Sunday, 31 May 2009

Angels & Demons

We went to see Angels & Demons (2009) last night. Having read the novel by Dan Brown a few years ago, and enjoying it far more than The Da Vinci Code (2003), I nevertheless didn't hold very high expectations for the movie. The Da Vinci Code (2006) movie was predictably sensational and over-hyped, as was the novel. I'm a long-time fan of Tom Hanks and his work, but I really don't think he's the right actor to play Robert Langdon.

Perhaps a great part of Angels & Demons' appeal for me is the setting; as I read the novel, I consulted my map of Rome and was delighted to discover that I'd been to three out of four of the murder sites, as well as many parts of the Vatican City, including St Peter's Basilica, St Peter's Square, and the phenomenal Sistine Chapel. It was great to see scenery shot in and around Rome (even though some of the sets were replicas). I'd love to go back there some day.

As for the movie itself, it was better than I expected. I was annoyed to hear a radio commentary saying that "Angels & Demons picks up right where The Da Vinci Code left off". Actually, it's a prequel with a completed unrelated plot but Hollywood has magically morphed it into a sequel. Talks of producing a third movie to "complete the trilogy" also have me shaking my head in disbelief. Besides, a third novel hasn't even been written yet.

In all, Angels & Demons has come in for a lot of criticism, much of it deserved. However, it's really just entertainment, never proclaiming to be the truth or even half as controversial as the Vatican (and media) have hyped it up to be. If you just watch the movie and don't think about things too much, it's an enjoyable way to spend a Saturday night.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Italian Wedding - Nicky Pellegrino

I doubled-borrowed a book this week, that is, I borrowed a book off my mother, who had borrowed it off someone else and promised to have it returned by a certain date. The pressure was on as I attempted to finish it by D-day. Success!

The Italian Wedding (2009) is by Nicky Pellegrino, a freelance journalist and novellist with an Italian father and an English mother. As someone whose family background is similar (Italian mother, multi-ethnic father), I could quickly identify with the family relationships and mannerisms in The Italian Wedding. The book is very Italian by nature; food features predominantly, as does the Italian temperament and a long-standing family feud thrown in for good measure. Believe me: these grudges do happen and there's no resolving them, either!

Throughout the book, there are Beppi's recipes for lasagne, ragu, melanzane, and other tips for Italian cooking. The sections where Pieta's mother, Catherine, is recalling her experiences as a young girl hitching with her friends to live in Rome were descriptive and provide the reader with a visitor's view of the city. I almost expected each of these sections to be accompanied with the byline "... as told to Nicky Pellegrino" but, considering her background as former editor of the New Zealand Women's Weekly, this magazine-style of writing is probably not surprising.

The list of characters is not extensive, which assists with plot development but also left me with a lot of unresolved questions. I felt that Audrey, Eden, Helene, Gaetana, Nikolas Rose, and others were incredibly one-dimensional, and I also wanted to learn more about what made Gianfranco, Michele and Isabella really tick. However, the heart of this book is the Italian nuclear family and Pellegrino captured this very well. The 'happily ever after' ending came about very quickly, though; being Italian, my experience of ongoing feuds is that they do not resolve so easily!

If you enjoy Italian culture and want to indulge the Italian way of doing things, then The Italian Wedding is a simple and pleasant read.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Fudgy chocolate pudding

Despite my determination to not necessarily equate family dinners with baking and dessert, my sister-in-law twisted my arm when she came up for dinner last night. "What, no dessert?" she asked. I didn't take much convincing. I dived into my book of 500 chocolate recipes and selected this dessert based on the ingredients I had on hand.

Fudgy chocolate pudding

Ingredients
  • 340g brown sugar
  • 85g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 85g cocoa
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 225g butter, melted
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • 115g roasted chopped hazelnuts (optional)
Method
  1. Pre-heat oven to 160 degrees Celsius.
  2. Grease a deep 1.5 ovenproof pie dish.
  3. Put all ingredients in a large bowl and beat with a wooden spoon until well combined and evenly coloured.
  4. Tip the mixture into the dish and stand in the centre of a large roasting bin. Half-fill the tin with boiling water and bake for one hour or until well risen and firm.
  5. Serve warm with cream or ice cream. Can be served cold cut into squares.
Here is the finished product, still in the tray of boiling water. We ate it warm with cookies and cream ice cream. The centre was, indeed, very fudgy and the overall pudding resembled the chocolate brownies I sometimes make. Despite cooking for an extra 10 minutes, it hadn't set quite as much as I imagined it would, but the edges would have been overcooked if I'd left it in the oven any longer. It still tasted delicious, though!

