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 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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