Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Book 4 and 5 - An Uncommon Reader and One Day

We have two books this month in our reading group because one of them is  very short.

An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett is an odd little book.  Alan Bennett is a well known playwright and wrote  quite an acclaimed series of monologues for television which won lots of awards but which I had never seen because they didn't appeal to me.  The only work of his I have knowingly seen was the film of The History Boys which I loved and wished I'd seen when it was on the stage. 

The Uncommon Reader of the title is the Queen who comes upon a mobile library at the back of the kitchens at Buckingham Palace whilst chasing after an errant corgi.  Deciding to take a peek inside she meets a kitchen servant and takes a book out on his recommendation.  This begins a love affair with reading which she finds challenges her staff somewhat.  As I read it I realised I wasn't really 'getting it' and it was faintly annoying me  but carried on anyway to the end.  The end was worth it.  The last two lines of the book were, I felt, magical.  I laughed out loud. 

This is not something I can say about our second choice One Day by David Nicholls.  One Day is a best selling book that has just been made into a film starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess.  I didn't like it.    My niece, who is twenty-one,  said she was finding it quite difficult to get into although she is persevering with it and Mrs Pao was disappointed with it.  I agree with Mrs Pao in that it doesn't deliver what it promises but also I felt quite depressed after reading it.  I do realise that as it has been made into a high profile film I might be in the minority here but that was the effect it had on me.

The story centres on Emma and Dexter a couple of opposite characters who get together for a one night stand  at the end of their very different degrees at Edinburgh university. Despite an obvious attraction they go their separate ways although they keep in touch with each other over the years and become  firm friends.  The premise of the title One Day is that we meet them on the same day every year over a period of about twenty years.   We find out where they are, what they are doing, who they are with, their ups and downs and what developments their relationship goes through.  As Mrs Pao says 'a snapshot'  of their lives.  But I found it to be messy.  Because they don't necessarily meet up on this 'one day', the 364 days in-between need to be brought in some how so that we know what has been happening to them.  And a lot happens to them  as well as lots  changes to the relationship between them.  It all gets a bit muddled.

Many years ago, late 70s I think,  I saw a film called Same Time, Same Place starring  Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn in which a couple who are married, but not to each other, meet and have an affair.  The affair ends but they decide to meet up every year on a certain  day.  They meet only on that day.  They have no contact in between other than to make arrangements. The happenings  of the intervening time is shown through their conversations, their moods and of course how they age.    Perhaps this sort of scenario works better visually.   I liked the film even though there was a certain sadness about it. It's a film I always said I would watch again and although I  never have I remember it with a certain fondness.   I rather wish I hadn't read One Day.


Some days as soon as I wake up  I  know things aren't going to go well.  I just have a feeling that it would be best not to indulge in anything with the capacity for catastrophe.  And some days there is no inkling whatsoever that life is going to throw a curved ball in my direction. 

The day I made the Battenburg was one such day. 

After I had made the Battenburg I went on to make Plum and Apple Jelly from a recipe on the Apple and Spice blog site (is that what they are called blog site? or should I say website? I wonder what the correct terminology is?).  It was a straightforward recipe which  didn't require straining juice overnight and seemed to yield quite a lot of jars.  Marvellous I thought.

Of course, having spent such a lot of time measuring and trimming the Battenburg it was quite late by the time I started chopping kilos of apples and plums (dark in fact) but I had survived the Battenburg experience and felt I was on a roll.

I thought it looked quite scrumptious

there was quite a lot of it when it had cooked down

and so I started to ladle it into the jelly bag which was suspended over a bowl on the table. 

No problem.  I had done it a million times before - which was probably the reason for the elastic on the jelly bag giving way causing the bag, full of mushed fruit, to fall into the quite full  bowl of strained juice.  The juice whooshed up into the air and on it's way down splattered the walls and a door before settling on the table and a chair from which it cascaded onto the floor.

I, in the meantime, found myself covered in a liquid that had just been taken off the cooker.  Although in my hair it had somehow avoided my face and upper body but the front of my  skirt was sodden.  So, holding my skirt away from me, I made a dash to the bathroom to take everything off and put cold water on my legs.   I broke the zip on my skirt trying to take if off so had to wriggle it over my head.  My face and tee shirt now had juice on  so I just jumped in the shower in my underwear and began spraying my legs and face with  cold water.  Luckily I didn't seem burnt in anyway, just a bit sticky so when I was clean and dried off I wandered back into the kitchen. 

