Monday, 30 September 2013

The Muppet Show marathon

I am a huuuuuuuuuge Muppet Show fan. I was thrilled to be given boxed sets of Series 1 and 2 of The Muppet Show on DVD for my birthday and have enjoyed watching classic episodes during mini Muppet marathons (half-marathons, maybe?). Each episode is short enough to watch just one or two (or three) at a time whenever you need a pick-me-up. They're also incredibly addictive. Luckily I still have plenty more episodes to watch, then it will be back to the beginning again and again.

There is so much to love about the Muppets, with an endearing cast of characters and great running gags. I'd forgotten how many one liners George the Janitor quipped on the dance floor. I always preferred Veterinarian's Hospital to Pigs In Space. The two resident hecklers, Statler and Waldorf, are surprisingly sharp, as poor Fozzie Bear knows all too well. Then there's the perpetually hapless Great Gonzo, whose greatest admirer is Camilla the Chicken.

Here's Fozzie telling the world's funniest joke. "Good grief, the comedian's a bear!" Cracks me up every time.

While many of the special guests have faded into oblivion or weren't quite as funny as they thought they were, some were truly memorable. I loved Rita Moreno's dance sequence where she effortlessly, then exasperatingly, threw her Muppet admirers around the room. Her episode finished with Animal accompanying her on the drums while she sang "Fever". Of course it went wrong for her. I always remember Ben Vereen's smiley, happy cabaret-style episode. Although I don't really know what Avery Schreiber was famous for, he was certainly one of the funniest guests.

But really, it's the musical numbers that set The Muppet Show apart. Rowlf the Dog is an astonishingly good pianist and definitely one of my favourite characters. I love his renditions of classical arrangements, many of which I learned to play myself. He almost met his musical match when Bruce Forsyth played a beautiful version of "Let There Be Love" during his guest appearance. Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem are my heroes and Zoot is an absolutely legendary sax player. Just listen to his fine form during one of my favourite numbers, "Sax and Violence".

Classic. Timeless. Hilarious. Muppets rock.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Accommodation available

We have accommodation available at our place. It's quite modest and might not appeal to everyone but would be perfect for the right tenant. It's a bit bare at the moment as it has been vacant over winter but we promise that the leaves will arrive soon, making it a cosily furnished home. Ideally, we like a tui or pair of tui to move in to this tree in our backyard for summer. A family of four would also be comfortable there. Guests are welcome to stay after summer but we usually find they migrate elsewhere for winter.

We can offer lots of benefits and are very hospitable housemates, as previous tui will attest to. There are other trees in the area that are good for visiting during the day or to shelter in when the wind picks up. Cats (including ours) don't tend to climb up this tree so safety is assured. There are also stunning views of sunsets all summer long. You could probably even see the beach from that high up! The best bit is the price tag: free.

We have been excitedly anticipating the arrival of tui in our trees ever since they started returning to the area at the end of winter, but none have appeared. Perhaps they just haven't found our tree yet or would prefer the furniture to grow first?

Others are gradually taking up residence nearby and we eagerly await our very own tui to sing to us each day. We don't expect spectacular whistling but enjoy recognising 'our' tui when we hear them in the neighbourhood. Last year's tui sounded like a car alarm, which was highly amusing. A baby tui singing a simple note or two would be welcome, so long as they move on to other sounds after a while. For those aspiring to tui greatness, they might like to watch this video of WoofWoof the talking tui, who lived to a ripe old age of 16 and entertained bird lovers the world over.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Flying Dutchman

The New Zealand Opera season of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman opened in Wellington last night. On Thursday night, I was at the final dress rehearsal. Wow, what an evening!

Originally set in 1843, The Flying Dutchman is given some pretty bold treatment. Wagner is the bad boy of opera; dark, brooding and dangerously mysterious. Sung in German with English surtitles, the phrasing is long and drawn out and the drama laid on thick. Why set the libretto into succinct phrases when several more will really hammer the point home? The theatre design is quite spectacular and the performance is edgy, even risqué. I've never been mooned by the cast at an opera before which goes to show that there is a first time for everything!

Irish soprano Orla Boylan excelled as Senta - now there's a voice to bring down an opera house. Her presence well and truly filled the stage. New Zealand born bass baritone Paul Whelan was resting his voice for opening night after recovering from a recent illness so unfortunately I missed hearing him at full capacity. Peter Auty put in a very heartfelt performance as the heartbroken Erik.

The orchestration was simply superb. New Zealand Opera's first partnership with New Zealand Symphony Orchestra since 2002 brings the show to a whole new level. The orchestra is first class and their performance was faultless. Here's hoping for more NZO/NZSO partnerships in the future.

The Flying Dutchman has three more performances in Wellington and moves to Auckland from 5 October. If the final dress rehearsal is anything to go by, the show is absolutely fantastic. Do see it!

