A bake for every occasion – including another night in front of the box.

Two loaves of bread this weekend. I get home on Friday night, library-ed out and cold and wet from a dark rainy cycle home, and all I want to do is bake. As the loaf, my second ever, bakes in the oven, we have some Friday night viewing to get on with. First Fresh Meat to catch up on. Which reminds me. Earlier in the day, I am in the swimming pool. Following a hip injury I’m not supposed to run but I’ve been told that running through water isn’t as harsh on the joints and looks pretty nifty too. Mid-way through this Monty-Python-worthy length, still wearing the goggles and swimcap I have neglected to deposit at the side of the pool, I look up and notice that the lifeguard is watching me suspiciously. He is the spitting image of Jack Whitehall and I’m now convinced he’s making unbearably clever wisecracks at my expense as I prance.

Roll forward to the evening again and, with another dose of Fresh Meat‘s hilarious and exceptionally accurate portrayal of student life (anyone beg to differ?) come and gone, we’re back to complaining that LOVEFiLM has failed to deliver our weekly dose of The Wire (we’re about to start season 3. Yes, we’re a few years late but it’s still thrilling and utterly brilliant). We have yet another lesbian film. When I recall, the next morning, the merits of Kyss Mig (Alexandra-Therese Keining, 2011), I am reminded that my enthusiasm is somewhat heightened by the film’s recent sexually oriented companions. Since starting my PhD I have, in the name of research, put my girlfriend through all of the delights that LOVEFiLM’s list of lesbian films has to offer. And a lot of them are really, really bad. But this one is special. It has a cast that replicates many a Scandinavian drama (or so I’m told. I refuse to watch anything whose title promises The Killing), and that includes the jumpers.

This Friday night’s baking masterpiece is supposed to resemble the “cottage loaf” that Paul Hollywood boasts in his section on so-called “basic breads”. Mine looks more like a dishevelled snowman with a head too small for his body. Tastes good though, and is ready at 10pm in time for the next morning’s breakfast, after which it’s time to make loaf number two, a simple (or should be) wholemeal loaf which fails miserably to rise and drops like a brick out of the tin when I lift it out of the oven. To overcome the disappointment I am taken on a jaunt around town to purchase an amusingly odd selection of items. An iPad mini for my girlfriend (even more pointless than its larger predecessor…except it’s not. It’s beautiful, and I decide almost immediately, and whiningly, that I want one too); a new recipe book (the last one before Christmas, I promise, and anyway I can be forgiven because it’s all in the name of making treats for other people’s presents. And if it gets me two more Waterstone’s – apostrophe intact – loyalty card stamps then it doesn’t really cost so much to begin with); a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, which I buy merely for the purpose of understanding the intellectual properties of the phenomenon (and for the sexy bits); and ingredients from a Chinese supermarket for prawn and chilli dumplings. Credit goes to my sister for making the wanton wonton joke first. The dumplings, inspired by (if not 100% copied from) Nigel Slater’s delightful Simple Treats are shallow fried and served with a sticky sweet dipping sauce. Much more worthy of a photograph than the bread, and really fun to make. My friends can expect to prepare their votes of thanks for these yummy impressive-looking-but-easy-to-make (sshh don’t tell anyone) starters at dinner parties to come.

And a few other things worth noting. a) I’m writing this as I sit on the sofa of my very Small House and look out the wall-that-is-all-window and watch the fireworks. b) I feel a bit sick to my stomach about what might happen in the States tomorrow. For any of you who aren’t already convinced to NOT VOTE ROMNEY, Joss Whedon’s warning of a ZOMNEY future might give you the kick you need.

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Week 4: Bread

My blog post is a day late this week because I’ve been a very serious academic doing very important work at the British Library. Looking around me, listening to the range of eccentric sneezes and even, yesterday, a giggle – I looked over to find him reading Milton. Really? – I consider the books stacked up on my desk waiting to be read…and decide that it would be unfair to leave my dear blog readers waiting any longer.

