Monday, January 28, 2013

Baking day

Each week, while I was growing up, my mother would have a baking day.  She was what was once called "a good plain cook", and in fact worked as a cook in her later years, at an approved school for boys, knocking up batches of stew and rice puddings.

Baking for Cumbrian farmers' wives was then, and is still, not a matter of making a few cupcakes.  The calorific demands of heavy manual labour are considerable, and cake was one way to meet this need. 

My mother would make traybakes: currant cake, German cake, nutty, which was a kind of flapjack, and gingerbread.  Sometimes the German cake would be jam buns - she never made rock buns.  Neither did she bake bread, although she remembered this from her own childhood with wonder - how did they bake once a week and still eat it at the week's end?  She always had a fruit loaf on the go - vinegar loaf or bran loaf.  When her memory began to fail, she still remembered how to make bean cake with Rice Krispies, marshmallows and toffee.

Strangely, I did not learn to cook from my mother; in fact, when I left home to go to university I was completely ignorant on the subject.  My mother always said that we could not risk wasting the ingredients.  This is strange, because she never once said that to me about fabric, and she spent lots of time showing me how to sew.  Now, I think it must have been that she did not want to relinquish what she saw as her central role, as the provider of the food. 

Today, inspired by Mary Berry's cookbook, I produced this chocolate cake, destined for the Spinners and Weavers AGM.  Producing the loaf of bread, in my trusty breadmaker, was a much simpler enterprise, so simple that I make one virtually every day now.  I use a mix of two cups of white flour to one cup wholemeal to make a firm textured loaf.

This second picture shows the cake iced with a chocolate ganache, made by melting dark chocolate into double cream.  How could that not be delicious?  I used apricot jam to sandwich the layers together.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Snow Flowers

Ah, the wonders of the Kindle!  I finished the Cazalet quartet of novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard and spotted her autobiography, "Slipstream".  No sooner spotted than downloaded, and within seconds I am reading it.  I will never get used to the magical way in which this revolutionises access to books.  The facility with which you can pursue a train of thought, or follow a whim!  And books on Kindle seem very reasonably priced.

"Slipstream" itself was a revelation.  Of course, one expects writers to draw on their own experience, but large sections of  the Cazalet novels are identical to Howard's own life - and what a life!  Did people really have serial affairs in this manner?  Or perhaps they still do... When asked to organise a literary festival, Howard was able to draw on an astonishing back-catalogue of lovers. 

I have to say that the parody of "Slipstream,"  published in "The Guardian," is also very entertaining.  She does focus on name-dropping, although she had the names to drop.

After the first fall of snow, we had a brilliantly sunny day, so we revisited the arboretum. It was bitterly cold.  Every trunk was outlined in white, giving a curiously dramatic effect.  There was an intermittent crackling as ice fell from the foliage of the thicker trees.

Approaching a fine stand of trees, we saw a flickering and realised that the branches were alive with a huge flock of siskins, a species which we last saw feeding on thistleheads in the Whinlatter Forest.

We were amazed by the Chinese witch hazel.  Every golden tuft now bore its crust of snow, dampening the strong perfume.

I added this little panel to my lace sampler.  It is Mrs Montague's pattern, which Barbara Walker says was used to knit stockings for Elizabeth 1.  Franklin reminded us that the actual stockings can be seen in Hatfield House.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Dead of Winter.

Winter: first we had weeks of rain, so that it was barely possible to venture out for walks.  Then it became strangely mild, but with waterlogging and quagmires everywhere.  Now, it is bitterly cold, with snow forecast for the next week.

I have been re-reading the Elizabeth Jane Howard quartet of novels on the Cazalet family, triggered by catching an extract from "The Light Years" read on Radio 4.  What a treasure these books are!  So many wise observations about the nuances of relationships - and such an enormous range of relationships covered.  Strangely, I remember some of the plot from my first reading, which must have been when they came out in the 90s, but I remember nothing of the tv series at all, yet I must have watched it.

Looking at online reviews of the tv series, it appears to have been a bit of a turkey, although  how it could be worse than the plotlines and characterisation of "Downton Abbey" I don't know.

Not much knitting going on, once I had completed two pairs of socks.  The yarn was not one I had used before, and I was struck by the lovely variations in the greener of the colourways, so much that I began a Multnomah scarf with it.  However, on longer rows the variatons became less interesting - less like landcapes - so I ravelled it out.  Designers of sock yarn must be thinking of a certain diameter.

Today, we wrapped up warm and took a turn about the arboretum just north of here.  We had heard that there were siskins to be seen near the Honywood Oak, an 800 year old tree in the park.  We did not see them.  Instead, we were pleased to see a heron in flight over the lake.

Last week, when we walked around the perimeter, we had caught a whiff of a really cloying scent.  At a different time of year this could have been beans, or rape.  But we could see no sign of anything in flower.  Seeeing a minibus of infants from the Montessori nursery, we concluded that it must have been the perfume of one of the staff. 

Today, however, we were walking up the side of the lake, planted with the deep red stems of dogwood and the slender white trunks of Betula utilis, when we came across the source of the heavy scent.  Groups of shrubs were in full yellow bloom, a real treat on a day too grey to prompt us to bring cameras.  It was Chinese Witch hazel.  I hope it survives the snow.


Thursday, January 03, 2013


Together with more visitors to the blog, I seem to have gathered some rather odd spam.  One of these sounded like a comment, warning me of the dangers of becoming too personal in my posts - to the point that another kind soul reassured me that she enjoyed hearing my opinions.  Quite why I am a target audience for on-line supplies of valium and viagra I do not know.

My last FO - a cowl and hat for me, using a different colourway of the James C Brett Marble chunky.  This was a very satisfying knit, the cowl on a long circular in bands of moss stitch and stocking stitch and the hat in K2P2 rib, which makes for a snug fit.  The colour variations are more subtle than shown here.

We had the sort of quiet Christmas a deux that those with extended families to entertain dream of - pheasant for lunch, smoked salmon for supper, game of Scrabble, glass of wine....  But, as usual, be careful what you wish for.  With rain almost every day we reached the point where a trip to the supermarket became a treat rather than a chore.

New Year's Day saw us driving up to Felixstowe to lunch with old friends who were staying there.  We lunched at the Ferry Boat Inn which was doing roaring trade serving the hundreds of walkers making the most of the sunlight.  Outside, the air was bracing to say the least.

This rather unusual structure is Martello tower U, now a private residence.  How wonderful to live so close to the lapping of the waves in a structure which has endured since Napoleon was a threat.

Finally, a wonderful sunrise, promising better things weather wise?