Wednesday, 31 December 2014


We have been listening to Serial these holidays. Serial is a weekly podcast series that unpacks the 1999 murder of Baltimore student Hae Min Lee. Lee's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, has been convicted of her murder and is serving a life sentence, despite pleading his innocence.

The series is presented by Sarah Koenig, an investigative journalist who has examined the case from various angles and presented them to listeners. The series builds each week and draws on audio footage from police interviews and other conversations Koenig has had, including weekly prison phone calls with Adnan Syed.

I only heard about Serial as the series was drawing to a close. I downloaded the first episode, started listening and was instantly hooked. The rest of the series followed soon after and listening to episodes has become part of our daily holidays ritual. We've listened to seven episodes so far and will likely finish the series in the next few days.

So, did he do it? I don't think so but you can judge for yourself. There are compelling arguments for and against Adnan's case and many questions about how it has been handled. Some of the evidence, or lack thereof, is subjective and can be construed towards either side. In the end, it's up to the listener to decide whether the jury got it right all those years ago.

I'm looking forward to series 2, which will follow a new case and is due out later in 2015.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Recipe book waltz

Christmas this year has netted me two new recipe books, one I had asked for and the other a nice surprise. I've thumbed through both and eyed up several tempting recipes, but am pretty sure that both books are destined for my recipe bookshelf where they will sit for months or possibly years before they next see the light of day in my kitchen.

I haven't gone crazy with recipe books in a food porn kind of way, but I really like the titles I've collected and I love to browse. I'm realistic about my cooking ability and motivation levels. If recipes call for too many steps or ingredients lists requiring quarter teaspoons of exotic things that I'd rarely buy, then I'll pass them by. Even though I have amassed a reasonable collection, particularly of baking books, I find myself rotating through a few favourite titles or recipes over and over. Perhaps this a common thing among cooks?

When an occasion calls for baking, I find myself Googling ingredients I have on hand and finding recipes that combine them. For example, we had a small party the other night and I had lots of leftover strawberries. I have a bookshelf of recipe books that could probably have put those strawberries to good use, yet I sifted through about eight recipes online and came up with this one for strawberry tarts. It worked well and I now have another new loose leaf recipe for my collection, but will I use it again? Possibly.

I've decided to spend some time during the holidays waltzing through my recipe books and marking my dance card of recipes to try with a packet of Post-It notes. Then, when divine inspiration or a special occasion presents itself, I'll have a place to start.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Project Elf

Like many bakers, I've been baking almost continuously for the past couple of weeks and loving every minute of it. Gingerbread, shortbread, truffles, Christmas mud cake and cupcakes of various descriptions - my baking list is quite extensive this year with more still to come. I love thinking about what to bake for an occasion and the pleasure of giving away baking as treats.

Project Elf is a volunteer project that bakes and delivers cupcakes to those in need of baking at Christmas time. Now, a lot of people may present a perfectly valid case for needing baking at Christmas or any other time of the year, but no-one can argue about the recipients of Project Elf's cause. Organisations such as CanTeen, Child Cancer Foundation, Ronald McDonald House and Wellington Children's Hospital will have cupcakes delivered, as well as the children's families and the staff who support them.

Organised and led by Becs from Stiletto Studio, an army of volunteers is currently baking and decorating more than 800 cupcakes to give away during the next few days, including a special Christmas Day delivery. The call was put out for donations of cupcake toppers, so I got to work making two dozen Christmas wreath fondant toppers for the project. When I dropped them off yesterday, I found Becs and her elves hard at work pouring batter into cupcake cases and the smell of freshly baked cupcakes was wafting through the studio. Yum!

Christmas wreath cupcake toppers
I'm really glad that I could make a (very tiny) contribution to this worthwhile project and look forward to being part of it again next year.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Solar powered

Wellington has had a pretty rocky start to summer this year. The conversation on everybody's lips goes something like this: "You call this summer?" "It's almost embarrassing how cold/wet/windy it's been!" "I hope the tourists in town stay for longer than just a few days. I'd hate for them to think it's always like this." "We had summer last Tuesday." "Remember how good the drought was two years ago?"

Wishful thinking in Wellington
But it's true that you can't beat Wellington on a good day and today was certainly one of those. I got to enjoy some time off in lieu and planned a full day of baking and catching up on things at home. What a brilliant day for it!

I don't know if it's my imagination, but I am so much more productive, inspired, creative and motivated on sunny days. Warm sunny days are a bonus. Warm sunny days without wind are the rare pot of gold for Wellingtonions (although we also happily settle for warm wind, like today). Somehow, possibilities are endless on sunny days.

