Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Gallery - Emotions

This week's post is on the theme of Emotions but is a combination of Tara's Gallery and Josie's Writing Workshop on Sleep is for the Weak. Visit them both if you can. There are lots of great blogs just waiting to be discovered!

This is going to be difficult as the picture I've chosen evokes a lot of emotions in me. It's of me and my dear departed Dad. Sorry about the quality of the picture; I've had to scan it in as it was taken before digital cameras really came along.

This is the last picture I have of you, Dad. I keep it in my bedroom in a frame. Mum hates it - she prefers to remember you as you were before you became ill. I have plenty of those pictures. A whole lifetime's worth. This one is precious, to me anyway.


When I look at this picture, I feel a strong mixture of emotions. Sometimes, they overwhelm me. They are doing right now, in fact. There are tears in my eyes as I type these words.


I feel happiness because in this picture, we are not only just both smiling, we are laughing. We're probably not laughing at the same thing but it is a shared moment, on Christmas Day. For all the happy times you gave us, for the times where you had us helpless with laughter at one of your "misguided tours" around Devon or Somerset.


I feel sadness because we won't get to share such moments again. You left us close to Christmas in 2000, and this picture being taken at Christmas serves to remind me of that. It's bittersweet. That the last few months and years of your life, you didn't really understand what was happening to you, and in the month and years before that, you did know and were probably very scared but never showed it.


I feel pride that you were my Dad, that you became a Dad in all but name to my two half-sisters and brought us all up the same, that you gave them a life they wouldn't have had otherwise and that they chose you to give them away at their respective weddings, not their biological father. Of the many, many hours that you put in at work to earn a living enough to pay all the bills with 4 daughters to support. I also feel humbled that you took on so much, so young, and that you came through it - and a lot more - with Mum.


I feel gratitude that, because of all the support you gave me in early life, I was able to do all the things I have achieved thus far. You never stopped me doing anything, you never pushed me into things I didn't want to do. I made my own way, and you let me make my own mistakes. That, in itself, was a fantastic education, in life itself.


I feel devastation that you never got to meet my children, your only actual grandchildren. You were a great granddad to my sisters' children; you would have been just as fabulous a granddad to mine and they would have adored you - and make no mistake about it, Missy Woo would have you wrapped around her little finger. She is Carolyn all over again - even their birthdays are a day apart, just 5 days before your own. A little while ago, they started asking questions about you and I wanted to cry.


I feel anger that you have left us here, but when I think about it, it's not anger with you but with myself, for not making the most of our time together. I know you wouldn't begrudge me one minute of time away from you though and that, if you could have understood, you would have supported my move to Lancashire in the last 18 months of your life.


I feel pain. It will be ten years this Christmas, Dad, and it doesn't get any easier sometimes. The pain never goes completely. You just learn to control it so that you feel its full force less often. Today, Dad, I'm feeling it as sharply as the day you died. I still remember stopping at Stafford services and ringing Mum and her telling me that you'd gone, just an hour and a half after I left you having said goodbye for the last time. I remember it like it was yesterday. That you are now free of the physical body that failed you, that your "spirit, flying high, is soaring free" as we had written in the book of remembrance, gives me some comfort.


When all's said and done, I will always miss you, but your influence on me will never leave.

Brian Thomas Giles. 10th July 1935-17th December 2000. RIP.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Currying Favour

Something else I like to cook is curries. When I'm planning meals, I have to hold myself back from making a curry or at least something spicy every day. I didn't make a curry at all until I was in my mid-twenties, but then I didn't really eat curry or "get" it until I was an adult. My parents didn't like it and so we never had it as children.

Curries are almost the polar opposite of baking, that I blogged about last week. You don't have to be anything like as precise with your measurements. However, it is also something that people think are difficult so they get something out of a jar to make one. But really? They are so not! You do often need a long list of ingredients but most are easily obtained from your supermarket and if not, a local Asian grocer will normally be happy to help you.

