Always eat your crusts

As you may be aware by now, I am a baker.  Cakes, biscuits, brownies – I will bake them all and devour them before anyone else even sees them (if given half a chance).  However, I have never baked bread.

Actually that’s a lie.  When I did cooking at school, bread was the only thing I made well.  My All Butter Sponge Cakes had no butter in them (naughty slap-dash 12 year old me!), my jam tarts were burnt and my scones…well I was told to boil my scones as an “experiment” so we’ll blame that catastophe on the teacher.  But when it came to bread – good golly!  I’d never tasted anything so good from my own two hands!  But I haven’t baked bread since then.

I fear there may be some baking purists reading this who are thinking I shouldn’t call myself a baker if I’ve only ever made bread once.  And I know full well that my argument of “I don’t have the time” is lame and shouldn’t even be expressed to the light of day.  So why haven’t I done it already?  Well the answer is “I dunno” so what am I waiting for?

I want to start small.  A basic loaf will hopefully be popping out of my oven some time soon (my REAL oven, I’m not talking about the figurative pregnancy oven) and from there the bread world is my oyster (oh dear, so, so many mixed metaphors).

Over the coming year I want to try making all kinds of bread.  My all time favourite is poppy seed rolls.  I think they are called cottage rolls, where you have a slightly smaller ball of dough on top of a larger one and you jam your finger in to make it look interesting.  They will be high on my list of bread priorities.  But in time I hope to be making focaccia, ciabatta and stottie – a firm family favourite from Geordie Land.

There is something infinitely comforting about bread.  Even the simplest white loaf is delicious; sometimes you just can’t get any better than a slice of fresh bread slathered with butter.  I think it’s the softness that I like so much.  It seems I have a soft spot for pappy foods (mashed potato, porridge, risotto, I could go on forever) and bread is no exception!

I also have a theory that the act of making bread will be comforting too.  It is my considered opinion that a bit of bread baking will make the perfect de-stressing activity, so my university house may soon be filled with the aroma of freshly baked bread if last term is anything to go by!  This is my plan anyway, and hey, it’s a pretty harmless one!

So watch this space bread friends, and remember – always eat your crusts!

Epic Paper Snowflake

Well dear readers, it is time for my first step-by-step guide on making something lovely yourselves.  As it is only 4 days until Christmas (YAY!) I thought a last minute festive decoration wouldn’t go amiss.  So here is how to make the world’s best paper snowflake.

My mum showed me how to make this last weekend.  She had learnt it from another friend and has since showed tons of other people, so lets share the wealth a little further and all make this gorgeous thing.  If you have standard plain white paper in the house, this is absolutely free and yet so effective!

First off, here’s a little photo to show you what you will be making:












































Don’t fear the Fair Isle

I’ve been knitting for quite some time now.  My first attempt at learning was deserted when I was about 7, and a relation frustratedly asked “Do you want to learn to knit or do you want to watch tele?” and got the wrong answer.  I finally learnt properly at the age of about 11.  I dropped stitches, my tension was frightening and I didn’t know how to cast on or off, but I was hooked (a lovely little crochet pun for you there).

Ten years later I’m playing with cables and lace knitting and all sorts of things I didn’t know existed when I was a pre-teen.  But a few knitting things still frighten me, and one of them is Fair Isle.

For the non-knitters out there, Fair Isle is the use of multiple colours to create complicated but beautiful patterns and motifs.  I have often seen patterns I am dying to knit, but I have always shied away from them because of the Fair Isle they include.  It’s quite pathetic really, there’s no point in being afraid of something that is really just a hobby, and yet, Fair Isle makes my knees knock.

It’s a complicated thing.  It’s not just about changing colour every now and then.  Apparently, when you change colours it makes it very difficult to keep your tension.  Tension is very important my non-knitting readers.  It means keeping all of your stitches even.  If you don’t have a consistent tension, you get saggy bits in your knitting.  Trust me it looks horrendous, no one wants saggy bits!

So, in Fair Isle, you are potentially highlighting your saggy bits (oo-er) by making them a different colour.

Thus!  I am afraid of Fair Isle.

