cooking; having previously thought of it as something foreign to be perfected by restaurants, I have now realised it to be as perfectable and yet homely as Momma's Apple Pie.  A quick search for a basic recipe on the Good Food website turned up some VERY angry commenters, each of whom had a different 'authentic' take on what is a national dish for about 9 different nationalities.  Given how little I have left in the fridge of any suitability, and my woeful lack of Eastern European ancestry, I present to you my riff on borscht - or what might be called Boish - 'almost Borscht', for the purists.  All nine of them.

You Will Need: Large pan, wooden spoon, large-hole grater, kettle and measuring jug, chopping board and sharp knife, potato peeler, apron or unfavourite clothes to wear (beets are super-purple), large dinner spoon and bowl :)

Knob of butter
Red onion
Two beetroot
Three potatoes, medium-sized
One sad tomato (as opposed to very fresh, happy tomato)
Remains of head of savoy cabbage
One teaspoon Bouillon veg stock powder (from all good retailers)
750ml boiling water
Approx. tablespoonful tasty vinegar
(sour cream optional serving suggestion - I didn't have any)

1) Peel and grate the potatoes and beetroot; chop the remaining nubs finely.  Set the striplets aside.  Peel and finely chop the onion.
2) Gently fry and soften the onion in the pan, with the knob of butter.  I use lightly salted butter for all my fat requirements nowadays, as it goes with pretty much everything, especially toast.
3) Boil the kettle.  Make 750ml of stock in the measuring jug with the Bouillon powder (that's a brand, and a good one, but it doesn't matter what you use.  It's best of course just to always have stock left over, but that's another story.)
4)  Add the beetroot and potato to the onion, and let the potato go purple before adding some of the stock.  Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to simmer.
5)  Finely chop the cabbage and tomato.  Add to the soup.  If it looks too chunky, add more stock.  SImmer for approx. 25 minutes, or one episode of 30 Rock.
6)  At the last 5 minutes before it's ready, add some red wine vinegar to taste.  Borscht is characterised by a sour taste, which is what the optional cream is for taking the bite out of.
7)  Serve hot or chilled, blended or chunky - although chunky is more authentic, and involves slightly less washing-up.  If you're feeling really posh, put some dill or lovage on the surface and get admiring cheffy glances from your co-diners.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Bead work

In my last post, I spoke of the difficulty of finding suitable electric-blue thread for dressmaking.  Thankfully I finally found the funds and the time to have a proper search, and once reunited with my trusty Viscount was able to make a tunic dress out of electric blue silk.  I'm hoping to wear it when the boyfriend gets back from holiday, so as to prove that I appreciate him going to to the trouble of buying the material.

Also to show appreciation of a present (Christmas I think, from parents this time) I incorporated some beadwork into the neckline of this dress.  It was such a simple design that it needed jazzing up, and beads (or sequins) make an excellent eye-catching detail when you're not confident of your embroidery.

First identify the area or edge which you wish to cover.  Measure the area or length with a measuring tape, and use this knowledge to identify either 1) how many beads you will need or 2) how far apart you should space the ones you have.  I had a good selection of large multicoloured, small white and small multicoloured beads, so I could make an interesting pattern.

It's a good idea to lay down different sizes or colours of beads in succession, so that if one set are badly misplaced you can unpick them without disturbing the others.  I laid the larger beads first.  Tie in the thread on the wrong side of the garment and pass the needle through to the front.  Thread a bead down the thread (you may need a very narrow needle for small beads).  Pass the needle back through near to the first hole, and pull tight.  Make two small stitches on the wrong side, just underneath the bead, crossing over each other.  This will firmly attach the bead.  Now pass the needle through in the next place along.

Laying down a row of widely spaced large coloured beads, with groups of three coloured-white-coloured small ones in between, made a lovely beach-pebble effect which really goes with the tropic blue material.  You can buy packets of beads in single or mixed colours, and I can recommend using the mixed colours all together in your pieces - they're grouped for a reason.  If you find that some beads don't fit over your narrowest needle, don't chuck them but put them apart from the others in a different pot so that you don't have the same trouble next time.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Difficult Things

More of a lifestyle post today.  I've been having trouble keeping up with the cpd23 Things course after starting work (yay jobness!), despite Thing 4 being Twitter, RSS feeds and something called 'Pushnote.'  All of these are tools to collect and recommend webpages to other people, and part of my job now is using Twitter to gently shove our merchandise at people through twitting relevant news items or trivia.  Despite the ease with which I've got into this, I've not set up my own account.  I tend to use the Facebook share option to spread things I find, as it allows me to target rather than spam 'followers.'

