Almost there

I’m sitting in the garden (for the first time in 2016, yay!) and procrastinating. I’ve just poured a second cup of coffee so that I can take refuge out here a little longer and enjoy the gentle chirping of the birds and scent of cherry blossom wafting across the grass.

I’m hiding out here because on the dining room table there is a pile of notes, a stack of flashcards, a textbook, workbook and numerous powerpoint print outs that remind me that tomorrow is my WSET Level 3 exam and there’s no way of getting out of it.

IMG_5819I ought to be revising soil types, studying region maps and winemaking flowcharts. But instead I’d like to sit here for a little longer, in denial, and enjoy the peace and quiet before the panic sets in.

I finished my first big fairisle project of the year and think it might be time to cast on some socks don’t you think? In fact, why don’t I do that right now…IMG_5684

Advertisements

Little things

An ongoing list of small intentions I have for 2016.

  • Taste more, drink less. I have a comfort zone. One I am very happy occupying, whether it’s with a glass of Italian red wine, a well crafted Manhattan or a Spanish gin. This year as part of my ongoing education I want to try more things, confound my expectations and generally expand my tastes. And I want to do all this whilst cutting back on that habitual glass of wine that inevitably turns into two or three on a Monday evening.
  • Learn. I want to invest in myself both personally and professionally by pushing myself to learn more both in terms of gaining knowledge and new skills. In career terms this will begin in February when I embark on my next qualification (eek!) and personally I hope to attend workshops and courses to keep my mind and hands nimble.
  • Get out more. I have a natural inclination towards hibernation. Not just in winter, but all year round! As a result I unintentionally forget to make time for friends, and suddenly a year has gone past and I’ve only been out and about a dozen times. This year I want that to change. I will make sure I see not only more people, but more exhibitions, concerts and other such interesting things.
  • Make meals not fuel. My new work hours threw us for a loop last year. I get home much later than I ever have before, work more weekends etc. and have found it hard to motivate myself to cook when I get home. This year I want to figure out how to make the most of my days off, plan and cook ahead more and generally be prepared for that 8.45pm hangry desperation before it hits.
  • Switch off. I am beginning to come to the realisation that I am not very good at relaxing unless forced to. My “weekends” often fall mid-week due to my work schedule, and yet if I’m home during the week I feel as if I should be doing a million things because I still have it ingrained in me that a Monday or a Wednesday is a “work”day. Last year that left me feeling burnt out and resentful. I am not going to allow myself to be that person in 2016. I will take proper time off off and indulge.
  • Switch off. Literally. I recently read a blog post (I’m sorry, I forgot where) about a family who have a “no technology” evening one day a week. No phones, no television, no laptops. When we go away we always stay in places with no tv or wifi and fill our time with music, books and board games. It makes us more relaxed so it’s time to bring that habit home with us.
  • Write. As evidenced by this space which remained blank for months last year, I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like. I want to get back into the habit of popping in and jotting down my thoughts and experiences. I also want to write more letters. I often write postcards or cards, but a letter is a wonderful thing. My husband gave me a beautiful set of writing paper for our anniversary last year. It’s about time I used. it.

Aunty Cake and the Magic Icing.

Last Friday I ventured all the way across London for a play date with two of my favourite ladies. My honorary big sister, also known as my Sister-From-Another-Mister (SFAM), and her utterly gorgeous toddler Miss D.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetNow, I’m not the maternal type. In fact that’s actually putting it lightly. Frankly children can smell fear and react to me in one of two ways, they run off screaming, or they run towards me laughing just to see my discomfort when I don’t know what to do. But Miss D is different. She genuinely melts my heart. And so when I get an invitation to go and make fairy cakes with her I can’t pack my sprinkles and apron (sorry, “pinny” as she calls it, a true northern child) fast enough.

Which is how I found myself on Friday evening heading to a date with my Maj covered in icing sugar, still finding hundreds and thousands in my hair and happier than I’d been the whole time Mr L was away. Best afternoon in a very long time.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetIt turns out that I may have met my baking soulmate with Miss D. She’s enthusiastic, patient (but only just) has a remarkably strong mixing arm for her age and isn’t afraid of getting a bit messy. As I pointed out to SFAM as she cleared up the sprinkle carnage, it was nothing compared to the mess I manage to make in the kitchen, I bake with really sticky things like jam, and that ain’t not fun to clean up (when I had my jam company Mr L was forever complaining about the strange places in the house he found sticky fingerprints!).