But I don’t want to be.  I recently saw a pattern for some knee high socks with a fold over Fair Isle cuff and my instant reaction was “I want I want I want!”  You might be wondering why I don’t look for them in a shop.  Because that, my dear readers, is blasphemy.  Once I’ve seen that it’s possible to make it myself, buying it will simply not have the same satisfaction.

I have been on the hunt now for quite some time for beginners Fair Isle patterns.  Unfortunately I’ve been slightly stymied by one of my other knitting fears – knitting in the round, but I’ll come to that in another post.  I want something really basic that I can just have a go at.  Who knows, maybe if I do it once, I’ll be bitten by the bug and want Fair Isle in everything I knit.  Hang on, who am I kidding?  If I manage it, I’ll be obsessed, I can gaurantee you that!  I finally found a pretty, and apparently easy, Fair Isle Scarf pattern.  And free too!  I do love, but that too will be in another post!

So as soon as I get my hands on my stash of wool at home, I will embark on this knitting adventure.  Watch this space for my Fair Isle progress…

What a Classic

Every now and then I’d like to review a classic novel for you lovely readers.  My degree demands that I read a lot of these classics and I sometimes wish I could be really frank in my seminars.  But often screaming “I HATE THIS NOVEL, WHY WAS IT EVER PUBLISHED?!?” wouldn’t fit in with the theme we are analysing at the time.

So I am going to use this as my forum for speaking my mind.  What else is a blog for eh?

I think everyone is made to feel that they should read at least one classic in their life.  I know I went into my the English half of my degree feeling like a fool because I’d never heard of Christopher Marlowe (please don’t judge me!).  So before you embark on this, quite honestly mammoth task, let me share what I have learnt from degree so that you only have to read the ones that are really worth it.

This year I have been studying Dickens, focusing on four novels; David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend.  I am currently still trawling my way through 800 or so pages of Our Mutual Friend so this is quite a nice, yet still related, break.  I want to start with Great Expectations.

This is a novel who’s reputation precedes it.  Everyone knows about Pip.  Lots of us have had to read it at school.  But does it live up to the hype?  I had a strange relationship with the novel.  I first met Great Expectations when I was 14.  My then (awful) English teacher made us read the first chapter aloud in class and then we watched 4 or 5 scenes from a black and white film adaptation.  That was it.  Until 7 years later and I read it properly in my final year at university.

I had high hopes, mostly because people say how amazing it is and dub it one of Dickens’ best works.  But the cynic in me now thinks that’s just because it’s one of the shorter novels, so it’s one people can actually be bothered to read.  But I am here to tell you that it is no where near as good as his other novels.

Dickens himself said that he had to re-read David Copperfield before writing Great Expectations  because he didn’t want to repeat anything.  You can tell when you read this book that ol’ Doady was in his mind.  Great Expectations feels like a poor imitation of its superior predecessor.  The sense of growth that you get from David in his first person narration is severely lacking in Expectations. Pip seems to be nothing more than the perpetual disatisfied child.  The ending is a total anticlimax and there isn’t one character that I really connected with.

As ever, Dickens’ plot is intelligent and complicated and you won’t be bored.  But the characters leave a lot to be desired and if, like me, you’ve read David Copperfield recently you will be disappointed.  I found myself spending more time feeling exasperated at the irritating characters than caring what was happing to them.

So now that I’ve read it properly, I don’t see what the big deal is all about.  Dickens had a way with words, no-one can deny that but Great Expectations isn’t unique in that.  You can pick up any Dickens novel and it will be stuffed full of metaphors, imagery and will be so vividly written that it will all feel real.  But his other novels all have something more than Expectations.  They have believable engaging characters who you are really emotionally involved with.

I could go on all night, but I won’t.  I’ll finish off now.  It might be twice the size, but if you want the story of a man from his difficult childhood through all his trials and tribulations, read David Copperfield and give Great Expectations a wide berth.

Made with Love

There’s been a bit of resurgence for hand made things lately.  Kirstie Allsop has made it her mission in life to spread the knowledge of the wonder that is home-made items and I for one couldn’t agree with her more.

For years, I’ve hand-made the majority of the gifts I’ve given.  It takes quite a long time, a large dose of effort and more patience than I admittedly have but people love it.

