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.

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Six degrees of Kevin Baking (oh god did I just go there)

Still recovering from the turkish-delight-making joys and perils of the weekend just passed, I stick to fairly low key baking adventures this time: a repeat of a simple wholemeal loaf not worth a photo but satisfying for my ability to make it with only a quick glance at the recipe, and a trio of Nigel Slater delights – including a remake of those meringues with the blessing of an electric mixer – for dinner with dear friends (who devotedly stay with us for an evening of good food and merriment and a night of futon-sleeping squeezed between sofa, desk, television and dining table – plus side, it’s the warmest kind of camping you’ll get in November). I also whip up a batch of gluten-free chocolate and almond cookies for their Saturday teatime arrival, proud and disconcerted in equal measure by my newfound tendency to insist on homebaked treats and to use the term “whip up” to describe my making of them.

You might think that my lack of baking this weekend is all for the sake of getting more work done that I managed to fit around last week’s bakeathon. It’s more for the sake of catching up on missed episodes of exceptionally funny Fresh Meat and often-disappointing-but-worth-it-for-the-delight-of-Romola-Garai-sparring-with-Dominic-West The Hour. And, of course, to go out and buy a pair of DMs for the first time since I was 13. “DMs?” asks one friend on a facebook status I have posted to garner support for the sense of queer / pre-queer nostalgia I am feeling post-purchase: “Surely you don’t mean Daily Mails?” I once bough one for the sake of a free bar of chocolate and felt rather sick afterwards (not from the chocolate). Doctor Martens are worth the extra expense. Another friend gently berates me: “Ok I can just about take it on you, but I do wish undergrads would stick to uggs, it’s like teaching my teenage self”, she says. These dark red beauties, classic enough to boast the customary yellow stitching around the sole but with a heel and an edge of elegance, are far removed from the bright purple boots of my adolescence. I justify the purchase by calling them my “queer conference shoes.”

With two further sets of dinner guests planned for the week ahead I spend Monday preparing menus. Specifications: a) if a cake just needs to be made (and how could it not be) use a loaf tin because the square tin is 200 miles down south; b) try to double up on ingredients for the sake of at least a semblance of economy. It starts to look like a game of 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon but with food. I’ve been meaning to make rye bread for a while and settle on a recipe from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet. Rye: Dan Lepard also has a rye apple cake which looks delicious. To count as a desert cake must be served with cream. Cream: Nigel Slater’s Spiced pumpkin soup with bacon looks great for dinner #1. You’ll find nothing in common between that dish and the one I’ve chosen for dinner #2 (linguine alla vongole) but the fact that they’re just pages apart in my favourite cookery book, The Kitchen Diaries.

Monday’s plunge into the working week demands a lunchtime treat: a bacon sarnie with portobello mushrooms and rosemary. To ease my guilt about the third helping of bacon in as many days – if it’s in the name of research it’s justifiable – I insist on a working lunch. And now I have a brown mushroomy bacon stain on my copy of Epistemology of the Closet and I’m no closer to the day’s word-count goal. On Tuesday, I delight in the 30 minutes of bubbling time the rye bread mixture requires before proving and baking – this kind of cooking might just be a way to atone for my adolescent aversion to science – and on Wednesday, no nearer to Monday’s work goal, I spread this sweet-salty pumpernickel-like loaf with soft irish goats cheese for a quick pre-supervision lunch. The apple cake has come out of the oven and promises to be a tasty accompaniment to an evening of lesbian film watching with my (not lesbian) friend who knows the names of more lesbian films than I do and whose recent completion of a PhD on food begs for a co-written paper on lesbians and food. Sounds like a guest blog post in the making.

Week 7: Turkish Delight, or, how sweets made my fingers bleed

I have blisters on my fingers. I have blisters on my fingers from making sweets. I’ve also just started using twitter, so to get into the spirit here goes an attempt at a witty ironic hashtag: #firstworldproblem. (oh god. such hashtagging makes me feel immediately uncomfortable, for its capitulation to the lure of social networking, and for its dubious politics of condescension. I go straight to good old Guardian comment is free to recover.)

To make turkish delight you put an overwhelming assortment of very sweet ingredients into a saucepan and heat over a hot stove until you find yourself wading (metaphorically…sort of) through what resembles a bubbling grey gluey cement. Or the hot sulphurous mud I once bathed in as a salutary novelty on a family holiday to, fittingly, Turkey.

“Stir for forty minutes without interruption in the same direction,” the recipe (from Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra’s Sugar and Spice) states. “Do you think you can do that?” my girlfriend asks me with a look of skepticism on her face (and the knowledge that it is just a matter of time before she is frantically called on to take over the stirring). “No problem,” I say with a cute smile and a decisive head nod.

It takes just fifteen minutes before, sweating with aching arms and paranoid about any warned-against interruption to the stirring process, I cajole her into taking over for me, “just for a minute”. I take over again and only Alastair Cooke’s Letters from America on a podcast on my iPhone can distract me from the torture. Forty minutes of stirring bubbling cement with a wooden spatula takes its toll and the blisters are still present when I bring the pistachio-filled, coconut covered delights to the PhD study room for tasting a few days later (in the time it takes to attend a workshop on Herbert Marcuse, they’re all gone. Good sign. Worth the effort? My fingers say no. Still, someone suggests I can tell my supervisor my hands are red from writing so hard and long, and they might just be on to something – baking turkish delight, baklava and three loaves of bread in a weekend has got to produce something that gets me kudos in a supervision beyond the likely stupefied and vaguely disapproving “you made that?”).

Turkish delight has marked only the first of our weekends’ baking relay races: cooking for my parents’ visit to the pad two days later I have decided to make meringues. When I remember that the electric whisk is lying dormant in Small House #1, I refuse to give up on the promise of meringues topped with cinnamon, raspberries and dark chocolate (another from Nigel Slater’s Dish of the Day) and there we go, taking it in turns to whisk egg whites and sugar by hand. “I’m doing what Jamie Oliver recommends”, I say to begin with, “alternating between my upper and forearms so I don’t ever get tired.” Five minutes later both my upper and my forearms are shot and our now-team-building meringue-making mission resembles a personal training session as each of us manages “just one more” rep of the taskmastering whisk and all I want is to get back to my computer to do some ache-free typing. #procrastinationforthewin.

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 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 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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