I think the thing I loved most about the afternoon was the look of glee on Miss D’s face when I asked her if she’d like to try a new icing recipe, a “magic” recipe no less. Her eyes widened and she looked towards her mother as if to say “can we?!” Never have I felt prouder of my knowledge that equal ratios of butter and icing sugar creates the tastiest icing a three year old will ever encounter (at least until we tackle cream cheese in a few years). I’m amazed we had the willpower to only eat one.

If you’re baking with little ones this weekend, give this recipe a try as they can help mix and dollop and decorate and it’ll be the most fun you’ve had in weeks.

vscocam-photo-4Vanilla Fairy Cakes with Magic Icing – Makes 12 small cakes with a large smear of icing for each. 

For the cakes:

110g softened unsalted butter

110g caster sugar

110g self-raising flour

2 large eggs, beaten

a splash of milk (around 3tbsp)

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

For the “magic” icing

100g softened unsalted butter

100g icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 160C and line a fairy cake pan with paper liners, preferably nice patterned ones as they’re cuter.

Cream together the butter and sugar, and then add a little egg, then a little flour, then more egg, etc until all the eggs and flour are mixed in. Add the vanilla and a small dash of milk to loosen up the batter. Spoon evenly into the cake cases and bake on a middle shelf for 12-18mins, until just golden and they spring back when gently touched.

Allow to cool completely before icing and decorating.

For the icing mix the butter until smooth and then gradually add the icing sugar until completely combined. Smear a small amount onto each cake until you run out and then top the cakes with sprinkles, making sure you get plenty on the table and in your hair. Then eat while you ignore the mess!

Boozy marzipan hot cross buns.

I’m normally completely caught out by Easter. It’s not a holiday that we celebrate as a household, except for revelling in the extra days off work, and so there are no eggs around, chocolate or otherwise (we’ll talk about my egg issues another time). The most I tend to manage is to have a bouquet of fresh daffodils somewhere in the house.

vscocam-photo-3However, this year Easter falls early, around the time of Mr L’s birthday and we’re travelling for the weekend. This has meant it’s been on my mind for a while and I’ve known the dates well in advance. No excuses this time around. I’m not actually that fussed by the idea of chocolate shaped as eggs, but there are two festive treats that I can get behind, hot cross buns and Simnel Cake.

vscocam-photo-4With plenty of time on my hands last week while Mr L was away for work I decided to distract myself from the carnage the cats were causing and get in the kitchen. I planned to have some sort of tasty Easter treat ready for hubby’s arrival home, but was having trouble choosing which to make. I love a good hot cross bun, but can’t resist anything with marzipan in and am on a stealth mission to get Mr L to like it (I’m convinced it’s not almonds he dislikes but the fake almond essence that bakeries insist on using). From this dilemma was bourn a stroke of genius (even if I say so myself!) boozy marzipan hot cross buns. Because why only sneak in marzipan when you can also lace the fruit with alcohol.

vscocam-photo-2The result is a heavier bun, heady with boozy almondy saturation and yet still capable of soaking up all the salted butter you dare it to when toasted. We’ve been enjoying them for three days and they’re still as good as the day I made them, which means you can prepare them in advance of Easter Sunday and enjoy them for breakfast or afternoon tea without having to worry about proving times.

Boozy Marzipan Hot Cross Buns – Makes 12. 

For the buns: 

100ml Calvados or brandy

230g dried fruit (I like a mix with some peel in and also like dried cranberries)

200ml whole milk

500g strong white flour

50g caster sugar

1 tsp salt

7g active dried yeast

50g softened unsalted butter

1 large egg at room temperature

120g natural marzipan

zest of one orange

2 tsp mixed spice

For the cross: 

75g plain flour

3-6tbsp warm water

First place the dried fruit and calvados or brandy in a small saucepan and warm gently and stir together for around three minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool so the fruit soaks up the alcohol. Grate the marzipan into a freezer proof bowl and pop into the freezer to chill.

