Throwback Thursday: My Love Affair with Baking

Anyone who reads this blog, or knows me even a little, knows I love to bake. I love to eat baked goods, too, but I appreciate the fact I have two teenagers and don’t have to eat everything I bake by myself.

This love of baking isn’t new. Forty-five years ago, at the tender age of two, I was already supervising my mother’s baking, as evidenced by this photograph, in which I’m obviously making sure the cupcakes aren’t snitched by my brother before they’re properly cool.

My love of baked goods and baking led me, as an adult, to decide never to buy baked goods, but to bake if I wanted cookies or cake in the house. It has served well to keep my consumption down and my production up.

Pregnancy, and the attendant guilt trip laid on pregnant woman to eat healthily, prompted me to look for less sugary, less buttery options in my baked goods. I shifted to sweetening with fruit juices, and cutting way back on the fat in recipes. What I made during my pregnancies wasn’t bad, but I had enough nausea at the time that I can no longer even think about some of those ‘healthy’ baked goods without feeling ill.

Freed from pregnancy, my baking swung back toward the unhealthy side, but I’d learned some things from all that healthy baking. I used less sugar, and found that other flavours were enhanced by it. I used more whole grains–not because they were better for me, but because I had discovered they tasted better than white flour. I used more nuts, seeds and fruits, because they added variety, flavour, and texture. These days, I rarely make any of the recipes I made before pregnancy; I look at them and cringe at the ingredient lists.

So my baking has evolved. As I’m sure it will continue to evolve, under the changing needs and pressures of the family, for many years to come.

Happy Mother’s Day

Trig M, where every table has a panoramic view.

Advertising media has been exhorting us to do all sorts of things for our mothers today—buy her flowers, make her breakfast, take her out to a fancy restaurant, buy her diamonds…

We have a rather different take on Mother’s Day at our house.

After the usual Sunday morning routine where I get up before everyone else, light the fire, feed the animals, and bake something lovely for breakfast, we headed to the hills.

It was two hours of uphill slogging to our lunch spot. One of the best restaurants around, Trig M has spectacular views. No need for a reservation, even on Mother’s Day (we were the only ones there). The ambiance was great, if a little chilly today. The thirteen year-old chef made us an excellent lunch of cheese sandwiches and apples, with chocolate bars for dessert.

A lovely Mother’s Day. I hope yours was / is as nice as mine.

Going Overboard

I know people for whom to spend half an hour preparing dinner is an unthinkable chore.

I don’t understand those people.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand the got-home-late-from-some-after-school-activity sort of feeling. The days when we know we’ll be coming in late and hungry, I pull something out of the freezer that needs only a few minutes in the microwave.

But on ‘normal’ days, making dinner is a way to make every day special. If it takes an hour to do that, who cares? An hour spent nurturing my family is an hour well-spent, in my mind. And if, some days, that hour expands to two or three…well, I at least make sure on those days I’m making enough to put a meal or two in the freezer for when I need an instant meal.

I also don’t mind going overboard now and again on dinner, because our family has a culture of food appreciation. From an early age, the kids learned to appreciate new flavours, interesting textures, and the culinary effort it takes to create a meal. If I spend two hours making dinner, I know the people who eat it will appreciate the extra effort. I know they will recognise it as one of the ways I show my love for them–a culinary hug. As teenagers, they resist real hugs, but they love a good culinary hug. It’s not just conditioning that they thank the cook at each meal–they actually mean it.

So if I go a bit overboard sometimes…well, you can never have too many culinary hugs.

altValentine’s Day

img_3121Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. I only know this because I checked my calendar to see what time my car is scheduled for repairs, and I noticed the date.

That’s about as much notice as Valentine’s Day has ever gotten from me.

Back in primary school, it was the thing to do to buy cheap, punch-out valentines and give them to every classmate. Our mums dutifully bought the things, and we dutifully wrote each of our classmate’s names on them. Everyone got a valentine from everyone else in the class–theoretically, anyway. It didn’t really work out that way and, frankly, most of us didn’t care much one way or another.

As I grew older and started to consider boys as more than just good companions for knife-throwing and tree-climbing competitions, Valentine’s Day became more fraught with meaning. I dodged it as often as possible, and don’t remember ever once going on a date on Valentine’s Day. It just seemed…icky, and doomed to be awkward.

So I was relieved to discover, once I was married, that my husband avoided Valentine’s Day like the plague, too. We have managed to forget Valentine’s Day for nearly 25 years.

It was made easier by the fact our son was born four days before the holiday–we’re celebrated out when V-Day rolls around. Gives us a legitimate excuse to thumb our noses at pre-printed expressions of love and devotion, bad chocolate, and flying babies brandishing weapons.

So once again, we’ll be having an altValentine’s Day here. If either of us remembers tomorrow, we’ll put on a fake doe-eyed expression and laughingly wish the other a happy Valentine’s Day. More likely, we’ll both forget, until Google or FaceBook dutifully reminds us. Then we’ll go about our normal day, expressing our love in the ordinary things we do together that make us happy. It will be a day like any other, and no less filled with love than if it also included flowers and Hallmark greeting cards.