Putting the apron I should have been wearing in the first place on over my underwear (I decided against more clothes in case my trials and tribulations weren't over)  I found the juice had  slithered, like something from a bad science fiction film, across most of  the floor and under a cupboard door. 

Walking through gallons of wet, sticky juice to get to the mop  I began operation clear up.

That done I went back to what remained of the juice.  I hadn't finished ladling from preserving pan to jelly bag so I began all over again with a new jelly bag.  I wasn't at all sure if it would work as the juice  going through the jelly bag was now quite cool but after it had been returned to the pan and boiled the setting point was reached.  I put the jelly  into  jars which had been sitting in a hot  oven all this time and were therefore well and truly sterilised and to my delight I got four jars of plum and apple jelly

The lids of the jars were a little on the burnt side but it was barely noticeable - really.

I would like to say that I dealt with all of this with an air of quiet resignation.  I did not swear, I did not get stressy and I did not cry.  And I took on board four lessons learned

1.     When looking at the jelly bag with the thought 'hmm that looks a bit full' STOP.  Do not listen to the next thought  'oh I expect I can get a bit more in there'. 

2.     Test the jelly bag for elasticity before using.

3.      Always, always wear an apron.  And if making anything requiring a jelly bag and hot liquid again invest in a pair of wellies for the kitchen. 

4.     Get back on the horse.  I made it again dear reader and it was perfect.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Great British Bake Off - episode 4 - Biscuits

I had been  looking forward to this episode as I love biscuits.  There is nothing that can't be sorted by a cup of tea and  homemade biscuits or cake.  Sometimes you need both.

I really wanted to make Mary-Anne's signature bake of melting moments but they weren't a featured recipe on the website so it was a choice between Rob's Chocolate and  ginger oat biscuits or Holly's Custard Melts because I wasn't going to make the required element of Mary Berry's Brandy Snaps.  Not just because they looked quite fiddly to do but mainly because they were to be a gift to take to lunch with the A's the next day and I don't think MG would have liked them. 

I actually really wanted to make the macaroons.  They were so pretty.  All the contestants had to make them and were given five hours in which to do it but I didn't have that amount of time, let alone the contingency time I would probably have needed in case it all went pear shaped.  But one day I will make macaroons, when I have a weekend to spare.

So I decided to make Rob's Chocolate and  ginger oat biscuits.   Rob endeared himself to an anwful lot of viewers when, in the first show, he dropped his two tier chocolate cake on the floor just as he was getting it ready for showing and was very upset. A million women, including me, went aaah and wanted to hug him.  It also helps that he is young, has floppy, dark, wavy hair, melting green eyes and dimples in his cheeks when he smiles. He seems to be gathering quite a following on the radio and is regularly discussed by the likes of Chris Evans and Ken Bruce.  Unfortunately Mr Hollywood seems to be immune to Rob's charms.   Rob, although he obviously loves baking, is a little on the laid back side, which Mr Hollywood is not, and he has timing issues, a failing of which Mr Hollywood disapproves.  I sadly think Rob's days might be numbered.

Anyway, the recipe looked quite straightforward and all I had to buy was the stem ginger, which was not at all as easy as I thought it would be.  However, ginger purchased I made the biscuits.

Here are Rob's biscuits

the required quantity of twelve

all the same shape and size (and the pinkness that is Mary Berry)

checking to see if they had the right constituants of crispness without and chewyness within - they did.  Although Paul Hollywood said there was too much ginger.  Rob said there wasn't.  

And here are my biscuits

Rob made twelve, the recipe said it made twelve, I made eighteen. Here are the remaining fifteen, two having been dropped and one eaten. If I had made twelve out of the mixture I had, they would have been the size of small dinner plates

they look the same size as Rob's biscuits - well to me they do

not only did I make six more than the recipe said but they were an awful lot thicker as well

I don't know how it would have happened as I followed the recipe very very carefully but there you go.

They tasted nice and they looked nicer than the photographs allow and The A's were very pleased with them.  They also didn't think there was too much ginger in them.

