Monday, 30 December 2013

Middle age begins

I read something more than a little disturbing this weekend. According to this article, middle age begins a lot earlier than we ever thought. Well, certainly a lot earlier than I ever thought. If you're not sure whether you're middle aged or not, there are some questions and scenarios that will apparently confirm it either way. See how many you reply "yes" to.

Oh dear.

How is this possible? If you Google images of "middle age", you'll find plenty of photos of people our parents' age, but surely nobody our age or our friends' ages? A couple of years ago I got to thinking about the telltale signs of ageing - none of which have entirely entered our vernacular yet but they lie threateningly near the border. Now, this article brings the middle age mindset dangerously close.

I couldn't bring myself to read the whole list, but certain entries jumped out. I can proudly say that Antiques Roadshow is not on our radar. No, it's Grand Designs for us. We have also set up a season pass on Tivo for the news each night. Hmm. We asked for (and were given) gardening vouchers for Christmas and were very excited to install a 200L emergency water supply (another Christmas present), which filled up after just one night's rain!

Let's see. We prefer house parties to noisy bars, which complicates things slightly when our original New Year's Eve plans were thwarted today. We congratulate ourselves when we manage to stay out after midnight. Considering it used to be my job as a musician to work until 4 am most weekends, this one was a surprise when it first started happening. Also, given my background as a musician, it's strange for me to admit that I no longer listen to commercial radio any more, except for The Sound when I am in the car. In fact, we almost exclusively fast forward through the new music segments of The Graham Norton Show and are disappointed when the song runs late, meaning there is no time for the famous red chair. Gasp!

So, to hastily rush through some more items in the list in my defense ... afternoon naps can be fun, policemen and especially doctors do look young these days, a night in with board games rocks over noisy pubs any day, ankle surgery means that my shoes have to be comfortable and well made rather than stylish, there is NOTHING wrong with wearing an anorak, tissues are essential handbag items and I don't know any songs in the top 10 (see above). So there!

Dare I ask how your list is looking?

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

A moment of quiet

It's Christmas Eve and we're having a moment of quiet before the festivities tomorrow. Is this the calm before the storm? Perhaps. The weather has certainly turned. I think we're getting better at preparing for Christmas each year and even manage to miss much of the madness we see on tv and hear about via social media. For that, I am quietly but cautiously congratulating ourselves.

Let's see. The presents have long been bought and wrapped, ready for loading into the car tomorrow and distributing at two family homes. I've made a list (really) and checked it twice: certain things will go in one direction and others will head in another.

My final Christmas present cake was decorated and picked up by a friend yesterday, who enjoyed it with her family at a pre-Christmas dinner last night.
A splash of colour for my colourful, artsy friend.
I have iced a gazillion gingerbread cookies and can't wait to see the look on my nephew's face when he sees how the baking we did together yesterday has turned out. I'll have to explain to him that the four remaining large gingerbread men he made specially for certain family members were the lucky ones. One of the others was legless early in the afternoon, another was simply 'armless and none of the survivors were saying a word!
A gingerbread family of survivors in various states of (un)dress.
Yesterday's white Christmas crunch didn't last long after we divided it up between three homes. It's a great grazing treat and I'll definitely add it to my Christmas baking list for next year. There are chocolate truffles and salted caramel truffles packed up and ready to take with us. My Caramelising Sugar 101 session on Saturday night was touch and go but I found this guide to be absolutely invaluable. The golden rule is DO NOT stir the sugar while it is caramelising, as it adds air to the mixture and cools it down, so will not work. I can't wait to try it again. There are also chicken nibbles marinading in the fridge and a duck egg sponge cake cooling.

When thinking about this time last year, we were sitting outside in the heat until 10 pm with a whole bunch of friends who had come over for a homemade pizza party. It was so much fun waiting for Santa Claus together but, having said that, I'm also glad that we're having a quiet night at home tonight to rest and charge our batteries. There are only two (or two and a half) places we need to be at tomorrow instead of last year's four. It's also unlikely to reach 32°C this year, so I'm taking that as a good sign that things will be calmer this time around.