When I started making curries, I used to use curry paste or curry powder. Occasionally, I still do for various recipes I have in my collection (I am rather geeky and collect recipes to store away for use later!). They have their place and I really have nothing against them. However, if you want to make a really great curry, you need to have the individual spices in stock. I find, because I store my spices for a fairly long time, that I need to add more than the recipe states because the flavours do fade over time as the oils in the spices oxidise in the air.

I have this book in my kitchen called "50 Great Curries of India" by Camellia Panjabi, who set up the Bombay Brasserie in London. I use her homestyle curry recipe quite a bit as it allows me to curry whatever I have at home. However, I do use several other recipes out of the book quite regularly. This one is a particular favourite, because it is pretty simple and tasty, and it uses ingredients that are simple to get hold of; I've normally got them all in stock. It's a keema and therefore made from lamb mince. Don't pull a face - the first thing you do is boil the mince to render the fat so the resulting curry is not greasy at all. I've made it countless times and it seems to be that little bit different each time, but never in a bad way. It is also really good when made one day and eaten the next. This is what I did when I made it the other day - I had a busy day but wanted a good curry, and it doesn't take long to get going, so it's easy to make ahead. I have never done, but I would imagine it would freeze well too. Here's the recipe. It's worth taking time to get the onions really brown first as they add so much to the flavour if done like that.

Dhaniya Keema (Minced Lamb with Coriander)
(Serves 4)

Ingredients

700g/1.5lb finely minced lamb (don't worry if it's not finely minced!)
3 garlic cloves
2 cinnamon or bay leaves
80ml oil (veg or sunflower best)
300g/10oz onions, finely chopped
5cm/2in cinnamon stick
3 cloves
3 green cardamoms
1cmx0.5cm/0.5inx0.25in piece of fresh ginger, finely chopped
1-2 tsp mild chilli powder, to taste
0.25 tsp ground turmeric
0.75 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp garam masala
2 tomatoes, chopped or 200g chopped tomatoes from a tin.
1 bunch fresh coriander, finely chopped

1. Boil the mince in 500ml/2cups water with 1 whole peeled garlic clove and the cinnamon or bay leaves, for 10 mins. Strain away the water (not down the sink, you'll block it!). Finely chop the other garlic cloves.

2. Heat the oil in a cooking pot. Fry the onions until golden brown - about 20 mins. (I usually start this whilst the mince is boiling, and keep the pan on a mediumish heat. You'll need to watch it as burnt onions will just make the whole thing taste burnt). Add the cinnamon stick, cloves, cardamoms, ginger, garlic and chillies. Cook for 2 mins, then add the mince and saute for 5 mins. (I normally spend this time breaking up the mince as it seems to form a solid block when boiled!). Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander and half the garam masala; saute for a further 5 minutes, stirring every minute or two. Add the tomato and season to taste.

3. When the tomato is totally absorbed, stir-fry for a couple of mins. Add 500ml/2cups of water and cook until tender. (The recipe doesn't say how long, but I normally simmer for about an hour and let the sauce reduce right down). Add the corander leaves and remaining garam masala. Stir well and cook for 3 mins or so, uncovered. The dish has very little gravy so can be eaten with indian breads or rice. The book also suggests pasta but I'm not ready for that. Don't forget to remove the cinnamon stick!

Now, I make a few changes to this:

a) I don't always use cardamoms. If you bite on one, it's like chewing on aftershave and not always a nice experience. Feel free to regard the cardamoms as optional.
b) If I'm making for the next day, I leave out the coriander leaves and extra garam masala until I reheat. Occasionally, I forget to do this anyway but hey, it's not killed me.

Here's the curry.

We ate it with poppadoms and I had some mango chutney with it, mainly because I love mango chutney! I took this on my phone and I've just realised how sunny it was, even at 7pm - just look at that shadow. It looks like a small portion but believe me, it's filling.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Gallery - Creatures. A eulogy.

Having another go at the Gallery post this week. The theme is Creatures and I instantly knew what I was going to use. It is a bit of a eulogy to what were the household chickens.