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Stomp 09

Last night, we saw Stomp 09 on the opening night of their Wellington stint. Amazing! I'd seen their previous tour and, even though much of it was the same as before, I'm really glad I went again, this time with my sweetie in tow.

Stomp is a true celebration of percussion: sound, noise, and a pile of everyday objects. Incredibly funny, Stomp communicate via sound and mime to convey humour, complex rhythms, and urban culture. Brooms, cigarette lighters, newspapers, hollow pipes, sand, matchboxes, water, rubbish bins, 44 gallon drums ... everything including the kitchen sink. Check out the full list of instruments.

The show continues in Wellington until Sunday 31 May, before moving to Christchurch next week and then heading back overseas. If you can, I highly recommend going to see it. Yes, it's quite pricey, but absolutely worth every cent.

For anyone who has ever banged on a homemade drum kit made up of kitchen pots and pans, or danced around the room clapping their hands and slapping their thighs with great gusto, Stomp is for you. My 15-month-old nephew is already in training!

In the meantime, here are a couple of videos to give you an idea of what Stomp is all about.

Stomp in the kitchen



Basketballs



Sweeping the floor

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Unlucky for some?

I had to laugh when I read an article in this morning's news entitled No number for witches in Palmy. Until, that is, I realised they were being serious. Then, I laughed even harder!

What is it with the number 13? For Italians, 13 is quite a lucky number (I forget why). In fact, the number 17 is considered to be "a disgrace", so when my parents built their house at number 17, my grandmother was shocked! They're still there nearly 40 years later, so it can't have been too bad after all. However, the odd numbers in their street go straight from #11 to #15 because, apparently, no-one wanted #13. How many times have I stayed in a motel that has rooms number #11, #12, #12A, #14 ...? (Probably 13 times!) And what about the number 4, signalling "death" in Chinese culture? Our street numbers could end up incredibly creative if we could all pick and choose our addresses based on whatever superstition we decided to go with.

It appears that some people go to great lengths to avoid 'unlucky' numbers, and Palmerston North is one place where this is not only possible, but actually legal! When my cousin and his wife found a specialist hospital for the upcoming birth of their baby, the clinic they chose seems to have an even more unfortunate address: 666 High Street. Gulp!

So, as I sit here this morning at #13, I figure that my luck is probably neutral: unlucky in Palmerston North, but lucky in Italy. I know where I'd rather be. ;-)

Monday, 25 May 2009

Chocolate mug cake

I saw a recipe for chocolate mug cake a couple of weeks ago. It was enough to raise my curiosity, but also my skeptical streak. I wasn't entirely convinced it would work. I saw another recipe for 5 minute chocolate mug cake on All Recipes today. When my sweetie was cheeky enough to ask "what's for dessert?" after I'd already cooked him dinner, I figured I'd may as well give it a go.

The original recipe came with a few 'tweaks', some of which I followed. One thing's for certain: use a really large mug. Next time, I might even try a soup mug, as the mixture overflowed slightly in the microwave. So here's my take on all the recipes I came across. It seemed to work and went well with ice cream. Next time, I might even pause long enough to take a photo of the finished product!

Café Chick's chocolate mug cake


Ingredients
  • 4 tablespoons plain flour
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla essence
  • 1 tablespoon choc chips
  • 1 large mug
Method
  1. Add dry ingredients to the mug and mix well.
  2. Crack an egg and add it to your mug. Be sure to mix it well to avoid any pockets of flour in the corners. Pour in the milk and melted butter and mix well. Add the vanilla essence.
  3. Pop your mug into the microwave and zap for 3 minutes on maximum power (1000watt). Wait until the cake stops rising and sets in the mug.
  4. If necessary, run a knife around the sides of the mug, and tip the still warm cake out of the mug and into a bowl.
Serves 2

Wuthering Heights - which version?

One of the books I am currently reading is Jane Austen's classic novel, Wuthering Heights (1847). It's still a work in progress for me, and I am dipping in and out of several other novels and biographies at the same time, but I'll blog about it once I'm finished.

As I read, my earworm starts up. As cheesy as it seems, I can't shake hearing the song "Wuthering Heights" in my head; not one, but amalgamations of three different versions. Three versions? Yes, Kate Bush's warblings have been copied by at countless other artists, each of whom have ensured this tragic love story lives on ... at least aurally. I don't actually mind the song; it's just that I can't help myself playing it over and over each time I pick up the book. So here are clips of the three versions that I just can't seem to shake.

Kate Bush's original version of "Wuthering Heights" (1978)
When I first heard this song, I thought I might have liked it, but had no idea what it was about, nor many (any?) of the lyrics.