This week became the week of the three cinema trips. Perhaps to distract myself from the desire for sugary snacks to accompany an evening’s DVD viewing, or more probably because there happened to be a trio of pointedly different but equally compelling films to see in a specifically cinematic context (when I say a ‘specifically cinematic context’, I’m falling prey to a habit of poor scholarship by using three words instead of one. I mean ‘the cinema’). Film after film after film: brings me back to being a teenager, miserable at school, and visiting the local art house cinema three times a week on average. Four o’clock showings (sometimes followed by six o’clock showings, in between which the appreciative manager might bring me a cuppa) kept me going throughout those years of angst familiar to many a geeky teenage film buff. I soaked up films, no matter the subject, like a sponge.*

I suggested that my multiple trips to the cinema distracted me from my desire for sweet things. I’ve never craved popcorn more than in this un-saccharine month. I thought baking sweet things for other people might do the trick, and I attempted to bake a batch of cookies for book group. Not a good idea, however, when the whole process is jinxed by a) a baker who can’t taste the mixture (scraping the bowl has a serious scientific influence on the way the batch comes out, don’t you know) and b) the unbearable detail of a whole pile of baking equipment left at Small House #2. I must have failed somewhere converting grams to cups and so for the next (more successful) batch I did something I never thought I’d admit. I used a Martha Stewart recipe. To my (almost) disappointment, it actually served me pretty well, and I’ve lived to tell the tale.

Such an ordeal (the sugar detox rather than the Martha Stewart) has, at least, spurred me on to make bread for the first time. There are advantages to living in a small space: the smell of freshly baked goods circulate with ease. I have Paul Hollywood’s no-nonsense book to thank: there was no drama, little cause for tantrum, and a much deserved and very delicious slice of ‘farmhouse’ (highrise) white bread slathered with butter at the end of it as a prize. Bread baking is a very appropriate past time for academics who live at home I’ve decided because although hours pass from start to finish, there are built in breaks to read, or to write…or to generally muse on the affective turn in bread baking.

*I specified art house. I’d be lying, though, if I denied that the most thrilling of this week’s pillars of entertainment was Skyfall. And I saw it at the Odeon, at the front of a really big screen, on opening night. Get a good director in charge and what do you get? The best Bond film of all time. Well…of my lifetime, anyway (you can’t beat Timothy Dalton on a ski slope in a cello case).

Week 3: Fondant Fancies

‘Let’s be honest, they look a bit like decorated nipples don’t they.’

On a Thursday night I pack up my bag with my computer, chargers, wash bag, books, wallet and phone. And baking equipment. One of the casualties of the fortnightly migration from Small House #1 to Small House #2 that so many long-distance academic couples are bound to recognise is a coherence of kitchen apparatus, and so I sit on this Virgin train with a bag weighed down by scales, electric mixer, 20x20cm square cake tin. I’ve been organised: in order to avoid bringing the kitchen sink, I decide on the recipe for the weekend’s baking adventure well in advance. Inspired by the final of the Great British Bake Off: Fondant Fancies.

But there are always oversights. Like the battery for the digital scales that has run dead at the bottom of my bag, causing panic #1 of baking day to occur just minutes after returning from the second trip to the supermarket. It’s okay, though: the requisite take-battery-out-and-put-it-back-in-again trick has worked, though perhaps not for long – I do all my weighing at super speed. In between fancy-making stages, there are opportunities to pause. As the smell of lemon sponge starts to waft through the flat, I let myself a relax a bit (I’d better – it’s a long road from here on out) and get back to 1982 Janine. The ‘ageing, divorced, alcoholic, insomniac supervisor of security installations who is tippling in the bedroom of a small Scottish hotel’ is an unusual baking companion but a riveting one: the book has got better, as promised by friends and fellow bloggers alike. I also take a minute to comment on Tanya Gold’s aptly titled article ‘These fondant fancies are baking little girls of us all.

They weren’t fussing over nothing, those (little) boys on the telly. Fondant fancies (from Mary Berry’s recipe) are a bugger to make. ‘I loved what John from the Bake Off said about bakers’, my girlfriend says to me: ‘”You think bakers are all dainty housewives, but really we’re controlling people who just want to be loved”. A bit like you, really.’ When it comes to the throes of fondant fancy assembly, John is especially spot on. Forget that image of domestic bliss in a pinny: baking is anything but dainty today. Fondant icing is everywhere. And I left the pinny in Small House #1.