Thing 5 is 'Reflective Practise.'  The organisers recommend that participants consider what they've already done in the scheme, and how it has worked for them, in a slightly structured and calm way.  Not having kept my post count up, I've had plenty of time to do this.  So far, the most impactful 'Thing' has been brand-building, leading me to slightly merge my online presences.  But I've let blogging lapse- both here, and in the sense of looking at other people's.  I've not been converted to Twitter, despite using it every day.  Are me and the Internet just not cut out for each other?

We'll see how the other Things go down.  But for now, I'm finding it hard to find time to do Simple Things, let alone Professionally Developing things.  Where, for example, will I find the electric blue thread I need to make a tunic/dress with the electric blue Thai silk boyfriend bought me?  Do I need more bobbin reels?  Do I have the money? So much in #John Lewis, so little time...

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Creating a Personal Brand

Stand out.  That's what most people want to do when they're looking for a job in real life.  It's not the sort of thing most of us want to do on the Internet.  If people know who you are, they might find out where you live; they might find out your bank details; they might try to sell you drugs to enlarge organs you don't even own.  Sure, you could be a massive blogger, or tweeter, with hundreds of followers; your opinion might be sought by media pundits and traditional journalists; but most of us want to keep ourselves to ourselves.  The Internet is somewhere we can say things we could never say in real life.  'Hello I'm 'easily-searchable-identity' isn't one of them.

This week however the course I'm on recommended Googling yourself, coming to terms with the fact that this information is out there, and then gathering it into a consistent, flattering portrait of how you want to show off to the world.  Deep breaths.  I put my real name into Google.  About four genuine results came up (I have an S, not a Z, and I have never been on MySpace).  One was my Facebook, which is locked down anyway.  One was my LinkedIn, which I barely use, and is utterly professional.  But there were some surprises - a testimonial on my university website; my account activity on, who I briefly worked for as a beta-tester and book-reviewer; and my Lulu storefront, where I make no effort to sell either version of my fantasy novel.

Unsurprisingly this blog - 'Ishamel''s blog - did not come up.  Not even on the third page.  This is a little puzzling, because I have pointed prospective employers here on the bottom of my CV for almost a year now. It never occurred to me to open my profile here, add a little piccy of me, a bit of info, some contact details.

Reader - I'm still too scared.  I still keep my email address private as much as possible.  But I have added the same photo of myself to my profile here as I have for LinkedIn.  I'm changing my name.  And, reading through those links from Googling myself, I saw nothing which I would be ashamed for my boss to find.  As for this blog?  Two people have told me it's pretty and interesting, and one of those people is now teaching me to do her job.  So I suppose my brand is 'pretty and interesting'.  I could do a lot worse.

Monday, 20 June 2011

23 Things to Make and Do

Hello all!  My few regular readers will know that this blog is a vehicle for me to share my handicraft and baking projects with the world.  Maybe one day I'll get round to developing the instructions and recipes here into a book; maybe not, maybe I'll just get round to picking up some more followers...  but for a while, I'm running another function alongside the usual Simple Things to Make and Do.

It's a professional development programme called the 23 Things.  Each week, one or two 'Things' are covered, which can range from how to use Twitter to how to present yourself in a professional context.  It's aimed at librarians, but also other media people.   I'm trying to get an entry-level job in publishing, and being new-media-savvy can be a really important skillset for those jobs.  Getting some advice on how to make this blog more useful would be terrific, and I could really do with career-progression advice. So for a few weeks, I'll be blogging in posts tagged 'cpd23' about each of the Things.  Hopefully it'll serve as a repository for some good advice, and also help me keep track of what skills I've gained.

Despite these posts being part of a wider programme with hundreds of other participants, I've decided to try and keep my usual post format going of intro/bold heading/instructions.  After all, the Things are supposed to be 'recipes' for success... and one of them is 'building your personal brand,' which requires consistency.

Week One
Thing One - Blogging
Well, I'm a little ahead of the game here!  Starting a blog with Blogger is a very Simple Thing to Do indeed; it's keeping the post count up with content of interest that's the difficult bit.  Hopefully I manage that well enough; certainly being unemployed has resulted in plenty of projects to document.  This little programme should also help up the numbers, and stimulate my imagination.

Thing Two - Reading Other Blogs
I have to admit it - I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to internet content, but then I don't have a great opinion of my own writing either.  The 23 Things programme was the kick up the arse I needed to go out and try and find interesting, like-minded people.  Wasn't the internet supposed to be all about meeting people you'd never met and exchanging profound ideas?  And hopefully I could increase my own profile as well - maybe a fellow cpd23er would find this blog, decide they loved my cake and keep coming back.

With this in mind, I searched through the programme's participants list and picked a couple of blogs to read at random.  Some were empty, not having started the week's Things yet; a couple were very, very library-orientated and were clearly established discussion groups for other librarians.  One involved a picture of the author's dog.  But I did find two kindred spirits - young professionals, a little sceptical or nervous about the whole point of this blogging thing, but clearly determined to make a go of it in style.  I've left comments on each of their first posts, and subscribed to their blogs.  Little acorns, great oaks etc; I already feel more connected and professional.  It's a sort of electric green inner glow...

