Thursday, November 18

Whitby gingerbread

As I finished off the last slice of Botham's Whitby gingerbread yesterday (bought way back in September and still as tasty - the best before date on the packet was March 2011!), buttered and eaten with a slice of hard goats cheese, I was slightly bemused by the statement on the wrapper along the lines of: 'This is not for everyone'.

I couldn't find any further explanation of this rather enigmatic statement, but suspect it may refer to the unusual texture.

According to The Taste of Britain by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, Whitby gingerbread was believed to have been developed with a rather more dry and firm texture than normal gingerbread to enable it to last for a long time as part of a ship's provisions. It's described as somewhere between a loaf and a biscuit, and traditionally is served buttered with cheese. The entry in the book says it's made with lard, but that seems to have changed since the book was written, presumably to make it suitable for vegetarians.

It is certainly drier than you would expect of a regular gingerbread or parkin, but this in no way detracts from its delicious gingery taste. Us landlubbers are lucky to be able to offset the dry texture with a nice moist cheese (presumably Wensleydale would be perfect) but I guess if you were on a long voyage it would be a real taste of home after weeks at sea.

If you fancy trying some baked Yorkshire delicacies, you can now order online!

Sunday, November 14

Vegetable and lentil soup

This is one of my favourite soups and is great for using up those droopy leftovers at the bottom of the veg drawer. You can tart it up with some soured cream or spice it up with a crushed dried chilli, but the basic recipe also works exceedingly well. It's also a good way to introduce pulses into the diet of those who might otherwise be resistant to them ;-)

When we have had roast chicken I make the basic soup (using chicken stock) and then after blending, drop in all the odds and ends of chicken from the carcass.

Sorry the quantities are so vague, but I never measure it. You can always thin it down later if it's too thick so best to underestimate the liquid to start with.

Couple of sticks of celery
Carrot/parsnip/swede/any other leftover vegetable
Hot water & stock cube (or homemade stock should you be so inclined)
Tin tomatoes
Tomato puree
Dried red lentils/split peas (use lentils for quicker results)
Dried mixed herbs
Salt & pepper
Vegetable oil

Chop the onion and garlic and saute them in a bit of oil. Chop all the other veg into roughly-similar size pieces and throw in, with the herbs. Stir and then fry for five minutes or so.

Sprinkle in some red lentils and mix them round in the veg, then add the water and stock cube so that the veg is covered, and add the tinned tomatoes and a squirt of tomato puree. (add a crushed dried chilli at this point if you want a bit of bite)

Cover and cook till the veg is tender and the lentils are falling apart (about 15 mins). Leave it to cool for five minutes or so, then blend in a liquidiser or using a hand blender (less washing up!).

Throw in chicken leftovers/soured cream/chilli oil or just serve as it is. Hot crusty bread or fresh herb scones will go down well although it's also pretty filling on its own!

Monday, November 8

Fun of the fair: or The Louder You Scream the Faster You Go!

I love fairground rides with a passion - and very disappointingly I find myself almost alone in this among my friends and family. I usually have trouble enticing the Curse to even visit a fairground, let alone go on any rides. My folks enjoy visiting the fair but are very cautious in the type of rides they will go on - these days the Golden Gallopers (carousel) is about the most adventurous.

As a child, one of our annual family outings was to visit the massive Goose Fair in Nottingham - one of the largest travelling fairs in Europe. It was one of the highlights of my year, I can still remember the smell of the candyfloss and hot dogs, and the excitement of seeing the bright lights of the fair emerge as darkness fell. I love the smells, the noise, the combination of Euro pop and traditional organ music, the gaudy art that adorns every surface of the rides, and the cut and thrust of fighting for a seat on one of the horses on the outside of the carousel.

The Goose Fair had every imaginable ride and I could have stood for hours just watching them spinning, lurching and twisting, anticipating the thrill and terror of the ride. In those days my dad or sisters would accompany me on the rides but as we got older and the rides got scarier, this happened less and less. Among all the scary modern rides was a selection of vintage rides, including an enduring favourite - the Cakewalk.