And the best thing is, we’ll celebrate it again the next day, and the next, and the next.

So, happy altValentine’s Day. Make it every day.


Crazy Cake Season Begins!

2017-01-26-21-49-17-smWoo hoo! My favourite time of year–the time when I have lots of excuses to make ridiculous cakes–has begun with the daughter’s birthday.

I like to try new cake decorating techniques, and this year I’m using Mexican paste. It’s surprisingly easy to make and to work with, if you don’t mind remortgaging your house to pay for the gum tragacanth that gives it the right texture. I expect the stuff is dirt-cheap elsewhere in the world, but here the price was shocking (about $10 per tablespoon).

Great fun to work with, though. I’ve already gotten my money’s worth in entertainment.

Combine 227 g (8 oz) icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar) and 1 Tbsp (15ml) gum tragacanth in a bowl. Add 2 Tbsp water. Stir until it becomes crumbly and damp. Turn out of the bowl and knead until pliable. Place in a plastic bag and leave at room temperature for 12 hours until firm. When you’re ready to use it, break off a small piece and knead until softened.

The paste can be moulded into shapes, or rolled thin and cut with cookie cutters. It works a lot like modelling clay, though it tends to stick. I rolled mine out on a non-stick baking sheet, and would have appreciated a non-stick rolling pin, too, but with care I managed with an ordinary wooden rolling pin. I picked up a cheap set of fondant shaping tools that proved very helpful for producing the shapes I wanted.

After you’ve made your shapes, you need to let them dry and harden for about 24 hours. Then they can be painted with paste food colouring thinned with gin. You can also knead food colouring into the paste.

Once the paste hardens it is quite tough, but thin pieces are brittle (reminds me of unfired ceramics). I didn’t plan very well for my leaf and flower stems. I made the leaves and flowers, and only considered what I was going to use for stems after they’d dried. In hindsight, I should have attached the stems while the paste was still pliable. Nothing a little gingerbread icing, used as glue, couldn’t fix.

So, where was all this sugary sculpture heading?

My brief was an alpine scene atop chocolate cake.

Homemade Gifts

100_2135smMy daughter’s birthday is fast approaching, and I still felt I hadn’t come up with a gift idea that was truly from me. I have often made special things for the kids for their birthdays, but they don’t always go over as I’d wish. Three years ago, I made her this awesome jeans jacket. I found an okay commercial pattern and modified it to fit my daughter’s tastes and frame. I spent ages searching for the perfect cool hardware bits to decorate the front. Then I had to order a zip from overseas, because I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted in country (because it had to match the hardware, of course). In the end, I was quite pleased with the results.

She has never worn the jacket. Not once. Not even for a few minutes.

The same thing happened with the skirt I made her four years ago (because the girl needed something other than shorts and T-shirts to wear). She’s worn the skirt…once or twice when I forced her to wear it to a formal occasion, and every time it’s led to tears.

That’s okay. It really doesn’t bother me. I had a blast making every homemade gift I’ve given the kids. If the kids don’t like them, I know that I’ll be able to give them to someone else who will. And some of them have gone over extremely well (all the stuffed animals, the jerseys and parkas, the zip-off pants, the slippers, the fuzzy bathrobes, the wizard costumes…).

I’ve received my fair share of awkward and excellent homemade gifts from the kids too. Because we all give and receive homemade gifts, we all understand and appreciate the time and love that went into each item, even if we wouldn’t be caught dead wearing it. It makes each gift special, regardless of what the item actually is.

And we learn from past mistakes.

This year, the homemade gift my daughter will receive is something I’m pretty certain she’ll appreciate and use–a list of 500 writing prompts, written just for her and categorised by genre. As usual, I’m having a fabulous time making it, and if she doesn’t end up using it, I expect to find it handy, myself.

How is a Teenager Like a Shed?

2016-01-12 08.31.38 smI used to do creativity exercises with my university students. One of the activities was called ‘Forced Analogy’–take two random objects/ideas and come up with ways they are alike.

The exercise forces you to think in strange ways, and to examine the fundamental nature of each thing.

Using a handy online random word generator, I gave myself the following challenge today: How is a teenager like a shed?

  1. There are lots of different types of shed and teen, and each type is good at different things.
  2. A teenager, like a shed, can be gussied up. You can make it look nice on the outside, but inside it will always be a mess.
  3. You may know for certain you’ve put something into the shed (or the teen), but once in there, it’s lost forever.
  4. Keeping your shed and your teenager organised are both impossible.
  5. Sometimes, you find the most surprising things inside–a long-lost treasure, or something you never knew was there.
  6. Occasionally, both smell like dead rats.
  7. Neither one will ever thank you for cleaning.
  8. Both require regular maintenance.
  9. You can learn a lot about a family by closely observing their shed…or their teen.
  10. Everyone expects them to have a few blemishes.
  11. They tend to accumulate rubbish.
  12. After having one for a while, it’s hard to imagine life without one.