The difference between giving a shop bought trinket, and something you’ve made with your own two hands is perfectly clear on the recipient’s face.  Unless someone really, really wants a specific item from a shop, 9 times out of 10, home made will be appreciated more.  Trust me, I’ve seen it myself.

My crafty endeavours are currently quite limited.  I knit obsessively and always have something on the go on my needles.  This meant that one Christmas everyone got knitted hats, gloves and wrist warmers.  I still get excited and proud when I see my family and friends wearing the things I’ve made for them.

I also cross stitch but until recently I didn’t really give cross stitch as gifts.  It lends itself to framed samplers most of all and that doesn’t appeal to everyone.  But last year mini cross stitches became squishy baubles for very lucky Christmas trees and dangly bits of loveliness for lonely door knobs.  They might sound like tat but they really do cheer up a bland door.

In the past I have done drawings and paitings and soft pastels but my skills there are seriously limited.  Random moments of inspiration have created some quite attractive things but nothing spectaclar and with a talented artist for a fiance my attempts seem to pale in comparison.

That is the extent of my creativity.  But not for long.  I am determined to learn how to sew.  Clearly I know how to thread a needle and put two peices of fabric together.  What I mean is actually make something from just a reel of something pretty.  I have an embarrassing tendency towards the furiously angry when it comes to sewing – my needle never wants to stay threaded, I think even more so because it knows how annoyed I get.  Horses can smell fear, needles can smell impatience.

I was given a book of quilting projects for my birthday in the summer and I even invested (ahem less than £2 – offcuts I love you!) in some fabric to make napkin rings.  I cut out one of the 4 different fabrics before I ran out of steam.  I tell everyone that uni and reading and essays get in the way but a lot of it is fear too.

So I ask you to come on the journey with me.  By next Christmas I am determined to be giving out home made SEWN gifts.  Hopefully with the aid of a sewing machine I may or may not get this December 25th…

An Ode to Baking

I thought I’d kick things off with an expression of my love for baking.  Let’s face it, everyone loves a good cake or biscuit, but a lot of people don’t really have the time to bake anymore.  With such tasty options available in the supermarkets, and boutique bakeries and cake shops popping up all over the place, it does seem a bit pointless to bake for yourself if all you want is a cake.

But that’s not all I want from baking.

Baking is a labour of love and there’s something reassuring in the chemistry of it.  I know if I weigh out flour, sugar, eggs and butter properly, and apply heat I will get a basic Victoria Sponge.  That certainty is refreshingly simple.  Things in life aren’t normally like that.  Work is all full of maybes, school and university is all objectivity, waiting and feeling unsure of yourself.  Not baking though.

Of course there are anomalies.  I’ve had biscuits instead of cakes (I blame my rubbish student house oven) but it doesn’t take away the joy.

Tricky baking is my favourite.  My go-to bake is Mary Berry’s Indulgent Chocolate Brownies because there are lots of stages to the recipe.  It takes a bit of brain engagement, not essay level engagement but distraction level, which makes for the perfect escapism.  The results are always divine; soft and fudgey in the middle, a thin crisp crust on the outside and molten lumps of chocolate throughout.  Not only do you get a great way to destress, you then have treats to help you through the rest of your pain!

I recently tried to make Christmas biscuits.  I was feeling the festive spirit and was in the mood for some childishly shaped morsels of loveliness.  The result was a very messy afternoon, a disappointingly oozy biscuit dough and lots of washing up.  But the biscuits (more flowers than snowflakes unfortunately) tasted scrummy and all afternoon I hadn’t once thought about impending deadlines or daunting job applications.  Success!

There’s nothing inherently girly about baking.  I find it all quite physical and demanding.  When I bake at home I’m spoilt by electric mixers and technology to make baking easier, but at university it’s all down to me.  My poor little arm muscles have to work hard to make light and fluffy cakes.  Plenty of guys like a good baking session, especially if they have a sweet tooth.  And when you think about it, most professional bakers are men.

So next time you want to pull your hair out, think of my mantra: Stressed backwards is desserts, so go and make yourself some!