Next week is pies.  I like pies.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Great British Bake Off - episode three - Bread

I was a bit nervous about making bread as, apart from the debacle of my school girl attempt, I had only ever made Rachel Allen's brown bread which although successful, eventually, didn't have yeast.  Also it's Paul Hollywoods speciality and he's a bit fierce.  He makes me nervous and I'm not even there,  I'm at home, cooking in my own kitchen - how bizarre is that.

Anyway, there were an awful lot of bread recipes featured.  Holly made a picnic loaf which was a brioche dough with chocolate in one end and onion marmalade in the other.  There was walnut, raisin and rosemay loaf, tear and share cheese and onion bread, zupfe loaf with grueyre, lemon and coriander mini loaves, chocolate chilli buns, sage and oinion rolls, peppercorn loaf and so many more.  I wanted to make the egyptian, dukkah loaf with mixed spices as I happened to have some dukkah in the cupboard but it wasn't one of the recipes on the website.  So, I did it again, I made the required element.  I made Paul Hollywoods focaccia recipe.  But then I like focaccia, had all the ingredients and the recipe said it was easy!!!  So............

Step one -  put the flour, salt, yeast, olive oil and most of the water into the bowl. 

So far so good.  I then mixed it with my hands to form a dough.  Hmmm - okaaaay?

This is where I started to worry a bit.  Kneading for five minutes while slowly adding the rest of the water.  At this point I realised I had meant to watch the recording before I started cooking which would have been especially helpful because I wasn't at all sure I seen any contestants with their hands in as much mush as this - and this was it kneaded!!

But I carried on regardless now 'stretching' the dough by hand in the bowl for five minutes, resisting the temptation to add more flour because I remembered Mr Hollywood's gleefully derisory comments about  those who had added flour at this stage (and many had). So,  after another five minutes of flourless kneading ended up with this

It was so wet and sticky that I found the next bit of kneading, for yet  a further five minutes, on an oiled work surface quite difficult.  Urvashi did her kneading by picking it up and throwing it down on the board over and over again because 'it worked for her'.  Except it didn't  this time because she was eliminated (sadly along with Ian).

I just pushed it around as best I could (again - no flour), put it back into the bowl, covered it,

put it somewhere warm  and waited for it to double in size

This sort of looks double

Then it had to go on two lined baking sheets.  However it was so wet and sticky it was hard to flatten it out and push out into the corners of the tin so I put it on one tray.  I then realised it was going to rise in the proving so I tried to move half of it to another sheet.  It was glued to the parchent.  I couldn't get it off.  So with  misgivings I left it alone, covered it and left it to prove.  Like this

It was at this point I decided to go back to my recording of the programme to see what the finished article  should look like a la Paul Hollywood

This is his focaccia (and his hand)

A couple of contestants had dough as mushy as mine  but  they all managed to push it into the corners of the trays easily.  On viewing I also realised I hadn't put any dimples in the dough.  Still, trying to keep positive, it might go alright, you never know, I was keeping the faith, I went back after it's hour of proving to find it had indeed grown a great deal.  Time for dimples I thought.

However, when I pulled off the food wrap that had lightly been covering my focaccia, this happened

when I finally detached it from the food wrap my dough sank - a lot.  Now a sensible person might say 'using food wrap to cover it while proving is not a good idea - obviously' but I saw someone on the programme loosely cover theirs with it, although yes, most people did seem  to use a cloth so I would say 'lesson learned'.  Anyway not being one to give up I then tried, without success, to dimple.  Then I shoved it in the oven and went to watch Dr Who.

Twenty minutes later this came out of the oven

Not a very good photo I know but I was missing bits of Dr Who here!  The focaccia  was bigger than I thought it would be, it had a crusty top - which is good apparently and when I cut it later (after Dr Who) it looked like this

which I was not displeased with as it had the uneven holes Paul Hollywood said it should have.  Ok, so it probably shouldn't have been just as uneven all over but it was the holes he went on about so I reckon I did alright-ish.

In fact I was quite chuffed as it also tasted nice.  Not focaccia as I've had it before but it was definitely edible and I wouldn't mind feeding it to other people.  I might have to call it something else though.

