Week 9.5: when I tried not to bake but failed.

IMG_0477Somehow or other, real life takes over virtual blog-writing life this week, and my musings on cake baking and TV watching take a back seat to prepping a paper to deliver at a research seminar where people I really respect will be wanting to hear about topics other than the perfect rise on a loaf of bread or techniques for icing a cupcake. And so, the weekend before the paper is due to be given, I am not baking. I am, instead, perfecting my 2,800 words and tinkering with my powerpoint presentation. I do take a break to make a loaf of rye bread but, since it’s already tried and tested, it doesn’t really count as a proper session.

Four days before paper is due to be given, I’ve made my way to London and am carrying the aforementioned loaf of bread from train to physio to British Library to coffee shop to public lecture to dinner to tube to my mum’s house, where I deposit the brick-like parcel ready for her morning slice of toast. I have no doubt that all of the venues I have passed through have only appreciated the mysterious scent of sweet treacle rye emanating from my handbag. Three days before paper is due to be given, I’m getting baking withdrawal symptoms already. With talk sent to discussant and powerpoint already excessively fiddled with, I justify to myself some time off to bake cakes and biscuits to flog at a recital performed by my sister the up-and-coming soprano. Schumann, de Falla, and cupcakes. Sounds like something we could market.

Earl Grey cupcakes with lemon icing. Chocolate Orange cupcakes with white chocolate icing. Cherry bakewell cupcakes. Chocolate crackle biscuits. Shortbread marzipan biscuits. All courtesy of The Great British Bake Off, and all very yummy, though if I were to tinker with the recipes (which I am gradually building up the confidence to do) I would add heaps more flavour. The toil of the biggest juggling trick of multiple recipes I’ve ever performed is bound to leave me desperate to get back to work again the next day (or so I tell myself, with just an inkling that it will leave me eager for more). I’ve photographed the recipes from home and honed the quantities of ingredients into an economical shopping list that is the very picture of precision. If only my astute preparation would extend to checking oven temperatures: five different requirements for five different recipes. Five mixing bowls washed up three times each. Every knife and spoon in the drawer. Every surface in the kitchen (which, at my mum’s house, counts for more than in either the Pod or the Pad). A baking spree that lasts four hours and results in colourful delightful delicacies that go down a treat with spares left for days’ worth of puddings.

Day after the paper, which has gone well and left me satisfied but exhausted, I make up for a week’s worth of missed MasterChef episodes and neglected mid-day movie breaks and stay in bed watching an eccentric range of screen offerings. The objectionable and frankly boring male-directed narrative of women’s desire Room in Rome. The is-it-really-still-going tedium of Grey’s Anatomy‘s ninth season. Plenty more in between that are mindless enough to withstand the simultaneous writing of Christmas cards. An hour in the bath glued to the last 100 pages of AM Homes’ delectably debauched Music for Torching is enough of a break from the screen before it’s time for Strictly, whose dance fusion week is worthy of multiple bouts of applause from my delighted spot in front of the telly. Another bake-free weekend is bound to come back to get me mid-week when my fingers are twitching and the caster sugar jumps out of the cupboard begging to be used. By then it will almost be Christmas, anyway, and I may as well give myself over to preparations for the season’s much anticipated notoriously time-consuming Yuletide ambition: panettone. Yes, well, we’ll see.

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Using yeast to make paragraphs double in size – baking as punctuation to writing

With a weekend of writing to accomplish I find myself, on a Friday morning that should be set aside for research, rapidly scanning the final 100 pages of a certain erotic novel I’ve already admitted to buying so might as well admit to reading too. Given how objectionable it is I am ashamed to admit that I have finished the damn thing – I do love to be provoked, and have spent a week tutting to myself whilst simultaneously trying to hide its cover from fellow train passengers. E. L. James take note, if you hope to win over feminists with a penchant for good writing: it is never wise, in my humble opinion, to refer to the seduction tactics (i.e. rape) of a certain Alex D’Urberville as a means to arousal. What’s more, any writer whose secondary characters are an ‘inner goddess’ and a ‘subconscious’ (missing the point, dur), and whose protagonist can describe her first sexual climax using the metaphor of a washing machine on spin cycle has a dubious sensibility and is not worth my time. Or not worth more than 517 pages worth of my time, anyway.

The weekend follows a favourite pattern: stay at home and, with no desire to socialise, spend days reading (ever one to mix and match pop and high culture I have moved on to W. G. Sebald’s exquisite The Emigrants), watching, and doing lots of cooking. Lamb shish kebab from Nigel Slater’s Real Cooking (mint. parsley. garlic. lamb. yes. yes. yes). Roast chicken with beautifully crispy potatoes and sticky sweet roasted onion and buckets of gravy à la my mum. Homemade chicken broth with orzo and sherry. Thai chicken coconut curry (we insist on using the whole bird and it goes a long way). Oh, and an old family favourite of my childhood for a lazy Sunday pudding – bananas baked in orange juice and spices with raisins and brown sugar. I could be 5 or 10 or 15, it’s so timeless for me, and delicious.

And the baking bit. As has doubtless been made clear, the no-sugar month has been cut short. Its enriching legacy lives on, however, in an addiction to baking bread. Loaf number four is a hazelnut, apricot and honey wholemeal loaf from the second GBBO cookery book. What the title doesn’t tell you is that it’s plaited. Oh yes, I’m that good. After the third attempt I am, anyway. My girlfriend has craved bread for days but in typical support of my baking endeavours she has refused to buy any from the shop and dutifully waits for mine to rise and come out of the oven….just minutes before we’re due to be eating supper. How can we resist a little taste, though – crisp on the outside, filled with roasted hazelnuts and soft, juicy apricots, with the sweetness of honey but savoury enough to dip into soup or spread with cheese – and it’s enormous, so it lasts for days.

Cut to Monday afternoon, rainy outside, and the work still isn’t going so well. I’ve taken a break to eat lunch and watch the first half hour of a Romanian flick that promises sensual lesbian romance but delivers ugly incestuous tragedy. It doesn’t inspire me to keep writing and so I decide to treat myself. 15 minutes later I’m sitting in the Waitrose cafe with a cup of tea and a chelsea bun. I’ve lowered the average age by at least forty years but it’s nice, boasting proper crockery and silverware which is more than the posh Peyton and Byrne cafe at the British Library can say for itself.

My girlfriend has been jokingly threatening me with a visit here ever since it opened round the corner in the summer but in reality, on this particular afternoon, watching cars park outside to the sound of golden-wrappered mince pies and christmas puddings “ding”ing through the checkout really is enough to lure me away from the menace of writer’s block that whistles through the flat.

One thinks, upon graduating from an undergraduate degree, that the twice-hourly (more like 5-minute-ly) word count checks during essay-writing hell will discontinue at postgraduate level. Such is not the case, and this weekend my baking efforts have been mere punctuations in a long and winding road of writing. The bread has doubled in size! The paragraph has doubled in size! There’s a curious parallel there.

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.

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