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.

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.

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).

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