Pat Benatar's cover (1980)
Ahh, lyrics you can understand. Is that what the song is about? Having said that, I only heard this version for the first time a couple of years ago. I think it's my preference out of the three that rotate in my musical mind.



The Puppini Sisters' version (2006)
I am intrigued by this group. This live version doesn't really do them much justice, although it gives you an idea of how to turn incessant warbling into three-part harmony. Enjoy!

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The girl who silenced the world for five minutes

As part of my work, I am involved in preparing some online material for publication on a government website. One of these projects is based at an early childhood centre which uses a daily bread-making activity to provide an authentic learning opportunity and also demonstrate environmental sustainability in action.

Yesterday, as I was waiting for some content to upload, I re-watched the following video, The girl who silenced the world for five minutes. I'd seen it several times already and remember the stir it caused when my colleagues first became aware of it. However, to revisit it after several months reminded me that the message is as fresh as ever. Regardless of whatever political motivation may lie behind the video's release, and the sharp debate that it has stirred up worldwide, I think that the message is really quite simple. Adults: we have to do something about the world we are leaving to our children. If we don't know how to fix the world, then we should at least stop breaking it.


Friday, 22 May 2009

Maple, apple and pecan cupcakes

It's baking day. :-) We are going to a friend's for dinner tonight, and I'm making dessert, so it's time for a new cupcake recipe. Wondering what to do with some apples that had gone soft, I found this recipe for maple, apple and pecan cupcakes on Zen Cupcake. Any recipe with nuts in it is going to be quite expensive, so I'd call these 'special occasion' cupcakes.

Maple, apple and pecan cupcakes

Ingredients
  • 60g butter, softened
  • 1 cup self raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup maple-flavoured syrup
  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 cup coarsely chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup coarsely grated apple

  • Maple frosting
  • 90g butter, softened
  • 1 cup icing sugar
  • 2-3 teaspoons maple-flavoured syrup
Method
  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius. (I lined a standard 12-hold muffin tin with cupcake cases.)
  2. Beat butter, flour, cinnamon, sugar, syrup and eggs with electric mixer on low speed until ingredients are combined. Increase speed to medium, beat until mixture changes to a paler colour.
  3. Stir in pecans and apple. Fill cupcake cases 2/3 full with batter.
  4. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until golden. Cool on wire racks.
  5. To make maple frosting, beat butter, sifted icing sugar and maple syrup until light and fluffy. Spread or pipe over cupcakes and decorate with a pecan.

That also completes another 101 goal: #87 - Try 10 new recipes. Since the inception of baking day, most of my recipes naturally fall into that category. I will keep experimenting and trying new recipes and posting them here. If you'd like to try any for yourself, just search for my recipes or baking tags.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Project 365: To be, or not to be?

I am contemplating starting Project 365, taking a photo a day of something which I have learned, something I found interesting, or something which simply sums up my day in some way. I have set up a new blog, Café Chick's Project 365, and will continue to develop the site during the next week or so. I like the idea of looking back at a collection of images as a kind of visual library after one year; I just wonder about my level of commitment to get there. However, looking back to the time when I contemplated starting 101 goals in 1001 days, I see my mind was going through the same sorts of questions, and I definitely went ahead with that project.

I won't elaborate on Project 365 here, but instead point you to my blog post about it on my new blog. I'm about 80% convinced that I will start the project on 1 June. That leaves me 9 more days to either talk myself into or out of it!

So, who wants to come along for the ride?

Monday, 18 May 2009

The fabled balance

On Friday, my work held a breakfast featuring the inspirational Tony Ryan as its guest speaker. A passionate educator, Tony's work easily spills over into every day life. He is a champion for the little guy; every little thing you do has an effect on someone else, whether or not you know it, and you are the most powerful person on the planet. His book (and blog), The Ripple Effect, echo this sentiment; one can't help feeling empowered by his messages. Every time I seriously consider leaving the education profession for good (like now), along comes something from Tony and I think "how can I leave - there's so much I can do!" I'm not entirely certain that's a good thing. ;-)

I have heard Tony speak several times, and had some great conversations with him over the years, yet I never tire of his messages, or the manner in which he delivers them. A few ideas and phrases caught my attention this time; he does not profess to lay claim to them all, but is keen to spread the word. The first message is: think outside the dodecahedron (because squares are so conventional!).