At the Chesterfield Markets Festival a couple of weeks ago we got the chance to relive the 'thrill' of the Cakewalk as part of the vintage fair in Queen's Park. It's a very simple ride, apparently named for the motion of people on it, which mimics the steps of the Cake Walk dance, a rag-time dance dating back to the era of slavery in the USA. This particular machine was built way back in 1895.

Here's a You Tube film showing the very same machine in operation at the Goose Fair a couple of years ago, and some pics taken in Chesterfield.

We had such fun we went on it twice - and had a ride on the Golden Gallopers in between!

Meanwhile fellow fairground junkies might be interested to browse this resource I found while searching out the history of the Cakewalk - the National Fairground Archive which quite coincidentally is based at Sheffield University. Just browsing these pages raised my adrenaline level a couple of notches as I remembered some of the vintage rides that we used to see at the Goose Fair when we first started going - the Steam Yachts (one of which has a Union Jack on the base and the other has the Stars & Stripes on the base) and the Dive Bomber being just two of them.

Faves? Definitely the oldies - the Octopus, the Round-up (or Meteorite), the Waltzer and the Paratrooper all rate highly.

Saturday, November 6

Azure socks

These socks were my portable project for the last few months while the Sweet Pea Coat was my home knitting project; they suddenly reached completion after a couple of long train journeys and the clocks going back. Knitted in Yarn Yard toddy.

They are the Azure socks from Knitty, designed by Deb Barnhill - a lovely pattern that became quite hypnotic after a while. I very much liked the design of the heel with the cables extending right down it, very clever and pleasing to knit, also the fact that you launch into the cables almost immediately after casting on at the toe.

Straight after finishing these I cast on for a pair of plain and simple socks using some self-striping Regia yarn - they are flying ahead and after just a few nights of TV knitting the first one is nearly done! Knit, knit, knit, knit....*sigh!*

Tuesday, November 2

Sculpture at Chatsworth

The gardens of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire provided a fantastic setting for Sotheby's 'selling exhibition' of sculpture 'Beyond Limits' which has just finished its fifth year.
We were lucky to get good weather for our visit on Saturday - the pictures make it look like we were one of just a few visitors, but in reality it was heaving!
Manolo Valdes - Butterflies

Lynn Chadwick - Ace of Diamonds III

Yue Min Jun - Contemporary Terracotta Warriors

Ju Ming - Swimming

Lynn Chadwick - Stairs

Richard Hudson - Eve

There's a video about the exhibition on Sotheby's site here - worth a look although I admit I found some of the commentary a bit impenetrable.

Monday, November 1

Sourdough bread

Inspired by the efforts of my friend Rowan, I have spent the last ten days or so building up to the baking of a sourdough loaf.

You have to start a week or so in advance for this process if you are planning to make your own sourdough starter - alternatively if you have a generous friend who keeps their own starter, you may be able to beg some from them. Keeping the starter alive involves discarding half of it every couple of days  - giving away to a friend or of course using it to bake a loaf - and adding fresh water and flour so there's always some spare hanging around.

Basically sourdough baking involves using natural yeasts to make your bread, and it takes a few days to get these yeasts going sufficiently to get your bread to rise. Mine didn't rise a lot, but the loaf did have a great flavour and some big holes inside it, so I'm hoping it will improve as my starter matures.

The first part of the process - finding some organic grapes/unoiled organic raisins with which to make the starter - was the most difficult part for me. Luckily another friend was given a box of such grapes by a neighbour, and once she had pulped them for their juice, I was the recipient of the skins and pips which I mixed with bread flour, rye flour and water in a loosely covered jar. However you don't need to use grapes or raisins at all - there are many different ways of making a starter, such as this recipe from the River Cottage.

After several days of mixing, adding extra flour and water, straining, discarding various proportions etc, it was ready to use.