Jackson Pollock’s legacy in pink and yellow

They taste really good, and go really well on a dainty (see, I managed it in the end) saucer with some good old fashioned family entertainment (please note the self-mocking tone). The Dirty Dancing lift at the end of Strictly has us all three of us (sister has come to stay) whooping with delight. The fancies taste good with a cuppa the next afternoon, too, and a good lot of them even survive the return migration on the train to be consumed with gusto at Sunday night’s communal Claire Danes fix.

There’s a lot of butter and sugar in those little terrors. A lot, too, in the Peyton and Byrne teacakes made earlier in the week with a dear friend and fellow baking aficionado (marshmallow, like fondant, gets everywhere). For a month from today, however, I’m in solidarity with my healthy-eating sister (the very same who tucked into those layers of cake-jam-icing-marzipan-icing-icing-icing-icing…) and cutting out added sugar for a month. Watch this space for a month of getting to grips with bread making skills (can I justify buying Paul Hollywood’s recipe book for motivation?) as Things Taste Savoury in This Small House.

Week 2: Peanut Butter Cookies

This morning, at 11 o’clock (coffee hour), I take a break from what I’ve been calling “work”. (I’ve actually just accomplished a few domestic tasks. Hung up the laundry. Eaten breakfast. Taken in a little morning novel-reading. Zadie Smith’s N-W (too soon for an opinion but I have high hopes after the spectacular On Beauty and have ignored the reviews). It’s a break from Alasdair Gray’s dystopic 1982, Janine (blame the book club) which leaves a sour taste in the mouth and is too obscene to accompany the simple pleasure of muscovado-sugar-specked porridge). Work is hard to define sometimes anyway, consisting as it so often does of watching lesbian films and trying to come up with interesting things to say about them. In any case it’s hard to say much of anything, interesting or not, without a morning coffee. By the cafetière’s side is one of the peanut butter cookies I made last night.

I say one. What I mean is two (followed by two more later on in the afternoon – if I finish them now I’m just saving myself from having another diet-free day tomorrow). Brain food, after all. The cookies are from a new recipe book that kept me company on yesterday’s train journey. Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet. With its Neapolitan-ice-cream-coloured cover it’s hard to conceal from the laptop–ed iPhone–ed commuters around me that I’m reading a recipe book. Or that I’m making notes about which cake tin sizes I could still do with purchasing (a simple tally system tells me which of them I’m most likely to need most often). After stumbling round the station’s tiny Sainsbury’s minutes before closing time, hoping for Spelt flour but knowing I’ll have to make do with Wholemeal, arms full of baking ingredients with no thought for what might sustain me beyond these short and sweet delights, I’m home, and the oven’s on. Last minute thought before leaving the shop is that anything savoury is enough of a supper to deserve pudding afterwards. So for the sake of deserving a pudding of biscuits, I bake a supper of biscuits.

If you can get past the slight tinge of green and the look of cardboard, you’ll find that these taste really good.

They’re also from Dan Lepard’s book and they’re delicious. If a bit green. And cardboard-like. They’re good enough to serve, though, I reckon, and the friend who has come round to enjoy this evening’s episode of Homeland is happy to help me devour the lot, with slices of apple, before moving on to the cookies. Homeland is thrilling. Claire Danes is brilliant. The guy who plays Saul is, I have only recently discovered, the man who played Georges Seurat opposite Bernadette Peters’ Dot in the first run – 1983! – of a family-favourite musical, Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. Those two are enough to keep my attention all series, even if the show doesn’t up its game and come up with a plot line that anyone’s going to take (semi) seriously.

Cut back to this morning, and with coffee and biscuits in tow I’m listening to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. I always listen out for the bit where the violas get the theme. Never as impressive as the bits where the insert-your-choice-of-other-more-majestic-instrument-here gets the theme. The piece is Howard Jacobson’s choice on Radio 3 Essential Classics. He’s letting me down, hasn’t made me laugh once. Likes good music though.

