Pastry and lemon and sugar oh my.

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Small House #2. I’ve made the butteriest of buttery pastries, it’s chilled in the fridge, I’ve rolled it with – not even the standard wine bottle, but a bottle of posh cranberry cordial. The baking beans are, of course, elsewhere, and so I’ve lined the pastry case with baking parchment and then filled it with flour. It just needs a bit of weight (and it’s Dan Lepard’s idea, and I’ve come to trust him). The oven is hot (the top oven that is: a cheap oven bought on the Holloway road came with so many promises, but delivered a fan oven with a broken thermostat. Our house-warming supermarket curry met a sorry end on account of temperatures rising to well over 300℃. Making do with a tiny oven in both our small houses – keeps with the general theme, I guess). The roast is out and on the table, and with our guest waiting politely to eat I take a shortcut, and don’t bother to move the oven trays around. I’m sure it will cook just fine on the top shelf.

It does. So does the baking parchment.

My beautifully (rustically) prepared pastry case boasts black tips above an (admittedly perfectly cooked) blond base. Burning (alight) leaves of baking parchment are smothered with a Jamie Oliver Special Collection oven glove. My first thought (I now admit) is to save the pastry, not the kitchen. Onto the floor (and the hob, and the top of the washing machine, and my just laundered jeans) goes the charred baking parchment. And all of the flour. But the pastry is saved (note in the photo the little triangles of missing crust? They were the burntest burnt bits).

The others are still waiting to start the non-dramatic, non-fire-inducing, and now not-so-hot roast dinner in front of them. But at least they can look forward, without disappointment, to a Mary Berry tart au citron at the end of the meal. The roast tastes damn good, too (and anyway. On Masterchef – it’s back! – John and Greg are always eating the final contestants’ cold food and not minding too much. It must be a palate thing). The concluding tart delivers on flavour if not on appearance (icing sugar goes a long way but you’ll probably have seen through it). Not supermarket-own smooth, but worth it for the sweet sharp zest that cuts through the cream – the pile of lemon skins indicate not a speck of pulp left unsqueezed.

Puddings involving crisp, short pastry (with no soggy bottoms) and the beautiful sweet-sharpness of lemon-meets-sugar seem to be a theme this Spring (or should we still be calling it Winter? It’s snowing outside). You lucky things, I’m treating you to a double whammy: here’s a photo of this weekend’s Treacle Tart (another one à la Mary Berry – I can hardly blame the pastry fire on her). While it contains a whole pot of Lyle’s Golden Syrup (and amusement as the shocked faces of family and friends watch the spatula scrape every ounce of syrup from the tin), there is enough lemon to give it a wonderful tang. Not to mention plaited lattice work on top. What a beauty. We thought we’d have a hard time finishing it. We didn’t.

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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 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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