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 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

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