The second idea that caught my attention was the concept of introducing your physical self to your meta-self. This may sound all very technical and philosophical, but it's a great strategy for dealing with situations where emotions run high, or if you need some space away from a problem in order to gain a clearer perspective on it. By taking a step back from a situation and observing it from a distance, there is less chance of emotion or anxiety clouding the actual issue. He suggested that teachers try it the next time they get mauled by a parent. ;-)

The final concept that really struck a chord for me was the fabled balance. There are many ideas about finding balance in your life: work-life, self-family, inside-outside, etc. Tony suggests that the most important balance is 50:50 and it is yourself-others; this is all that really matters. While there may be times in your life when the balance is less than 50:50, if you tip the scales too far in one direction, or for too long, you will run into real problems. Wow!

What's your balance right now?

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Viking Ball

Last night we went to what has become known as the Viking Ball. Organised by the Shetland Society of Wellington, the Viking Ball is an annual event which has been running for 38 years and celebrates the heritage of migrants from the Shetland Islands. It features two bands: Highland Country are a folk duo who play for the Scottish country dancing. This year's 'alternative' band were Itchycoo Park, who dished out numerous servings of 60s and 70s music for regular dancing.

I got to wear the dress again; I guess I can call it a déjà vu dress now, as it's been seen before. The ball starts with a hearty buffet meal and is followed by the Viking parade (basically a bunch of grown men dressed in sheepskin rugs, ugg boots, and seagull helmets, attemtping to woo and protect their women with their universal chant: "Uhhhhhh!"). Then the dancing begins.

The ceilidh dances were lots of fun to work out. I managed to remember the American Gay Gordons, where we all swap partners. We worked out the St Bernard's Waltz, then had a go at fumbling out way through a strip the willow with an incredibly patient group of six other dancers, all of whom seemed to know what they should be doing and who they should be dancing with next. (We apologised profusely for making their group formations go astray. Thankfully, they were all still smiling!) Later on, there was the Scottish version of the Gay Gordon, staying with the same partner but moving in a large circle around the room. Plenty of other dances followed, and we joined in with various degrees of success.

Occasions like this are made even more special when a group of friends get to together to dress up in black tie and enjoy dancing the night away. I am still organising our photos, ready for their migration to Facebook.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Widower's House - John Bayley

The third book in the Iris trilogy is named Widower's House (2001). The three books make up a series of memoirs about Dame Iris Murdoch, as written by her husband, John Bayley. The first title, Iris (1998), tells the story of Iris's life and eventual descent into Alzheimer's disease. Iris and the Friends (1999) involves a more insightful look into life with Alzheimer's as well as memories from Bayley's own childhood. Widower's House picks up where Iris and the Friends leaves off.

At times comedic, Bayley deals head-on with expectations: expectations people have about widowers, how they should behave, how they should be feeling, what they should be doing, what they shouldn't be doing, and so forth. Everyone seems to know what's best for a widower, which Bayley strikes as surprising considering that he freely admitted that he didn't know what he wanted, whether it be a return to the old familiar, yet frustrating, routines of caring for someone with Alzheimer's, or to move on to something new, whatever that might be.

I found parts of Widower's House to ramble, especially the sections where Bayley would contemplate events and by delving into and making comparisons with various literary publications, many of which I am unfamiliar with. Just as I was starting to feel guilty about my 'rambling' judgemet, Bayley seemed to explain himself:
This must be all part of being a widower. I used to be good at marshalling thoughts and sentences, getting what I wanted to say into some kind of order. Now I slip and slide. From one thing to another, without knowing whether it's memory, fantasy, something old or something new. Typical bereavement syndrome?
Very well put! I am now keen to watch the biopic movie, Iris (2002), once again through a different lens. After reading three books about her, I feel that I have been given a tiny insight insight into the goings-on behind this extraordinary author's achievements, yet still know so very little about who she was.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Adventures of Jimi Samoa

The New Zealand International Comedy Festival is in full swing. Last week, my sweetie and I watched the comedy sampler on tv and decided which comedians we'd like to see based on their performances. Upon consulting our budgets, we revised our list; only one show survived the cut.

James Nokise was our choice. Billed as a Samoan/Welsh comedian (I couldn't help but laugh already!) and with a previous show called Beige Against the Machine, his comedy snippet looked promising. The Adventures of Jimi Samoa was all about James's alter ego, Jimi Samoa, the funny guy who got himself into and out of situations and adventures. This is essentially the story of James's life; Nokise never misses an opportunity to send himself up or poke fun at himself. Plenty of in-jokes about Lower Hutt (which Wellingtonians can appreciate), Samoan culture, growing up bicultural with a Samoan minister father and Welsh mother, all-boys schools, and more.

After a successful opening night last night, I'd heard his radio interview on More FM this morning, albeit 45 minutes later than scheduled as he was still drunk from the after party the night before. It seems like James didn't stop drinking even after that interview and turned up for tonight's show somewhat inebriated; it wasn't as bad as it sounds, but I am a little surprised.