Thursday, 12 September 2013


Inspiration comes in all shapes and forms. Sometimes it arrives at completely random times and places. At other times, it involves some serious woolgathering requiring precious time out from reality but resulting in a solution for the world's problems. Today's spontaneous txt from a friend asking, "Got time for coffee?" has left me refreshed and able to tackle the big job I've been pondering for a few days. Who would have thought that time away from a desk can actually be more productive than the number of hours spent chained to it? ;-)

A few months ago, I was in the middle of a huge project that I felt was going nowhere fast but with a looming deadline. A friend asked me to see the Warhol: Immortal exhibition at Te Papa with her. I wasn't sure I could spare the time but really wanted to see the exhibition so made a bold decision to go anyway. Lo and behold, as I was getting onto the bus home afterwards, I could suddenly see a great solution to a problem I'd been grappling with all day. It took just an hour the next morning to redo my previous day's work but in a far better way. Yep, time out and a change of scenery is usually far more productive for me than pressing on with the same thing and wondering why it isn't working.

I don't know about you, but some of my best ideas actually come while I'm in the shower. No, seriously! I had a brainwave the other day about something else I've been trying to develop for a while now. Suddenly, I had an idea for the way forward that all made sense. I relayed my idea to a colleague, who clearly was impressed. "Maybe we should get a shower at work?" she suggested, before realising that there is one on the ground floor that gym bunnies sometimes use after lunch, but it's probably less relaxing or inspiring than having a shower at home. "How about a spa pool instead?" she countered. Now there's a good idea!

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Italian cooking crimes

A colleague pointed me towards a newspaper article she'd spotted in yesterday's paper called Italy's 10 rules to avoid cooking crimes. It has appeared in various forms in newspapers around the world during the past couple of years and can be summed up in The 10 Italian Cooking Commandments. If you know anyone who is Italian, or simply enjoy Italian food, it makes for delightful reading. I nodded my head in agreement at some of the commandments and raised my hands in question (as Italians do) at others. Tomato sauce on pasta - seriously??

Let's get some things straight.

Pasta is a main meal, not a side dish. It may be one of many courses in a multi-course dinner, but it's not served on the side.

Pasta is cooked al dente (al DEN-te - not al DON-tay) which means that it is actually quite firm. It's every Italian kid's job is to check whether the pasta is ready. This is done by sight, feel and taste - not how long it has been cooking for. I remember my Form 1 cooking teacher telling our class that pasta must be cooked for exactly nine minutes. "Nine minutes!" she shouted at the Italian kids who had started taking theirs out of the pot because it was already done. She wasn't going to win that one.

Spaghetti, or any form of pasta, does not come in a tin. That's impossible.

Cappuccino is a breakfast drink. That means you only drink it with breakfast or early in the morning. People who know me well learn to understand this, to the point where I sometime get txts saying, "you'd be proud of me - I met a friend for coffee and didn't order a cappuccino because I know you don't do that at night." Latte is partially acceptable during the morning, but after lunch it's espresso all the way. To illustrate how wrong it is to order a cappuccino at night, let's say it's like going out for dinner and ordering cereal and toast with a side order of steak. Although people present very convincing arguments that breakfast foods can actually make a yummy dinner (bacon and eggs, etc), it doesn't extend to breakfast drinks.

Apparently it is believed that Caesar salad is Italian in origin. Although I don't claim to know of every single food that originated in Italy, this misconception was news to me.

Pizza has a thin base and very few, fresh toppings. Cheese is not stuffed into the crust and barbeque sauce is not dumped over mountains of random toppings.

Tiramisu is not the only Italian dessert, nor is it particularly traditional. It is a northern dessert that has been adopted as universally Italian but is far less common in the south (although I won't argue about how good it tastes).

Ravioli is nothing like the neat little parcels you find in supermarket chillers. The real stuff resembles flying saucers with a bit of meat in the middle.

Parmigiano-Reggiano/Pecorino Romano is a gift from the cheese gods. It is much stronger than the gently flavoured parmesan-type cheese that most people associate with Italian food. Likewise, homemade mozzarella is nothing like the plastic stuff you find grated on pizza.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Secret confessions of a coffee drinker

While waiting for coffee at my favourite downtown cafe a few days ago, I spotted a printed copy of Secret confessions of a barista stuck to the wall. Although my coffee making skills extend only as far as making the perfect espresso in my stovetop caffettiera, I can imagine how annoying some customers and their quirks must be.

I found myself 'defending' or responding to some of the points on the list ...

On being in a hurry
Sure, sometimes I'm in a hurry. However, I understand that like all fine food, making good coffee is an art and that good things take time. I am highly suspicious of one touch coffee machines that proclaim to produce perfect lattes or cappuccinos at the touch of a button. I'm happy to be proven wrong about this but I don't see how a machine working on autopilot can replicate the art of making good coffee. I wouldn't dare risk the consequences of asking my barista to hurry while making my coffee.