I would definitely make it again but I wouldn't put so much salt on top before it's baked.  I would add rosemary or chilli or something.  Also I think the topping was too crispy.  This may have been because I put too much olive oil on it before baking.  I don't actually know yet.  I would remember to dimple before proving as well.

I feel quite excited - I can make two kinds of bread now - English Tea Stall here I come!!!

Book 3 - When God was a Rabbit

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman was such an interesting and inventive  book.  I thought it was well written with mainly likable  characters, some of them wonderfully odd. 

Narrated by  Elly it is the story of her life and her relationships, primarily with her brother but also the rest of her  family, her best friend, her brother's best friend  and her neighbour.   The first half was written from the point of view of Elly as a child and I tend to like that perspective.   There were pointers along the way to some sort of tragedy having taken place and which wasn't at all what I thought it was going to be. The story went to a lot of surprising places.   I thought it was  a tale about growing up, coping and acceptance.  It was definitely one of the 'unputdownable' books.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Great British Bake Off - episode two - Pastry

I'm a bit behind with these so I need to catch up, episode four is  tonight and I have reading group so I have put it on to record while I am out having my dinner cooked for me - yummy.  I will not go back and check that I have recorded it correctly - yet again!   If it doesn't record I can watch the repeat on - er - whenever it is on - Sunday I think.  Anyway, I am not going to check - I'm not.

Moving on. The week before lasts  challenge was pastry.  Specifically pastry tarts.  There were big tarts, little tarts and some in-between  sized tarts.  There were savoury tarts and sweet tarts.  As CCV was coming to lunch I decided to make a savoury tart.  I liked the idea of Jason's Salmon and Pak Choi quiche but CCV doesn't do fish so I opted for Ian's Spinach, Potato and Stilton Quiche with a walnut and paprika crust because it looked nice, sounded nice and Ian seemed a nice man.  CCV finds walnuts do not agree with her so I substituted hazelnuts.

I had never added egg to savoury pastry before and I liked the effect although I didn't use all the egg.

The tip of rolling pastry  out between sheets of food wrap was brilliant.  Unfortunately I didn't work the pastry enough as it was a wee bit crumbly when cooked. It wasn't dreadful but could have done with being a bit less flaky.   I found out this was the cause of my crumbliness when I replayed the recording and listened to Paul Hollywood's advice.  Afterwards.  It would have been helpful to watch the programme before I started cooking really.

The pastry went into the fridge for half an hour and I set about cooking the new potatoes and wilting the spinach.  After wilting I had to squeeze the liquid out of the spinach which took forever.  I don't know if there is a special technique or a spinach squeezer contraption available but I did it with my hands.  Messy, messy, messy and having started with 200g I ended up with the smallest amount ever.  There has to be a better way.

Anyway, after blind baking the pastry for far longer than the recipe said (not because I forgot about it - for a change - but because it needed it) I lined it with sliced, cooked new potatoes - seven in total but I found that to be too many so the ends found their way into my mouth.  Cooks privilege.  After crumbling the stilton onto the potatoes I spooned over the cream, egg, spinach,  nutmeg, lemon zest, cayenne, thyme and parmesan mixture. It is on occasions like this  when the recipe says spoon, one should really spoon the whole time, not decide halfway to tip,  because  there wasn't enough pastry for the amount of liquid.  Thus the liquid started to seep over the edges of the pastry and out of the bottom of the  tart tin onto the baking tray so I quickly shoved it in the oven whereby the tart tin started to slide backwards off the baking tray.   I shut the oven door, quickly.

After the required cooking time I opened the oven door to find the tart tin thankfully still on the baking tray.  It hadn't leaked too much and had set nicely.  Predictably it didn't look like Ian's quiche, the spinach having migrated to the middle for starters,  but that's alright because I am embracing the character of my cooking.  CCV thought it looked nice and she thought it tasted very nice and we had seconds and that is what matters.

I was just  happy there weren't any major disasters. 

I would definitely make it again preferably with the walnut crust but I would make extra pastry, any left over could be frozen perhaps.  Also I would possibly leave out the parmesan and increase the stilton.  

I think this could be classed a success. 

I checked again.  To make sure the recorder was set up for tonight.  Is this a problem I wonder? 