At times morose and melancholic, especially the segments which explored the aftermath of his relationship breakup, there were a few other serious moments and one very definite message: domestic violence is never acceptable. The show isn't exactly what we expected (don't ask me what we expected; we just know it wasn't quite that) but not one I'd write off completely. I'd be keen to see the talented James Nikose perform again sometime, but perhaps in different circumstances.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Maybe!

Stolen from a colleague's blog ... some inspiration to start your day - I love it!

Maybe!
Maybe . . . we were supposed to meet the wrong people before meeting the right one so that, when we finally meet the right person, we will know how to be grateful for that gift.
Maybe . . . when the door of happiness closes, another opens; but, often times, we look so long at the closed door that we don't even see the new one which has been opened for us.
Maybe . . . it is true that we don't know what we have until we lose it, but it is also true that we don't know what we have been missing until it arrives.
Maybe . . . the happiest of people don't necessarily have the best of everything; they just make the most of everything that comes along their way.
bright future
Maybe . . . the brightest future will always be based on a forgotten past; after all, you can't go on successfully in life until you let go of your past mistakes, failures and heartaches.
Maybe . . . you should dream what you want to dream; go where you want to go, be what you want to be, because you have only one life and one chance to do all the things you dream of, and want to do.
Maybe . . . there are moments in life when you miss someone - a parent, a spouse, a love, a friend, a child - so much that you just want to pick them from your dreams and hug them for real, so that once they are around you appreciate them more.
Maybe . . . the best kind of friend is the kind you can sit on a porch and swing with, never say a word, and then walk away feeling like it was the best conversation you've ever had.
shoes
Maybe . . . you should always try to put yourself in others' shoes. If you feel that something could hurt you, it probably will hurt the other person, too.
Maybe . . . you should do something nice for someone every single day, even if it is simply to leave them alone.
Maybe . . . giving someone all your love is never an assurance that they will love you back. Don't expect love in return; just wait for it to grow in their heart; but, if it doesn't, be content that it grew in yours.
Maybe . . . happiness waits for all those who cry, all those who hurt, all those who have searched, and all those who have tried, for only they can appreciate the importance of all the people who have touched their lives.
smile
Maybe . . . you shouldn't go for looks; they can deceive; don't go for wealth; even that fades away! Go for someone who makes you smile, because it takes only a smile to make a dark day seem bright. Find the one that makes your heart smile :-)
Maybe . . . you should hope for enough happiness to make you sweet, enough trials to make you strong, enough sorrow to keep you human, and enough hope to make you happy.
Maybe . . . you should try to live your life to the fullest because when you were born, you were crying and everyone around you was smiling but when you die, you can be the one who is smiling and everyone around you crying.
Live well
Laugh often
Love much
and dance

Monday, 11 May 2009

Mint chocolate cupcakes

Yesterday was Mother's Day. Following on from an incredibly busy day on Saturday (three parties and a whole pile of action), Mother's Day involved lots of food while visiting both our families. Exhausting!

To celebrate Mother's Day, I wanted to try making a special kind of cupcake recipe which would also allow me to experiment with decorating. I used Tamara Jane's recipe for mint chocolate cupcakes. This recipe is different to any others I have come across as it uses no milk; the liquid comes from melting dark chocolate in boiling water. Also, it includes ground almonds, something which adds texture but with a surprising light result. Decorating is done with dark chocolate ganache (instead of buttercream frosting); the consistency of ganache is markedly different to pipe. And, I'd also get to practise some of my chocolate piping skills.

These are definitely 'celebration' cupcakes, as the dark chocolate ganache is incredibly rich. I ended up using less on each cupcake, decorating only the very centre and adding piped chocolate shapes to give shape and height. This helped make the ganache mixture spread further. It is also a very large, wet mixture - I wasn't sure it would all make it into the cupcake liners!

Mint chocolate cupcakes

Ingredients
  • 140g dark chocolate
  • 330ml water
  • 4 tablespoons cocoa
  • 300g self-raising flour
  • 2/3 cup ground almonds
  • 180g butter, softened
  • 400g brown sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspons peppermint essence

  • Dark chocolate ganache
  • 400g dark chocolate
  • 375ml cream
Method
  1. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Line two 12-hole muffin trays with cupcake papers. (Makes 24)
  2. Melt the chocolate and water together in a small saucepan or in a small jug in the microwave. Cool.
  3. Sift the cocoa, flour and ground almonds together.
  4. Beat the butter and sugar until light, then add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the peppermint essence.
  5. Stir in the dry ingredients, then the cooled chocolate mix and blend until smooth.
  6. Divide the mixture evenly between the cupcake papers and bake for 30 minutes.
  7. Cool cupcakes in the muffin trays for 5 minutes before removing the cupcakes to a wire rack to cool completely.
Decoration
Make dark chocolate ganache by melting the chocolate and cream together in the microwave on low power. Stir to combine and set aside to cool before use. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon of peppermint essence and mix well. Pipe the ganache onto the cold cupcakes and decorate as desired.