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Hazelnut Latte Buns

Okay, so maybe I make far too much cake for my own good.  But there's only so many cover letters a gal can write in a day...

A Note on 'Beating'
Beating a cake mix isn't like beating a carpet or your wife; it's a specific technique.  Tilt the bowl away from you so that the mix gathers at the far side.  Now paddle furiously at it in a steady rhythm with your wooden spoon, as though trying to turn a coracle or log canoe away from a waterfall in a Harrison Ford film.  You should find that it makes a very satisfying 'doff-doff-doff' noise, which is the sound of air getting trapped in the wake of your spoon and hitting the batter, becoming incorporated and making those tiny Aero-bubbles you find in great sponge.  Every so often you can group the mix into one blob again by scraping around the edges in a big circle.  It can also help to rotate the bowl every so often.

Hazelnut Latte Buns
You Will Need: large bowl, wooden spoon, cup, fork, butterknife, chopping board, large knife, coffee-making apparatus, scales, teaspoon, muffin tin.

2 beaten eggs
4oz butter (kerry gold if possible)
4oz sugar
4oz self raising flour
approx. 50g hazelnuts
small cup of strong black coffee
1 capful vanilla essence

1) Butter six of the tin-holes.  Chop or blitz the hazelnuts very finely, and put a teaspoonful of crumbs into each hole.  Roll around the holes to coat the sides, leaving some at the base of the holes.  If you have nuts left, drop a few whole into the base of each hole as a surprise for nommers.
2) Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
3) Cream the butter and sugar; add the egg a little at a time.  Beat to a smooth batter.  Add the vanilla.
4) Beat in the flour 1/3 at a time; alternate flour with coffee, until the mixture is latte-coloured, fragrant and batter-like, but not runny.  You want it to hold its shape on the spoon when a spoonful is lifted out, but easily drop off the back of said spoon.  Add the coffee very slowly, and don't necessarily use all of it.
5) Beat almost excessively to a very light and fully combined mixture; try to get plenty of air in.
6) Divide the mixture evenly between the tin holes, and bake until fully risen, and a skewer in the middle comes out clean.  You may find that the buns erupt slightly as the unbaked centres rise through the baked outer shells; don't worry, that's normal and makes a lovely light cake!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Sesame sponges

Captain's Log, Lifestyle supplement: When tired of writing speculative work-experience emails and doubting your own worth as a human being, remind yourself that you can make cake.  Damn nice cake.

Now that I've decided to call these sesame sponges, it's reminded me of two childhood memories: my father reading me the Arabian Nights, in which the wicked brother can't remember the password 'open sesame' and tries 'open cumin!' (i.e. open, come-in oh the lulz).  Also the bit in Winnie the Pooh when Owl's house has blown down, and Roo identifies an object as a 'spudge': 'You know what a spudge is Owl?  It's when your sponge goes all-' '-Roo dear!' interrupts Kanga.

Appropriately enough, these little noms were inspired by baklava, the middle eastern sweets/pastries/things which are sold the length and breadth of Edgware Road and contain sesame and honey.  Also, one of them (the one I instantly nommed) did turn out to be a spudge.

Sesame sponges
You Will Need: muffin tin (slightly deeper holes than a normal fairycake tin), wooden spoon, teaspoon, very small saucepan, large bowl, scales, cup, knife and fork.

4oz soft butter (I recommend Kerry Gold, it seems the softest brand)
4oz golden caster sugar
2 beaten eggs (with fork in cup)
3oz self-raising flour
1oz ground almonds
approx. 50g sesame seeds
approx. 6 teaspoonfuls clear honey

1) Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.  Grease 6 of the muffin-holes with butter, and pour about a teaspoon's worth of sesame seeds into each one.  Shake and swirl the tin until the seeds have coated the base and sides of the holes.  Might be an idea to stand over the sink or other large, wipeable surface for this one (mine went under the toaster.)
2) Cream the butter and sugar.  Add the beaten eggs a little at a time.  Beat in the flour and almonds together, a third at a time, and combine to a smooth batter.
3) Divide the batter evenly between the six seeded holes.  Bake in the hot oven until risen and a skewer comes out clean, about 10-13 minutes.
4) Melt the honey gently in the little pan until very runny but not simmering.  Poke little holes in each cake (still in the tin) and spoon a 6th of the honey over each one.
5) Leave to cool, a good while.
6) Turn out onto a serving plate or cooling rack, by putting said plate/rack face down onto the tin, and flipping both together so that the cakes come out upside-down.  This will be very tricky and result in failcake trifle if the tin is still hot, so be patient!
7) You could serve as a cake with tea, or still warm as a pudding with honey icecream and/or creme fraiche.