Have I forgotten anything? Perhaps - but that's ok, because for now we are enjoying a moment of quiet.

Wishing you a happy, safe and peaceful(!) Christmas, wherever you may be!

Monday, 23 December 2013

White Christmas crunch

Here is a super-easy Christmas treat recipe that kids (big and small) can make and enjoy. It came from a colleague who insists it doesn't have a name, so I've called it White Christmas crunch. There are no set quantities so anything approximate will work. It has a lovely, crunchy texture. The key is to work quickly before the chocolate starts setting.

White Christmas crunch

Ingredients
  • 400 g white chocolate melts
  • 1/2-1 cup rice bubbles
  • 3-4 crushed peppermint candy canes
Method
  1. Melt chocolate. Stir in rice bubbles.
  2. Spread mixture on baking paper to make a flat layer.
  3. Sprinkle top of mixture with crushed candy canes, pressing in lightly if necessary.
  4. Set in the fridge then break into small pieces to serve.
White Christmas crunch

Friday, 20 December 2013

Christmas present cakes

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Christmas cake. However, fruitcake lovers are few and far between these days. I don't actually like Christmas cake myself but I do love chocolate and so have taken to making chocolate Christmas cakes instead.

This decadent chocolate cake recipe is not mine (it came from the Food Lovers site) but it truly is fail-safe so I have adopted it as my absolute favourite super-chocolate mud cake recipe. It has become my staple birthday cake and special occasion recipe. The mixture is large and so versatile. It easily doubles and halves. It can also be made in advance (several days - the flavour just gets better) or frozen. I actually made this cake a few weeks ago, cut it into quarters and froze them until this week when I was ready to decorate the cakes for gifts.

As for the chocolate, dark is good and I like using Whittaker's 72% Dark Ghana when baking for chocolate lovers. However, I substitute Whittaker's 50% Dark Block when baking for children as it gives a rich, chocolately flavour that is more mellow and not quite as bitter for the sweet toothed among us.

Decadent chocolate cake

Ingredients
  • 250 g butter
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 1 tablespoon instant coffee
  • 200 g chocolate
  • 2 cups (440 g) sugar or caster sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (210 g) flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 cup (20 g) cocoa
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla essence
Method
  1. Preheat oven to 140°C. Grease and line a 23 cm (9") round cake tin or 25 cm square tin.
  2. Place coffee, water and butter in a pot and melt together. Add chopped chocolate and stir gently until smooth. Add sugar and stir until dissolved.
  3. Pour mixture into a large bowl and stir in dry ingredients on a low speed until just combined.
  4. Lightly beat the eggs and vanilla essence together and add to the mixture. Mix well on medium speed with an electric mixer.
  5. Pour into cake tin and bake for 90 minutes NOT on fan bake. Check cake after 60 minutes to see how it is progressing. Remove from oven when cooked and cool in cake pan for 10 minutes, then turn onto a wire cake rack to cool completely.
Decorating
Decorate any way you wish. A thick layer of condensed milk chocolate icing tastes great. Otherwise, you could cover it with dark chocolate ganache or buttercream frosting. I used a thin layer of buttercream for these Christmas present cakes, covered them in fondant and then decorated them with handmade sugarpaste decorations.

These cakes were decorated for the three ladies in my 'pod' at work. They reflect the colours they like and their personalities as I see them, along with a little bit of 'me' somewhere on each cake. This was my way of thanking them for a wonderful year working together while surprising them with a special, personalised gift each. Their reactions were priceless!

She's a serene, oasis of calm in an open plan office. A lover of all things blue with a desire to step out of her comfort zone and try wearing an orange scarf ... one day.
She's classic, elegant and simple sophistication. Less is more for this refined lady.
She's colourful, vibrant and the loudest person you will ever meet, with everything rushing off in every opposite direction - just how we love her.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Reading the instructions

I am quite renown for changing or adapting recipes with varying levels of success. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes it happens inadvertently. I'm not always good at following instructions step by step - but I'm getting better at rescuing recipes gone wrong before it's too late. Apparently you can learn how to force yourself to read the instructions first. Sometimes, not following instructions correctly can lead to disastrous consequences.