Making the loaf was a rather sticky, drawn-out process that is not complicated in terms of what you have to do, but it does involve relatively meticulous planning since the dough has to be left to sit for periods of time that vary from a whole day to 15 minutes. Quite simple if you are around the house all day, but fiendish if you need to fit it in around a working day, shopping, pilates class etc.

I found myself making the mix first thing in the morning, then leaving it to sit all day until I came home at night when I did the kneading. It then had to sit until it doubled in size - overnight was convenient since the following day I was at home. After that there's a period of folding, more rising and eventually baking - involving heating up the oven half an hour before you need it, spritzing water on the loaf to make a crust, making cuts in the top of it (why do mine never work?!) and so on.

Although the bread had a fabulous taste and big air holes inside it, in terms of shape it looked more like a bread biscuit than a loaf. I found it almost impossible to get the dough into any kind of loaf shape. Next time I intend to try baking it in a casserole dish with the lid on.

There's a couple of good articles here and here about maintaining a starter and baking.

Sweet Pea Coat

One of the first yarns added to my stash when I got back into knitting about ten years ago was this gorgeous, super chunky,  Rowan Harris Tweed. I started several projects with it and ripped them all back, never finding the best use for it.

Then a couple of months ago I finally managed to match up Kate Gilbert's Sweet Pea Coat pattern from Twist Collective's winter 2008 issue, which was in my Ravelry queue, with the yarn, which was languishing in my stash.

There was only one problem - although on paper I had enough yarn to make the coat, in practice I knew that I was likely to need more. In the intervening years, not only had the yarn been discontinued, it had been discontinued some years ago, making it very difficult to find any remaindered balls hanging around at online retailers.

I started knitting while retaining an optimistic outlook, somehow believing that this might be sufficient to solve the problem.

With the back and one side completed, I realised I was going to need more than optimism to solve this problem. This was another challenge for Ravelry!

Do you remember the story of the Nordic sock yarn? Contacting (almost) total strangers on Ravelry to beg yarn off them and making new friends?

This time it was a similar story, although I suspect me and my benefactor will never meet, since she lives in the USA. I could find no UK Raveler with the right yarn and colour, but happened upon Kat from Boston, MA (MyOwnOpus on Ravelry). Crazily enough she not only had the right yarn and colour, it also turned out to be the same dye lot! She was not at all offended by my unsolicited request to buy her yarn, and we agreed a price for the yarn and shipping which I was able to send by Paypal.

So the coat is now finished, and I just spent the weekend wearing it and loving it! The colour is sufficiently neutral to go with everything, yet the flecks of turquoise, yellow and red save it from being too bland. Warmer than the Central Park Hoodie and roomy enough to wear several layers underneath, I think it's going to keep me going quite a way into winter. The only thing I don't really like is the buttonholes - a couple of them are a bit too loose and they might have to undergo a bit of alteration.

1 November: a significant date

1 November is a significant date in our household - it's officially classified as the first day that the heating is allowed to be switched on for the winter. Our maisonette has hot air heating, supplied by a huge, ancient boiler housed in a massive cupboard right in the middle of the house. I'm pretty sure it's the original boiler that was installed when the block was built in about 1970. So putting the heating on involves lighting the pilot light, setting the timer and pressing the switch to 'auto'.

We do benefit from having properties below and next to us that are occupied throughout the day, and we also have great insulation and a relatively small area to heat. But while I cycle to work and use the cosy shower room heated at the company's expense, the Curse showers at home and I suspect it's getting a little chilly in the mornings by now!

We've had a few skirmishes about the heating so far - the Curse is apt to sit around in a t-shirt complaining that he's cold which of course cuts no ice with me considering he's got a lovely hand-knitted cardigan available for just such occasions. All the same, we always try and hold out till November, and beyond if we can - it's turned into something of an autumn tradition. Last year I think we lasted till about 5 November, so still a few days to go!