This is Clemmie, Molly and Megan. (Names chosen by, at the time, a 3 year old and a 2 year old!) We got them from a lovely lady out on the Wyre who breeds chickens but also rescues battery hens. These are rescue hens. After a happy 3 months getting used to life on the outside, we took them away and brought them home to our back garden. This picture is them getting one of their first tastes of the garden.

We grew to love our chickens tho Missy Woo didn't take to them at all but then, they were nearly as big as her and when you went outside, they had a tendency to rush at you, looking for food. But they were good layers, only stopping over what became a quite cold winter (we're talking 2008 - 2009) for a short period. They all had their little personalities and even the kids could tell them apart.

However, they didn't last too long. Seven months after we first got them, OH went out to them one morning and found them, all dead. It looked like a fox had got them. What was ironic was that, on the odd occasion, we'd totally forgotten to shut them up at night and they'd been fine, whereas we had moved their run and they had the smallest of gaps for entry. None of us heard a thing, which is probably a good thing.

They destroyed the garden, but they gave us the best eggs. We decided not to get replacements straight away and eventually gave the chicken house away to someone. The kids missed them - Monkey asked me the same afternoon, looking at the empty chicken house, if we could get some more - but the garden became theirs again; Missy Woo was out in the garden almost as soon as we told them the chickens had gone to heaven. We might get some more - and hopefully, more rescue hens to give them a taste of freedom after the life they'd had stuck in a cage - but it's a way off, I reckon.

RIP Clemmie, Molly and Megan.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The "art" of baking - part 2. The Helen Chocolate Cake!

If you read my other post at the weekend, you'll know I'm on a bit of a mission to convince you that baking is not difficult. This post is about the other cake I made at the weekend for the school summer fair (which, incidentally, raised over £1200 for the school, which is excellent). It's chocolate cake.

Now, I always thought that chocolate cake was difficult, until I met my friend Helen, that is. Helen is a mum that joined our local NCT branch and one day turned up at a fundraising event with the most amazing looking chocolate cake. It looked gorgeous and it disappeared really quickly. Helen's cake soon became a fixture of our fundraisers when we were providing cakes. For me, therefore, this will be forever "Helen Chocolate Cake".

Helen started responding to requests for the recipe. I think she did it in the hope that other people would take on the mantle of making "Helen's Chocolate Cake". Sadly, for her, every time we are needing cakes, she gets asked  "Helen, can you make a chocolate cake?" and if she complains, we remind her that her version is the original and best.

I succumbed to obtaining the recipe last Christmas, when I first was contributing to school's other main fundraising event, the Christmas fair. Helen offered to send me the recipe when I mused about making chocolate cake, but have always been scared that it would mean melting chocolate and faffing around - even tho I know, having done it a few times over the last few years, that it is not that technically difficult to do.

Good to her word, the recipe arrived in my inbox within a day or two. As Helen said herself, it's very very quick and easy tho you might find that you need to make it a few times to get it totally to your liking. Personally, I think the oven temperature is set too low and after a few goes at this, I now set my oven hotter and the cake has been fine.

The good news is that there is actually no chocolate at all. The cake uses cocoa powder so it mixes in with the dry ingredients and needs no special treatment. Simple, this most definitely is. I would also use margarine as recommended. The flavour won't be affected but the margarine keeps the icing softer and the cake less dry.

Here's the recipe for "Helen Chocolate Cake".


For the cake
225g/8oz self raising flour
275g/10oz caster Sugar
175g/6oz soft tub margarine
3 eggs
1tsp vanilla essence
175g/6oz low fat natural yoghurt
50g cocoa powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

For the icing
50g/2oz soft tub margarine
50g/2 oz cocoa powder
3 tablespoons milk (I find it needs more than this)
350g/12oz icing sugar
12 walnut halves to decorate (optional – you can add anything you fancy)

you will also need a 32cm/9 in spring form cake tin and some non-stick baking paper. 
 Method
1. Pre-heat oven to 170oC/325oF/gas 3. Grease the tin. Line the base with non-stick baking paper. Dust the inside of the tin with a little flour, then tap out the excess. 