Friday, 8 May 2009

Clothing bin

As I was sorting out some old clothes yesterday, ready for another delivery to the clothing bin, I came across a couple of items from yonder years. Surprisingly, they have survived being packed up (and probably unpacked) several times this past decade and merely transported from one place to another before resting, once again, in my bottom drawer. It's unlikely I will wear most of them again. So why do I keep them?

In my classroom teaching days, I mostly taught children aged 7-10 years, many of them budding fashionistas (of which I am not) and all with opinions. About everything. As the children's age decreased, their opinions were more freely forthcoming. About everything.

Certain pieces of clothing brought back memories of comments from my junior fashion police. There was always the daily watch for things like earrings ("I like the earrings you are wearing today better than yesterday's ones but, please, don't wear the smiley faces again"), hair styles ("You should wear pigtails more often, then you'll look like one of us" - lol!) and other accessories ("I liked that ring when you first bought it, but don't you have any others?").

Here is a selection of comments about various pieces of clothing from my teaching wardrobe, directly from the mouths of the babes. Every comment was made in a excited tone of genuine wonder, as though they were making some great discovery and couldn't wait to share it with me. Lucky me!
  • On a cream-coloured crochet top: "Oh, my mother has a tablecloth just like that!"
  • On a blue mini-skirt with a large daisy print: "That is such an ugly skirt, but it really suits you." (When asked for clarification, she pointed out that "I really hate the material, but you look so good in it". Still not convinced!)
  • On a deep red shirt over dark green jeans: "You look like a Christmas tree today!"
  • On a day when three teachers inadvertently wore baggy white shirts over blue jeans: "Do you all have to wear the same clothes on Fridays?"
  • On a polar fleece top: "You look just like Mr Young!" (Large, male principal, who indeed had a top made of polar fleece but in a totally different colour and style, ie not resembling mine in the slightest!)
  • And the clincher, when wearing a simple skirt and top with boots: "Why do you look nice today? Is it because we're going to a funeral?"
Anyone else up for a backhanded compliment? Surely I can't be the only victim of such a harsh fashion commentary by littlies?

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The process of pruning

The decluttering process ambles along. A few weeks ago, I came down with a mild dose of the urge to purge. It is still here; I have begun looking through and sorting my stuff, although I have a long way to go yet. It has been more of a gradual pruning process than a true purge, even if I sometimes feels like the woman in this picture.

A friend has the uncanny knack of pulling $20 notes out of her jackets and pockets at the start of each season. While I haven't managed that feat yet, I have found a lot of stuff I didn't know I still had, along with some stuff I wonder why I kept in the first place. Here's a quick progress report:

Surprises
  • one pair of black Italian cashmere-lined kid leather gloves I had bought in Florence
  • a black and white tartan scarf
Instant sacrifices
  • carrier bags, folders and containers of random shapes and sizes
  • numerous cassette tapes
  • receipts for items I don't remember buying as a student
  • bank statements and passbooks from the 1990s
Trade Me
  • various photo frames
  • earthenware jug (this is quite satisfying to sell; a very unwanted 21st present from the ex, ha ha)
  • crystal candle holder (another gift - it was the thought that counted)
  • wild animal coffee mug (see above)
  • 3-cup coffee plunger. Still looking for the 8-cup plunger that I know is hiding somewhere.
  • set of matching coasters and place mats in 'country cottage' theme - soooo not me
  • a few books, many of which will end up at an upcoming charity book fair
  • a couple of Lavender & Lace embroidery patterns
  • address book
  • blank recipe book
St Vinnie's
  • a few articles of clothing
  • Korean folk painting (gift from a student many years ago)
  • earthenware jug (see above)
Not quite sure what to do with
  • old out-of-date textbooks from my study days (first time around). Don't want to just chuck them, but where can they be useful?
  • containers and boxes of different shapes and sizes. I should probably chuck them, or at least put them in a more conspicuous place so I can see them when I need one.
Still looking for
  • 8-cup coffee plunger
  • scary animal oven mitts - they have to go!