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Book 2 - One moment, One morning

One Moment, One Morning by Sarah Raynor was our last book club read.  It was a book I had picked up in Waterstones as part of the 3 for 2 offer and had taken along for consideration.  Most of us read it and we mostly found it an 'unputdownable' book.  I read it in three days. 

The book focuses on the lives of three women who become involved with a death on the London to Brighton train early one morning.  It chronicles the impact this event has on each of them, how they come together to deal with their grief, the relationships they are dealing with and the relationships they forge with each other as a consequence of the death.

It's a nicely written book.  The chapters are split over a week and defined by the hours in that week.  It also goes back in time on occasions and one of the book group found it difficult to read because of this and so gave up on it.  I didn't have this problem but I did find the language quite emotive and I felt at one point the emotions were so detailed I wasn't being given the space to feel it for myself. 

However, the consensus of opinion was, although a very sad book (I cried buckets - but then I do), it was worth reading.  The ending is positive and the main female characters were very likeable.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Great British Bake Off

One of my favourite television programmes has returned.  The Great British Bake Off is back.  I am an avid watcher of cookery programmes.  If it cooks, I watch it (fortunately I don't have Sky and so can't spend every waking hour watching the Food channel) but for some reason I really, really, really like this programme probably the most.  I even record it and watch it again (and sometimes again).

 For the uninitiated 12 amateur bakers, chosen from countrywide heats (that I didn't know were going on - hrrumph!!), compete to win the title of um, Great British Baker Off -er I suppose, under the beady judgemental eyes of Mary Berry (she of numerous  cookery  books) and master baker Paul Hollywood, renowned in this neck of the woods for his artisan bread, (having tasted his bread I would attest to it's tastiness, goodness and shape).  Each week has a theme and each  contestant makes three dishes, one of which has to be the required element which will be Mary Berry or Paul Hollywood recipe.  For the required element contestants are all given the same recipe which they have to follow although they are allowed a certain amount of interpretation as there are missing elements from the recipe.  The  required element is judged blind so that the contestants personalities cannot be a factor.  This can at times be very telling.  The judges eliminate one person each week.

This year I have decided I am going to make one recipe from each show and feature it here (you lucky people).  Not all the recipes are on the website so I will be a bit limited but no doubt will find something that takes my fancy.

The first episode was cake - my favourite.  There were so many cakes.  Big cakes, little cakes, tiered cakes, cup cakes.  Chocolate marble cake, chocolate and raspberry opera cake, cherry bakewell cupcakes, raspberry and cream cupcakes, chocolate and orange cupcakes to name but a few.  So which cake did I choose to make?  Why, the required element of course.  The required element being a Battenberg.  I actually chose to make a cake which must be symmetrical.  I may have mentioned, once or twice, that  I seem to have a slight lack  spatial awareness?  Well, it's actually much worse than that.

Throughout my life there have been glaring examples of my inability to judge distances, misread tape measures together with  my lack of dexterity in those mind game paper puzzle things where you have to move pieces around into the right shaped  holes without first cutting them up. I took life art classes and my work was held up as an example of bad perspective.  One of my housemates at uni was adept at throwing things into a pan and ending up with one person sized portions.  I have tried and tried but if I throw things anywhere without following a recipe the smallest amount I seem to be able to cook would feed a family of four, for a week.  I can't tell you the panic I feel when someone says to me  'it's just 200 yards up the road' - I don't know what 200 yards looks like and no explanations will get my brain to register it.  One sad day earlier in the year found me in Marks and Spencer with a tape measure actually measuring slices of bread because Delia said the bread for her Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding had to be 1/4 of an inch thick and I just couldn't work out what that looked like - thick, medium, thin - which was it.  In my defence I would mention that I just happened to have the tape measure in my bag anyway, although I can't remember why and I was having a particularly bad day - but even so!!

I have  a brother who has no concept of time whatsoever and he doesn't seem to realise this.  In the same way I have no concept of space.     However, unlike my brother, I recognise this trait in myself.  I believe I have spatial  dyslexia.  But for some strange reason I just seem to forget  I have this problem.

Which can be the only reason why, having  just seen 12 contestants using tape measures and rulers to get their cakes and marzipan into the required shape for this cake, my decision to make it too didn't ring any alarm bells in my head.

And it started off so well......................