(Note - Helen reckons a 20cm/8 in tin will work fine as well.I reckon using 180C/gas 4 works better)

2. Beat the caster sugar and margarine in a mixing bowl until smooth. Beat in eggs, vanilla essence and yoghurt. Sift in flour, cocoa and bicarbonate of soda. Stir until fully combined. Spoon mixture into prepared tin and level the surface.

3. Bake cake for 40-45 mins, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Put tin onto a wire rack, cool for 5 minutes. Turn cake out onto rack to cool completely.

(You may need to do a bit of trial and error on this one - for me, 180 C for 50 mins gives a good result.)




4. For the icing, melt the margarine in a saucepan - a milk pan is ideal. Stir in the cocoa. Heat gently, stirring, until combined. Remove from heat. Stir in milk and sifted icing sugar until mixture is smooth and blended. (Extra milk is definitely needed for this but add in spoonfuls. If you add too much, you'll need extra icing sugar).

5. Spread or pour (pouring probably works better and gives a smoother result) icing evenly over top and side of cake. Arrange walnut halves, if using,  around top edge. Leave icing to set for 10 minutes before serving.

Here is the finished article: 

I have made this cake for Monkey's 5th birthday party back in March and for that, I got a personalised Ben10 icing cake topper from eBay to complete the look. It was actually really easy to do and looked great. He was very proud that his mummy had made him a proper cake. I have also made this cake and the children asked for leftovers for breakfast. As an one off, I let them and have never seen such well-behaved children in the period between getting up and going on the school run.

This is a great cake to make with kids and actually Missy Woo helped me make this one. Licking the bowl is great too, because the minute you add the cocoa, it all starts to taste very chocolatey and it's heaven for little ones to to lick. The icing is a mummy only job, thanks to the fact we're using a pan on the hob. 

So, what do you think? Fancy trying to make a Helen Chocolate Cake and telling me how you got on? I'd love to hear. You will love this cake and you'll become extremely popular with friends. They will think you're extremely clever. But your secret will be safe with me. :)


Saturday, 19 June 2010

The "art" of baking - a beginner's guide. (Coconut Cake)

If you've been following me on Twitter this week, you'll know I've baked a couple of cakes. These were for the school summer fair for which the PTFA had asked for cake contributions for their "tea room". Mine went down extremely well - by the time I got there, the last piece of one of the cakes was disappearing off the table so I never even got to try them! However, it turned out that a lot of the other cakes were shop-bought, which is always disappointing as they just don't taste the same. It turned out there had been a very poor turnout of cakes this time.

It does seem to me that baking is a bit like maths. People like to say they are rubbish at it and it's cool to be that because it's perceived to be "hard". The thing is that, like maths, it often isn't as bad as people think it is and they really just need to have a go. It's easier to get someone else to do it for you, but ultimately, that's never as satisfying.

I bake cakes. I don't do it all the time or I'd be the size of the house. The cakes I make taste nice. I just can't make them look all that pretty. Don't ask me to make fancy sugarcraft or owt, it'll look a shocker. When I make a nice cake, people tell me "oh, you're so clever" but I always reply that the cakes I make are easy. And it's true. The two cakes I made this week are not technically challenging but they look impressive, even with a klutz like me icing them. I thought I'd share them with you, one at a time. I'm going to start with the easiest of recipes which is basically an all-in-one - otherwise known as "bung it all together and mix". ;)

Before I move onto the recipe, I'll share with you a few simple golden rules of baking. If you remember them, your baking will be more successful and, therefore, more rewarding.

1. Measure your ingredients fairly accurately. Baking is not "bung it in and hope for the best" cookery. It is relying on reactions for success that require reasonably strict proportions to be maintained. So use those scales, even if they are rubbish. At least they will be consistently bad. Cheap digital scales can be bought cheaply if you really want to invest.