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Just girlfriends

A while ago, a friend of ours set up a blog called Just Girlfriends. Her intention was to ponder and celebrate female friendship and companionship. I wish she'd carried on blogging, as her entries so far have been incredibly thoughtful and insightful. If you're reading this, May, you know what to do!

A couple of weekends ago, I met up with someone I didn't know too well for coffee. She is having difficulty reconciling her split with a friend of ours and needed someone to talk to. I was a little hesitant to meet her as I wasn't sure what I could offer but went along anyway. We ended up having the most amazing conversation and truly bonded over coffee on a cold Sunday afternoon. I realised that all she really needed was to have a girlfriend to talk to, someone who would just listen, someone who maybe understood how she was feeling, someone to bounce ideas off but, most of all, just someone to be there for her. I came away feeling so glad that I could do that for her and very keen to meet up again.

Today is my very dear friend's 50th birthday. She is the type who will tell it to you straight, whether you want to hear it or not; we call her the Blunt Queen and we mean it in the most endearing way. She shoots from the hip and with alarming accuracy. What was meant to be me taking her out for lunch to celebrate (ie learn to accept) her 50th ended up with her administering a huge dose of the tonic I've needed for how I've been feeling lately. She truly is a gem and I am so thankful for her friendship. I'd like to think it's mutual.

Like Chicken Soup for the Soul, there is something about being around female friends that can only be good for you. I am incredibly lucky to have both a wonderful sweetie and some amazing female friends. I don't necessarily see them very often, and they each know me in a different way, but they are there and I hope I can repay their many favours. It took a long time to work out just who my true friends really are, and I certainly did not imagine that some would fit this description when I first met them. The list has fluctuated over the years, but its core remains the same; every addition is a bonus. Although the person I'd consider to be my best friend lives in Auckland, she has never been more than a phone call away for the last 15 years and, for that, I am truly grateful.

Here is just some of the Blunt Queen's advice from today, straight up and without sugar coating:
  • Have regular "emotional dumps" with your girlfriends; that is what they are there for.
  • Project what you want, not how you feel. Don't dwell on the negative/insecure feelings, especially after midnight. That's what you tell girlfriends about.
  • Look at how people act and show you how they feel, rather than waiting for them to tell you. They may never tell you (and it doesn't matter if they don't) but that doesn't mean they don't feel it.
  • Don't feel bad about taking your time to sort things out. If you need help, see point #1. Don't be afraid to ask for it.
  • Forget any negative comments or insults you hear from others. What do they know anyway?
  • Build up your sleep bank. There's no point having time to do this but lying awake fretting over things. You might not get this time again. (See point #1 again.)
  • Do the things you want to do and feel good about doing it. Don't let anyone make you feel otherwise or belittle you for it; you don't have to justify yourself to them.
  • Not only are you good enough, but you are a better person than you will ever realise! Luckily, your friends know this already.
  • Your family and friends are lucky to have you, not the other way around.
  • True friends don't care how you look, what you wear, what you do for a living, what you own etc. They care about you.
  • True friends only want what's best for you. They don't feel threatened by you and won't try to compete with you either.
  • Live every day like it's your last. One day you will be right, and who wants to spend that day feeling anything less than wonderful?
Happy birthday, doll. You're right: #1 is what girlfriends are for.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Things I don't understand

I grew up in a unique part of the world, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea and there is no more land in a southwards direction until you reach Antarctica. Although I am no beach babe, I love to be near open bodies of water (seas, oceans etc), or at most a short drive away. In times of trouble, I love to walk near the sea, watch its motion, and listen to the sound of waves crashing; I find this both calming and reassuring.

In my late teens, I went through a very difficult stage in my life and developed a dangerous habit of walking across rock pools late at night just to try and escape thoughts and events that were plaguing me. While I have not done this for many years now (and have no intention of starting it again any time soon), I was keen to recapture that feeling of calm as part of my 101 goals. I modified it to read #86 - Sit on the edge of a wharf/jetty.

This morning, I went for a 5km walk along the Petone Foreshore on a beautiful autumn day. I'd had a sleepless night contemplating stuff and needed to clear my mind. The jetty beckoned. Yesterday, I had a minor car crash (very small, no-one hurt, my fault, thankfully the other driver does not wish to pursue it further) and another tiny event yesterday morning triggered a floodgate of emotions. On my walk, and during my brief sit on the edge of the jetty, I started to compile a mental list of things I don't understand.
  • Why does sleep elude us when we need or crave it most?

  • How does precious time slip through our fingers at an alarmingly rapid rate, yet take practically forever to heal old wounds?

  • How come we can't live today without technology and/or gadgets that we never knew we needed even a short time ago?