The multi-sensory taste-sound combination is enough to spur me on for the rest of the day of reading–thinking–watching–thinking–w-r-i-t-i-n-g. (the hyphens are my novel way of demonstrating the s-l-o-w-n-e-s-s of that process). I do get a few words down on paper though. Even a few that don’t have anything to do with food.

Week 1: Biscotti

Almond and Pistachio Biscotti

We went to Starbucks. We ate Biscotti. I thought, ‘I can do better than that’. I couldn’t, really, but maybe I will next time.

My baking adventures can be found anywhere on the spectrum of easy–hard–plain–spectacular. Most would probably be frowned upon by Mary Berry and ridiculed by Paul Hollywood but my friends seem to appreciate them. This weekend my girlfriend and I went to Starbucks. Often a mistake. We ate biscotti and I thought ‘I can do better than this’. I couldn’t, really, but maybe I will next time.  After relentless recipe searching, I hone my biscotti-mission with as much exactitude as the abstract my girlfriend is writing (I don’t feel guilty interrupting her because I’m sure the delicious result will be a productivity-booster later on). I decide on a recipe by a Theo Randall. He’s appeared on MasterChef so his recipe must be trustworthy.

It isn’t. I have to alter both the oven temperature and the cooking time, and my girlfriend has to put up with yet another flap from me that extends this “very quick bake, I promise” to an afternoon-long feat. These twice-baked biscuits aren’t quite dry enough (I’m slow to learn the science of baking but I think the oven temperature should have been higher from the very beginning) but they taste really good. If you want to read (and adapt) the very same recipe (I wouldn’t), you can find it here: http://www.greatbritishchefs.com/recipes/biscotti-recipe

Later we sit down with wine and a superb middle-eastern chicken dish full of almonds and cream and rose-water and clove that has been cooked for me from Yotam Ottolenghi’s column in this week’s Saturday Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/oct/05/ottolenghi-recipes-doughnuts-cardamom-chicken. Pudding is biscotti dipped in Bailey’s. We watch Fatal Attraction, which has been on the LoveFilm list since we got addicted to Glenn Close in Damages. We almost immediately regret it, and spend half the running time looking online trying to find that interview where Glenn admits to regretting having made such an appallingly misogynistic movie. We can’t find it. Maybe that was just wishful thinking on our part, and Glenn regrets her error as little as Theo regrets giving me a near baking nightmare with the not-biscotti-y-enough biscotti. I probably should have gone with Nigella (for baking and viewing – BBC2’s Nigellissima is filthy and fantastic).

As for those other ingredients that add to the general flavour of a weekend’s bake-off, I’ve already confessed this week’s film-watching ordeal. I’ve just finished Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? and, inspired to keep with the ‘literary non-fiction’, am now reading Mary Cappello’s Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life. As we baked / cooked / worked (or tried to), we listened to Opera on 3: Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte live from the 2012 Salzburg Festival, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (he’s 82!). Listen again at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006tnpy

Week 0: Small Houses

This is what we fondly call our kitchen.

I really love to bake. I could have written a blog about films. Or about doing my PhD (something along the lines of feminism – lesbianism – cinema). Or about what book I’m reading. Or what music I’m listening to. But if I’m really honest, what I love to talk about is food. And my baking therapy tends to fold in a lot of the joys and stresses of that other stuff anyway. And the best blogs, I think, have photos. And I’d rather show you photos of the pretty things I’ve baked this weekend than the 3 sentences I’ve managed to string together or the same old theoretical text I’m still trying to work my way through.

My house (flat) really is pretty small. We call it the “Pod”. There’s the “Pad” too but that’s another story. The bare-minimum “kitchen”, with its mini utilities and meagre workspace, is a single pace away from my desk. Said desk is the trendiest piece of furniture I’ve ever bought, and the piece to which I have devoted more space than anything else in the flat (it has in fact been erroneously used as an extra work surface in the past, and boasts a mood-enhancing bread-knife stab that reminds me of happy evenings with wonderful friends). So my culinary adventures really do feel like an extension of my intellectual ones. Or that’s what I tell myself, anyway.

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