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.

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 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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