  • Why are we not equipped with an 'off' switch for our brains? I'd be the first to buy one if they ever became available on the market.

  • Why, when endless thoughts and worries are spooling through my mind, does my brain manage to find a matching earworm to really hammer the point home? Talk about rubbing it in!

  • How do small, simple events, sounds, smells, or comments have the ability to trigger such a huge whirlpool of emotions?

  • Why does it usually take some sort of wake-up call to do the things we want to do in our lives? Until these freak events happen, I'm guessing that most of us haven't even worked out what is important to us and what we value most.

  • Why is self-acceptance so hard to achieve? I'm all for self-improvement, but have we gone too far? Why can't we be happy with who (and how) we are along the way?

  • Why do we believe that our dreams are elusive, instead of making them happen or being happy with what we've got?
Any answers (or further questions) greatly appreciated!

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Chocolate hazelnut celebration cake

We had two birthdays in the family this week, my sweetie's last Tuesday (although he'll vehemently deny it) and my mother's on Thursday (she'll probably deny it, too.) Tonight, we had a family dinner to celebrate both birthdays, so I spent this week's baking day trying a new recipe for chocolate hazelnut celebration cake.

The recipe was created by Tamara Jane, the cupcake lady, and featured on tv a few weeks ago. I thought I'd give it a try, as it involved making dark and milk chocolate ganache for decorating, something which I'd never done before. Here's the version of Tamara Jane's recipe that I made tonight.

Chocolate hazelnut celebration cake

Ingredients
  • 6 x 59g eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup caster sugar
  • 1 cup self-raising flour
  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons cornflour
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 70g roasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped
  • Milk chocolate ganache
  • 275g milk chocolate melts, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • Dark chocolate ganache
  • 200g good-quality dark chocolate, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup cream
Method
  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
  2. Grease and line a 24cm (base) springform cake pan.
  3. Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar on high speed for 8 to 10 minutes, or until pale and thick. Sift flour, cocoa and cornflour over egg mixture.
  4. Using a large metal spoon, gently fold ingredients together until just combined. Fold in milk.
  5. Spoon mixture into prepared cake pan.
  6. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 minutes.
  7. Turn onto a wire rack to cool.
  8. Make ganaches: Place milk chocolate and cream into a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir constantly with a metal spoon until smooth. Remove from heat.
  9. Refrigerate until thick enough to spread. Repeat step 5 with dark chocolate and cream.
  10. Using a serrated knife, slice cake into 3 even rounds.
  11. Place bottom round onto a serving plate. Spread with half of the milk chocolate ganache.
  12. Sprinkle with half of the hazelnuts.
  13. Repeat with the second layer to finish with cake. Spread top and sides of cake with dark chocolate ganache.


And so it looks like any other chocolate cake, but it was quite a learning experience for me. The recipe says it serves six; mine was cut into 8 large pieces and we still struggled to get through it all!

Lessons I learned when baking this cake:
  • Use the right sized cake tin. I only had a 20 cm round tin and needed 24 cm. It makes a difference. The cake was taller than it was meant to be and needed to be cooked for an extra 15 minutes before the centre was firm enough. The outside was already cooked; I ended up covering the top with tin foil to stop it from burning. We got there in the end.

  • Tamara Jane (cake recipe author) advised us on our cupcake course to make ganache the night before and leave it to set on the kitchen bench. Maybe it's due to the cold weather lately, but mine had solidified overnight and the cream and chocolate separated. A quick burst in the microwave fixed it, but the milk chocolate ganache survived the overnight journey better.

  • Chopping hazelnuts is a thankless task. I don't yet have the knack of throwing knives around and rapidly chopping things like chefs do. Chopping up a packet of hazelnuts took was the longest task involved with this recipe!

  • I cut the cake into only three layers; I suspected that four layers (three layers of milk chocolate ganache) would turn a rich cake into a very sickly one. I think I was right. Considering that my cake was taller than intended, I'm glad I'd decided this beforehand as making the cake with the correct tin would have resulted in very thin layers and I imaged they would have disintegrated as I spread the next layer of ganache.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Bea Arthur's Sex and the City parody

With the passing of Bea Arthur (aged 86) this week, there has been plenty of mention in the media about her lengthy career on stage and television. While I can never confess to have been a fan of The Golden Girls, for which she was best known in New Zealand, it has been interesting to learn more about this talented actor and hear about some other examples of her work.

And then a friend of mine posted a link to this video on Facebook. Bea Arthur and friends parody Sex and the City, one of my favourite tv shows ever. See what happens to Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte in years to come; you'll see that they've still got 'it' but, after watching this video, 'it' can never really be the same again.


Hilarious!