Meanwhile, heat the milk to hand temperature. It should be just warm and so when you dip a finger in it just feels warm. Set aside while you mix the dry ingredients.

In a large bowl, or that of an electric mixer, combine the flour, sugar, yeast, salt, egg and butter. Slowly add the warmed milk whilst stirring together (I like to do this with the dough hook on the mixer with it running on the slowest speed) until you have a sticky dough. Add the fruit and any remaining alcohol, the orange zest, spice and the marzipan and mix to combine slightly. Then tip out onto a floured surface and knead for five minutes until elastic. It will be very sticky so flouring your hands does help.

Place in an oiled bowl and set aside for an hour or until doubled in size. Prepare a baking sheet by lining it with parchment paper.

When risen turn back out onto your floured surface and divide into 12 equal pieces, form these into nice rounds and space out on the baking sheet. Cover with a slightly damp warm cloth and allow to rise for another hour.

Preheat the oven to 220C/425F.

Mix up the cross mixture by sifting the flour into a small bowl and gradually adding water until you get a stiff paste that just drops off a spoon. Then scoop the paste into a piping bag and run across the risen buns from both directions to get crosses.

Place the buns in the oven for 20-25mins until risen well and golden brown. If you like at this stage you can glaze the buns with some warmed apricot jam to give them a shine. I did, but only because I happened to have some jam floundering in the fridge that needed using.

Allow to cool as long as you can bear and then serve with lots of salted butter.

When life gives you lemons…

…ignore them and make Manhattans. That’s my motto. At least it is now.

The gift of the wonderful Death and Co. book for Christmas has definitely made the brutal onslaught of January easier to deal with. Well, okay, it may not have actually made it easier, but it’s made it seem easier. This, coupled with the discovery that some exceptionally good bourbon is much easier to come by than perhaps it should be, has led to a stint of cocktail hours, and more than a few fuzzy heads the following day.

IMG_1992

I’ve long been a classic cocktail lover, and my test of a new bar is always to have a Manhattan. For me its the quintessential cocktail, deceptively simple, and yet one element out of balance and you have a drink that is either too boozy and harsh, or too bitter. It’s also a drink where the quality of the ingredients shine. I’ve always made versions at home using whatever rye and vermouth are available at the local shops. Until now. Upon returning home one day to discover we were out of rye I texted Mr L with something along the lines of “if some rye were to fall into your bag on the way home it wouldn’t turn into the worst evening.” As ever my husband not only took my hint, but delivered over and above my wildest expectations, coming through the door with a bottle of small batch Bulliet Rye. IMG_1971My Manhattan making will never be the same again, and I shall never be able to return to the cheap stuff. The addition of such special malt into our Manhattans lifted the drink to such a level that even Mr L, who is usually a Negroni fanatic, asked for a second round.

There was one other thing that made our new Manhattan tradition complete and exalted above all previous attempts, and for that I have my father to thank (or perhaps to blame?). The garnish on my standard Manhattan would be an out of the jar maraschino cherry. However, upon reading the Death and Co recipe I discovered that they recommend a brandied cherry. It must have been fate as on a trip to my parents back in November my father introduced me to his homemade brandied cherries and the resulting cherry brandy. He’d made them to use with his signature dessert of chocolate fondant. When pressed he divulged his “recipe” and off I popped on the train home vowing to start a batch in the hope of having them ready for Christmas.

Oh how pleased I am that I did, as when making that first batch of Death and Co. Manhattans I suddenly remembered the jar I’d started off the evening I’d returned. It was fate and we’ve never looked back.

And so, I heartily recommend that you get a batch of these cherries in the making, and in six weeks you’ll be imbibing the best Manhattans you’ve ever tasted, or just dipping into the boozy jar of fruit for the hell of it.

Pater’s Brandied Cherries

500ml cheap brandy (no really, but the stuff in the plastic bottle that says “essential” or “value” on it)

250g dried sour cherries.

Method:

In a large kilner or mason jar place the sour cherries. Pour the brandy over the top, making sure there is room for the cherries to swell and fill with brandy. Seal and leave in a cool dark place for six weeks (or as long as you can wait).