2. Try and use the right size and shape of cake tin as specified in the recipe. This is particularly important when you're starting out. If your recipe says use a 9" diameter tin, use it. You can use a smaller tin but it will take longer to cook than stated in the recipe; a square one might take more or less time to cook. Cake tins can be bought fairly cheaply if you don't do a lot of baking - springform ones or those that have a loose base make for getting cakes out of tins far, far easier. And remember to prep your tins. Greasing and lining the tin as per the recipe also helps. A lot.

3. Get all the ingredients out before you start. This helps to get the mixing bit done as quickly as possible, rather than having to root through your cupboards. If you're using butter, it may need to be soft so get it out of the fridge in advance and if it specifies softened and it's midwinter, be prepared to zap in the microwave for a few seconds. It'll save hours of trying to mix in block butter.

4. Don't substitute too wildly. Use the right kind of flour as specified - tho you can convert plain to self-raising if you know how - and be careful with your sugar; there are so many different types. I often use caster sugar where they specify golden caster and that's OK. Using icing sugar or soft dark brown sugar isn't! I am the queen of substitutions normally, but even I try to stick to the right ingredients unless the recipe suggests it.

5. Finally, be a slave to the recipe. Follow it word for word. If something does go wrong, try and scribble on the recipe so you know for next time if it doesn't work properly for you. Ovens are variable, and sometimes recipes do contain errors. If you think it needs more of something, try that next time.

So, here is one of the cakes I made this week. It's a coconut cake. Coconut is a favourite flavour of mine but I know it's one of those things that people either love or hate. If you're the latter, sorry - I'll blog the other recipe soon.

I found this recipe in one of those little booklets you sometimes get with BBC Good Food magazine. It must be some years ago now and I can't find this exact recipe on their website. I have made this cake several times for NCT branch events and when people aren't drawn to the chocolate cake that I'll blog about next, they try this and love it, yet it is ridiculously simple. I even made this for Monkey's first birthday as he was enjoying the flavour of coconut at the time and then of course, he wouldn't touch a piece. Still, I was not unhappy - I was baking another baby already by then.

I have found over the years of making it that you get the best results by getting proper coconut cream. I used to make it with sachets of creamed coconut but the cake was slightly dry and the icing very stiff, which made it hard to ice. I discovered little cans of Waitrose Coconut Cream and it transformed the cake from "good" to "amazing" and the icing is much more easy to put as well as look pretty. Even I can do attractive swirls in it now.

Coconut Cake
(Serves 8 - 12)

Ingredients
For the cake:
175g/6oz self-raising flour
175g/6oz golden caster sugar (ordinary works fine)
175g/6oz butter, softened, plus some extra for greasing
1.5 tsp baking powder
3 eggs (I use free range but that's your decision), beaten (tho I never do beforehand)
50g/2oz desiccated coconut
2 tbsp  coconut cream, or single cream (better with coconut cream)

For the filling and topping:
280g/10oz icing sugar
100g/4oz butter, softened
3 tbsp coconut cream or single cream (again, far better with coconut cream)
5 tbsp raspberry jam (seedless or no bit varieties best but not essential)

You will also need 2 20cm/8in sandwich tins and some greaseproof paper.

1. Heat the oven to 180C/fan160C/gas 4. Butter the two tins and line the bases with the greaseproof paper. Place the butter, sugar, flour, baking powder and eggs in a food processor and mix for 2-3 mins until smooth. Add the coconut and cream and mix again briefly. (If you don't have a food processor, a hand mixer will do. If you don't have that either, you could just mix all together with a fork or a hand whisk. Or you could mix the sugar and butter first, then add the eggs, then the flour and baking powder and finally, the coconut and coconut cream, mixing after each addition.)

2. Divide the mixture between the two lined tins and smooth the tops. Bake in the oven for 25 mins until evenly golden and firm (they will spring back when lightly pressed). Loosen the edges of the cakes and leave in their tins for 5 mins, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Peel off the lining paper when cool.

Here are my cakes cooling on the rack:



3. Make the icing  - beat together the icing sugar (I always sift it so you get fewer lumps), butter and coconut cream until smooth. Spread one of the cakes with the jam. Top it with just under half of the icing and place the other sponge on top. Swirl the remaining icing on top of the sponge. Try to resist eating the whole thing right there and then.