On paying by card
One word: CashBack.

On what he's really thinking
My barista's face is actually quite expressive. He's also not backwards in coming forward, which can be amusing. At other times, customers know to keep their distance. Either way, I wouldn't be silly enough to do anything that might jeapordise the perfect coffee he makes.

On manners and mobiles
Only Richard Cranium would do this. *shakes head*

On the grab and go
My Ideal Cup is a distinctive purple colour, which means that I can watch it progress up the queue and know exactly when it's ready. It also deters others from grabbing it by mistake.

Are you guilty of any of the secret barista crimes?

Friday, 6 September 2013

Wine list

Although I seldom drink alcohol, I enjoy perusing wine and cocktail lists at restaurants (before inevitably asking for my water glass to be refilled). My partner and I play a game where we look for the most expensive bottle on the list before dismissing it for 'quality' reasons or because it looks too cheap at just $850. Apparently people do buy those expensive wines, though, even if it is just to make themselves look like big spenders in front of others. I've yet to see it myself but wonder just how many bottles of the good stuff restaurants actually keep in stock just in case. Not many, I'd imagine.

We have a wine list. It came about after many conversations in supermarket alcohol sections that went something like this:
"Shall we get some wine? We have that dinner/party/thing coming up. What's on special this week?"
"All these. What do you feel like?"
"I don't know. What was that one we had the other week? That was nice."
*insert guessed wine brand/type/year here*
*repeat several times*
"Have we had this one before? Did we like it?" (picking vaguely familiar bottle off shelf) ... and so on.
And so we started collating the list. It began as a note on my old phone but is currently in need of updating and transferring to Google Drive so we can both access it from our smartphones and/or online. The intention is to sort it into three categories: yes, maybe/ok (if under a certain price) and definitely no. Then, we record the brand, type, year and brief notes (like "very fruity" sav blanc or "unoaked" chardonnay) so we're never caught out buying something we know we don't like just because the label is familiar. It's a work in progress. However, I can assure you there are no $800 bottles of wine on our list ... yet.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Keep calm and bake cakes

I have this poster on my notebook at work. It's a great daily reminder about how to live.

I'm the first to admit, though, that keeping calm is sometimes the hard part. I've enjoyed a busy weekend of baking. Father's Day yesterday meant that I got to make banana cake with chocolate ganache for one family and sour cream lemon tart for the other, along with the masterpiece that I had been planning for weeks as an early birthday present for my baking buddy.

Although the process is still quite challenging and time-consuming for me, I do enjoy planning, baking, assembling and decorating cakes (or cupcakes). I can assure you that I won't be going into the cake decorating business - at least not any time soon! However, my arsenal of baking toys and slowing-growing repertoire of skills means that I am starting to be more ambitious in my attempts to make something that looks as good as it tastes. I thought about my notebook as I was carving and stacking a cake on Friday night. What advice did I really need to remember right now?

My plan for this weekend was to create a handbag cake resembling something along the lines of the cover of the Planet Cake decorating book and this step-by-step tutorial. I think I came close(ish).

Someone commented that it reminded them of all the birthday cakes she'd made her kids years ago. I may or may not have raised an eyebrow or two at this point and asked about her use of fondant and creating 3D modelled cakes. "Oh no, they weren't anything like that, but it's all the same kind of thing." Sure it is.

Red leather handbag cake

Leather textured back

Finishing touches

Keep calm and bake cakes: Advice to self

  • Use the revolving cake turntable you bought. It's there to make your life easier and you always regret not getting it out of the cupboard while you're halfway through the process of twisting the cake board around on the kitchen bench to line up roughly where you want it.
  • It takes a truckload of buttercream to cover a whole cake, especially if it has layers. That's usually a little bit more than you think you'll need.
  • You can sometimes get away with applying a crumb layer of buttercream like you're smoothing concrete. For all other times, remember how you were taught to apply buttercream properly (ie, not like concrete).
  • Do anything that requires attention to detail in natural daylight, just like a top professional cake decorator told you to. This is not always practical advice, though ...
  • Take the same professional cake decorator's advice and turn flaws into features. You're probably the only one who knows why certain decorations have been placed where they are.
  • You're going to be busy for a while, so set aside twice as long as you think you'll need, make good coffee, crank the music up and enjoy it.
  • You'll always find red or black fondant stains somewhere on your face hours after using it, so check a mirror occasionally.
  • No matter how much you make by hand from scratch, the first thing people will notice (and comment on) when you show them photos of your masterpiece is the two pieces of liquorice you bought at the last minute to accessorise.
  • Even though it may not turn out looking how you imagined it might, it will still (hopefully) taste good.