After six weeks, make a Manhattan and drop one of these in it. Then enjoy all the way to the bottom before tipping the delicious swollen brandied slightly tart cherry into your mouth and chewing smugly.  IMG_1991

January Goals / Obiettivi gennaio

I haven’t made resolutions. Like many people this year I am focusing on goals, objectives and progression. 2015 has already challenged me and we’re only seven days in. I have no idea how this challenge will work out, but I do know that sometimes I need a little reminder that it’s okay not to know.

I read this article today, (via this post) and the final point is exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the right time. I think we all need a little reminding that the process of learning what we don’t want, although painful, can be the most enlightening moments of all, and also that it’s all just a process and not necessarily the be all and end all.

This past week a friend (who is going through a much tougher time than me,) remarked that I should cut myself some slack. She said that was her goal for the year, and I raise my glass to it as I think it’s an excellent policy.

With that sentiment, I’m off to pour a glass of vino rosso, get in the bath and sooth the tension out of my shoulders.

Twelve months / dodici mesi

This time twelve months ago we had just gotten engaged.

This time three and a half months ago we got married.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/e33/65903761/files/2014/12/img_1434.jpg
2014 has been quite the whirlwind, with new jobs for both of us, a new name for me, and all sorts of other things in between. I can only hope that 2015 brings as much excitement, happiness and challenge.

Wishing you all a very happy new year, and may 2015 bring all you hope for.

*cheers!*

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/e33/65903761/files/2014/12/img_1889.jpg

Back in the kitchen

A case of the Sunday blues was setting in here as the realisation set in that the wedding and honeymoon are over and it’s back to work. Normal service shall be resumed. Except not quite, because I need to fill in forms, change my name and figure out a new signature. From now on I shall be Mrs (the Dr) L, as my parents have taken to calling me. I’m taking Mr L’s surname, but am on the fence about what title to take with it. It might depend on who’s asking. IMG_1046

In the meantime, while I figure that all out and pick myself up from the floor having seen the fee to change my name on my passport,  it’s back into the kitchen for me like a good little wife (ha!). For the first time in years I didn’t cook whilst we were away, and it was very strange indeed. One of the things I relish most about our trips to Italy is the opportunity to cook with the local ingredients, often using the oil, vinegar and wine from the fields adjacent to the palazzo where we are sipping our evening Negroni.

DSC_0052

Ten whole days of being in Italy and not cooking was a very strange sensation indeed. Not that I minded being presented with fresh from the tree fig lunches and four course “we caught this boar last night” evening meals, but I wouldn’t have minded mucking in and stirring a pot here and there, peeling an onion, chopping a tomato. Although I’m not quite sure that my boar hunting skills are up to much yet.

I think it’s possible that Mr L had an inkling of how I would feel, which may have been why, on our first morning as a married couple, he presented me with a new cookbook as a present. A cookbook I had been coveting for a long while, longingly stroking in book shops and drooling over and yet not quite being able to bring myself to buy.IMG_1034

Some people might think it somewhat presumptuous that a husband would present his new wife with a cookbook, as if perhaps he expected his meals to be cooked for him from now on, but let’s be honest, the kitchen has always been my thing, and I’m more likely to chase him out of it while I throw ingredients around than complain about being stuck in there. I think he’d quite like a chance to cook every once in a while, but I’ve hidden all the utensils and pans in the wrong cupboards, and just can’t stop myself from “helping” whenever he begins. We all know that’s a recipe for separation if ever there was one, and so he stands and supervises with a glass of wine and appreciates whatever is put in front of him, no matter how random (and my weeknight experiments with what’s left in the first can get pretty random)

And so to kick the Sunday blues I decided to make something really special from my new book. Lamb neck and aubergine stew. A recipe that it clearly states is nothing much to look at, but tastes so good you should only share it with those you truly love. What could be more perfect for our first home-cooked meal as a married couple.

Full Disclosure: I got distracted by the football and burnt the stew to the base of the pan. I hope this isn’t setting a precedent for what’s to come! I’ve rescued what’s left into a new pan in the hope that no-one will notice and I can get away with it. Well, except the burnt pan is sitting in the sink waiting for someone (Mr L?) to deal with it.