I should perhaps mention at this point that Mary Berry's recipe was for Coffee and Walnut Battenberg.  I have an allergy to coffee and so I chose to make the traditional pink and yellow version and used Lorraine Pascale's recipe from Baking Made Easy.

I put the correct quantities and the correct ingredients in - always a good idea

and mixed  it quite well,  if I can say so myself

then instead of gently warming the jam I forgot about it and it burnt

burnt jam - throw away and start again

The recipe said to divide the mixture into two and colour each with food colouring.  One with yellow and one with pink.  Only put one drop in or you will get psychedelic cake (which I thought quite a nice idea)
I had to put this much in to  get even  a faint yellow hue to the mixture.  The same thing happened with the pink half - many, many drops

and in they go

and out they come
(yellow left , pink right)
why are they two different sizes when the tins are the same size?

and this is where I suddenly remembered my paticular issue with spatial directions.
I can't tell you how long it took me to work out that 'with the longest side facing you, cut the sponges in half horizontally' meant
do it like this....

Then I had to use the apricot jam (second batch) (this was coffee buttercream in the actual challenge) to stick the pieces together  so that I got the traditional symmetrical square which is similar to this... and yes this is what they looked like after I had trimmed them to make them the right size and fit!!

I did better with the marzipan which, although not the retangle it should be, was the right size in the middle.  I know because I measured it.

So why didn't it fit??

and why didn't the apricot jam stick it together?  I used more than the recipe said as well.

Well, here it is. The finished article. 

It was longer than this but I kept trimming it trying to get it straight. 
Here's a tip. If you put an extra bit of marzipan on the bottom (to cover the space where it didn't meet)  and up the edge of the outside with the intention of smoothing it in so that the join can't be seen - don't.  It doesn't work.  It doesn't smooth.  It crumbles.

And from this angle you can't see the joins (so much).  A little wonky perhaps but a Battenberg nonetheless

The cake was meant to be a present for LH who said Battenberg was one of her favourite cakes (I actually don't like it very much).  I do a lot of voluntary work at the moment and LH helps run the office at Seeds for Africa where I help out once a week.  She has just finished radiotherapy for breast cancer and so I wanted to do something nice for her. When I gave the said Battenberg to LH with profuse apologies for it's appearance she said 'you don't want home baked cakes to look like they have come from a shop do you'.  I just laughed and thanked her for her kindness.

I then bumped into Mrs Pao in town yesterday and over tea and cake showed her a photo of the Battenberg.  She  said she actually liked it all the more because it wasn't symmetrical.  Again I laughed and thanked her for her kindness but when I got home I thought about both the above comments. 

I do try really, really hard to make my cooking look like the recipe.  I want to make perfect looking cakes, pies, cookies and meals but actually my cooking is no less lovely because of the way it looks.  It generally tastes nice.  And I get so much pleasure from the process of cooking, the giving  and the comments I get about the taste.  My cooking makes people smile.  But because it doesn't look like it 'should' I always feel I can't make any sort of living from this occupation I so love doing.  I can't possibly ask money for anything I make because it looks 'wrong'.

As a society we are so totally obsessed with looks in almost every aspect of our life and it brings so many problems to so many people who desire to measure up to 'societies' view of how things 'should be'.  So, in the interests of optimism (which has been sadly lacking in my life lately)   I am going to embrace my abilities to turn any recipe into a travesty/caricature of its popular image.  

I shall see this as  a career opportunity.  I could start a bakery and call it Baking with Character or Quirky Cakes or Smiley Bun Time.  I shall fly the flag for all of us who are made to feel inadequate by the Mary Berrys of this world.  I shall strike a  blow for all of us who are less than 'societies'  perceived view of  perfection. Wonky is good. Perfection is not necessary. Homely and comforting is the new Prozac.    I will win the Noble Peace prize for reducing the stress levels of millions of ordinary cooks. I can write a book about how I got in touch with the hearts of so many people and brought harmony back into their lives.  My television show will be networked to thousands of countries. My quirky cookery books will outsell Mary Berry, Delia, Lorraine, Rachel, James and Jamie.    Ooooh, ooooh they will make a film about me!!! Meryl Streep will play me - have to go and adapt my oscar acceptance speech right now!

Now I wonder how I go about starting my new career?....................