I wonder whether there is anything similar for people writing instructions. As well as the multitude of Engrish instructions out there in the market, I often come across recipes that haven't been proofread or tested by a cook or baker. You can identify them by their missing ingredients, missing steps, ingredients that haven't been used, random steps that either don't serve any purpose or instructions that simply won't work.

How often do you see a recipe that has obviously been written to a formula but makes absolutely no sense? It's almost as though the writer is flying on autopilot; you start by preheating the oven, cream the butter and sugar, sift the dry ingredients, etc ... right through to serving with ice cream and enjoying (or whatever).

Take this Allyson Gofton recipe for lemon shortbread, for example. Predictably, it begins with an instruction to preheat the oven to 150ºC. Then, a few steps later, it says "refrigerate for at least 15 minutes or overnight".

Now, I'm all for being prepared, which is something I need to improve on when baking, but preheating an oven the day before cooking something is going a tad too far for me. I have also seen a muffin recipe that requires you to sift the dry ingredients first. The only problem is, one of the dry ingredients was six Weet-Bix. Good luck trying to sift them!

Common sense would save these recipes, if there was some to be found. Employing a good editor or a recipe tester who has not made that recipe before would be even better. This is especially important for experienced cooks or people attempting to transcribe family recipes that "Gran has been making for years". Sure, Gran can whip up the recipe from memory in no time at all and adjust the temperature automatically if it gets too hot or change something if it "doesn't look right", but this doesn't mean she is consciously aware of what she's doing intuitively after hundreds of hours of experience.

So, I'll make the lemon shortbread mixture on Saturday and refrigerate it overnight but won't preheat my oven until I'm ready to bake the biscuits on Sunday. Just as well I didn't follow the recipe this time!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The season for giving

'Tis the season for giving. The Christmas tree is decorated and the presents are piling up all over the place. Christmas baking is cranking up and our social calendar is pretty much full. But, sadly, not everyone will have a merry Christmas this year.

Our office Twelve Days of Christmas is in full swing. Perhaps the Christmas activity I am proudest of is one organised by a colleague, who is collecting gifts to be donated to Wellington Women's Refuge. The refuge centre organises Christmas parcels to go to the families that they work with during the year. We have been asked to think about the women and children who use this service and contribute gifts they might like. Specifically:
"So that they can ensure a fair distribution among the families, it would be great if the donated gifts included gifts for the women and for older children (often donated gifts tend to be for babies and small children). If you want to wrap your gift, please label it so that they know if it is for a boy, a girl, a Mum etc. Otherwise, unwrapped is fine, as it allows the centre to allocate it themselves."
I am thrilled to see that after only two days our little box is already overflowing and now there are extra bags and boxes in our collection area. I'm sure it will grow even more before next week's delivery date.
Women's Refuge gifts so far
I know that some supermarkets have permanent food bank collection points to collect donations during the year. My local Pak N Save has pledged to match 1-1 each donation made before 24 December, which I think is fantastic. However, I can't help wonder if the response would improve if they promoted it better and perhaps removed the empty supermarket trolleys parked up in front of it.

I implore everyone to think about what they can do to help someone in need this Christmas. Even the tiniest gesture can make a huge difference.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Twelve Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ...
We all know how the song goes, even if the order of gifts gets somewhat murky after seven swans a-swimming and a bit of Christmas spirit. This song is actually the stuff of earworms and, quite honestly, it usually leaves me feeling wound up and agitated like poor Frank Kelly in his Irish Style version below. Aaarrrgghhh!!!



On a more pleasant note, we are starting The Twelve Days of Christmas in the office tomorrow. The idea is that people take it in turns to plan a short Christmas-themed activity or event for everyone else to participate in so that the last twelve working days of the year are covered. We figure there has got to be a better way to wind up and celebrate a busy year than simply doing more of the same each day.