Here's my effort from yesterday:

Doesn't it look yum? I can't believe I didn't get to eat any of it, *sob*. It is blooming lovely. The coconut and raspberry are a great combination of flavours and the cake is lovely and moist. It makes your house smell heavenly whilst it is cooking, and I think you can really taste the butter in the cake so it's really worth using that over margarine. I find that I sometimes need a little more than 3 tbsp coconut cream in the icing to get a smooth and spreadable icing and if you use too much, you can always add a little more icing sugar.

So, now, you've not got any excuses - it's not only easy, it doesn't take up lots of time (another reason people give for not baking). This cake takes 5 minutes to mix and get in the oven. You can be doing something else whilst it cooks and cools. It takes another 5 minutes to make the icing, and then, as you can see, only a couple of minutes to "decorate" the cake (well, the way I do it. ;) ). It tastes miles better than anything you'd buy in a shop, you know what's in it and it's probably cheaper too. Cake may not be the healthiest of things but making your own with lovely ingredients has surely got to be the best way to indulge the occasional treat. Hasn't it?

Go on, you know you want to! And if you do, particularly if you are a first-time baker, I'd love you to comment on this post and let me know how you got on and how the cake (and baking) was for you.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The Gallery - Motherhood, then and now.

Yes, yes, I know - I've not been posting again. A lot has been going on and I had a job interview today which I'm waiting to hear about. So I thought I'd get back on the horse as it were and do another entry into the Gallery at Sticky Fingers. This week's prompt is Motherhood. I haven't had time to come up with a fantastic new photo  - and to be honest, I am not a great photographer - so I've got two photos which kind of depict the then and now of my journey into motherhood - well, actually, the start of life as a mother of two children.

Here's the "then" photo: (it's a bit blurry, but not my photography!)

This is me with my two, literally minutes after I'd got home from hospital. I actually spent a few days in our marvellous midwife led unit that is just down the road here, after transferring from the big bad maternity unit in Preston. It was bliss and I could have stayed there for weeks, but come home I had to do. Missy Woo was 5 days old in that pic, Monkey 16 months old. I look happy, but I think I was terrified at the prospect of two of them, particularly as Monkey had not been a good sleeper as a tiny baby. Thankfully, Missy Woo was brilliant - so much so I used to have to wake her up to feed her before she got too hungry! Monkey was overjoyed with his new friend, so much so that his first word was "sister". And looking at that photo, I think that is about the most Missy Woo wore in the first 3 weeks of her life as it was so hot then. 

Before I post the "now" photo, I must make an apology. A lot of you who follow me on Twitter have already seen this pic before because it was, for a while, my profile pic (and it was on here too, which I've now changed.) It is, however, one of my favourite pictures of me with my two. It's getting on for a year old actually, but it depicts how they have changed since the first photo. 

Here goes:

This picture was taken in Pizza Express as you can see. I met up with some mummies that I have known online for some time. They were meeting up in Manchester and I took the chance to tag along with mine to put a few faces to names (hence the sticky label attached to my boob). 

Now, personally, I love this photo. It is similar in pose to the "then" picture in that I have got my arms around both of them so we are all cuddled together as a unit. I'm happy and relaxed, largely because my children are behaving, albeit for a few minutes. Both of them are extremely photogenic as you can see. They are the same, but different. You can see that Missy Woo has dark eyes in this picture whereas Monkey has, like me, pale green eyes. Their hair colour looks the same but Missy Woo's is darker, more golden, blonde whereas Monkey has a whiter blonde. (Sadly, like me, they are both likely to end up brunettes.) What they both share is that mischievous glint in their eyes - nothing particularly evil (most of the time!) but you know anything is possible.

This is my brood. They make me laugh, they make me cry, they frustrate me, anger me but they also love me, as I love them, to bits. It was a long road from that first morning at home but here we are. Two beautiful, funny, smart children. Oh, and one frazzled mummy. ;) 
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