I plan to kick things off tomorrow morning by showing my colleagues how to make mini Christmas puddings over a cuppa. I happen to know that someone from our Christchurch office has ordered cupcakes for us from tempt for morning tea on Tuesday, so that's something to look forward to. Wednesday will see a progressive performance of Pukeko in a Ponga Tree (with ukulele accompaniment - eep, must practise!). Oh, our CEO is going to be delighted! Our Christmas function and a shared lunch on Christmas Eve are also on the list, as well as various surprises from willing victims colleagues who are exercising their creative Christmas muscles as I write. (Hopefully!)

The end of year countdown has begun! How are you winding up your work year?

Friday, 6 December 2013

Why?

We all know that toddlers and preschoolers are phenomenally infamous for repeatedly asking one of the world's biggest little questions: why? This short yet highly loaded question represents an inevitable stage of development that will initially intrigue then perplex adults to the end of their patience, when an equally short and highly loaded response suddenly becomes the ubiquitous answer: "Just because, that's why!"

Grown-ups also ask infuriating questions, although they are usually a bit more detailed than why?. There are also rhetorical questions, but they are generally quite recognisable and only require an acknowledgement of their cleverness in place of an actual answer. However, there are some big questions that start with a small word and truly befuddle me.

Why?
  • Why do people expect you to comment on their new haircut/shoes/outfit - to the point where they are incensed if you don't 'notice'?
  • Why are the noisiest people the first to tell others to be quiet?
  • Why do people who constantly talk to themselves expect that I'll be listening attentively and hear what they think is a hilarious comment hidden somewhere in the middle of their stream of consciousness?
  • Why do chuggers, who can see that I'm obviously listening to music in an attempt to block out street sounds, try and talk to me anyway?
  • Why do people call all bus drivers "Driver?" Surely they don't all share the same name?
  • Why is one of the first questions people ask when they hear a baby has been given a non-English name, "what does it mean?" Do they ask people who named their kids George, Jane or Mary "what does it mean?"
  • Why don't people who sign up for #nzsecretsanta (a Twitter-based project) tweet? I mean, I'm a pretty good online detective, but I'd appreciate more than a one word reply to someone tweeted on 25 November to go on.
  • Why do wannabe exercisers (usually women walking in pairs or small groups) insist on pumping their arms side to side as they waddle along the waterfront, holding water bottles and with their jerseys tied around their waist? Who are they trying to convince?
  • Why do couples walking hand in hand insist on stretching out the entire width of the footpath to do so?
  • Why do people think it is a good idea to stand at the top of an escalator platform and look around when the people still coming up the escalator behind them have nowhere else to go?
  • Why is it acceptable for people to talk constantly, either to themselves or others, but not ok to sing, hum or dance by yourself?
  • Why do people push the cross button at traffic lights several times in a row (instead of just once) or insist on stepping past you to push the button several times for themselves, even though it makes absolutely no difference to the light's phasing after the first push?
What other questions have I missed?

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

#nzconfession

Every so often, a hashtag pops up on Twitter and goes crazy. (I won't say goes viral. I'd be happy to never hear that phrase again.) I found myself nodding a new one at lunch time today: #nzconfession. I just had to join in!

I am a proud kiwi, but there are some things that kiwi culture and I just don't agree on. It's not necessarily cultural cringe. I like pavlova (and I can make a pretty darn good one myself). I like kiwifruit, Vegemite (not Marmite) and Anzac biscuits. But there are some things that would make people gasp at my lack of kiwiness.

Thinking about it this afternoon and evening, I came up with some things to add to my #nzconfession list. I'm going to be brave and admit them here. I'm hoping to discover that I'm not alone in some of them.
  • I don't like L&P.
  • I don't like BBQs.
  • I don't like cricket and I have gone off rugby and rugby league in recent years. I'm not a netball fan, either.
  • I think most kiwiana is crass and embarrassing, especially the 'traditional' plastic fantastic hei-tiki.
  • I have zero interest in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
  • I sometimes find the New Zillund accent embarrassing, especially when listening to eye-witness accounts on the news.
  • I don't find Rhys Darby even remotely amusing. He is irritating to the point that I will deliberately boycott anything he tries to promote. Ditto many other self-proclaimed 'famous' 'comedians'.
What's on your #nzconfession list?