The benefits of Vitamin D3 are well documented, yet Vitamin D deficiency continues to be a hot topic, especially in a country where being sun smart is an essential way of life and we quite rightly err on the side of caution. I think we are all affected by seasonal affective disorder (SADS) to some degree - I certainly am.

Today's productivity mostly involved Christmas baking, which made a huge dent in the mountain of butter and sugar I'd stocked up on. Here's what I've managed to produce so far:
  • A second mountain of chocolate truffles.
  • A double batch of Tim-Tam truffles.
  • 2 dozen spiced vanilla buttermilk cupcakes and a big batch of buttercream frosting for decorating at a work Christmas activity tomorrow.
  • A large decadent mud cake, which will be turned into a Christmas present cake for my whānau on Christmas day.
  • A batch of shortbread in the fridge, ready for rolling out and baking.
Along with that, I've taken time out for coffee on the new deck, bagged up homemade Christmas gifts for my team at work, attacked various chores in and around the house, plus read several chapters of my book in the sun.

It's confirmed, then: I must be solar powered. Bring on the summer holidays!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Saying thank you

At our staff conference last week, it was publicly acknowledged that our team has had an especially challenging year with an astronomical workload. However, we wanted to point out that there are so many people that have helped us in so many ways. We collectively thanked each team in the company and recognised that there are almost too many to thank individually - or are there?

It turns out there are never too many people to thank individually - something I feel very strongly about. I shudder to think that we should ever be too busy to thank people who have helped us. It need not be an elaborate gesture. A simple email, note, phone call or card can go such a long way.

When I think about the most memorable thank yous I've received over the years, two things stand out: they are personalised and they are sincere. And so I spent the morning writing thank you emails to a dozen colleagues who have been particularly supportive of me and my work this year. Our team agreed that we'd all do this before the end of the year (and CC in the colleagues' managers) but I think I'm the only one who's actually done it so far.

I sent my emails then went to a short meeting. Half an hour later, I returned to inbox full of "thank you for the thank you" emails. Gosh, I didn't expect that! Here's one response that particularly stood out for me:
"Thanks for taking the time to send that message – it's always nice to get feedback of how much people enjoyed themselves – normally the complaints come first."
How sad that we are collectively quick to complain but slow to thank. A thank you really is the gift that keeps on giving. I was positively buzzing as I wrote my messages and am even more thrilled that they were so well received.

How easy it is to make someone's day! Who will you thank today?

Sunday, 7 December 2014

High tea at One80°

We've come across another high tea venue in Wellington. One80° Restaurant in the Copthorne Hotel in Oriental Bay offers a range of high tea menus. On a fine day the view across Chaffers Marina would be really pretty. It's not exactly summer today so we had to settle for gazing at our beautifully prepared food with coffee and bubbles.

High tea at One80°
Once again, there were three layers of food with two sandwiches on the bottom, four tiny savouries in the middle and four sweet treats to finish. The sandwich layer was stylishly garnished with balsamic vinegar lines. The savoury selection was accompanied by tomato sauce, which we didn't feel was necessary as each piece held its flavour well, especially the mini egg quiche and salmon tarts. The sweets were the best course and included dark chocolate and nut brownie, melon and mousse tart, a raspberry macaron and - my favourite - a chocolate truffle tart with raspberry coulis. In my humble opinion, dark chocolate and raspberry is the perfect tart/sweet combination and this was beautifully done.

High tea at One80° was a lovely pre-Christmas treat on an overcast Sunday afternoon. We're enjoying doing the rounds of high tea in Wellington. If ever there is a calling for two ladies to wile away their days at lunch and afternoon tea, we know we'll be ready. :-)

Monday, 1 December 2014

Christmas watershed

Is it just me, or is the over-commercialisation of Christmas starting ridiculously earlier every year?

I'm not entirely a Christmas grinch. Christmas is just fine at Christmas time - but not before. I had to send a link to an over-zealous colleague a few weeks ago when she asked, "is it Christmas yet?" She accused me of having no Christmas spirit. I informed her it would arrive on 1 December and not before. "But there's so much to do!" she squealed. I argued that that's not what Christmas is really about. Sheesh. Some people!

I live in a permanent state of Christmas denial and avoidance before the season, sometimes as early as mid-October. It's easy at first and becomes progressively more difficult throughout November. I do this by staying away from Christmas shops or even malls with beautiful decorations and Christmas shopping competitions trying to lure unsuspecting punters inside and trap them there. That leaves hardly anywhere I can go later in the month, but I won't cave in. It's madness, I say! It's enough to make even non-drinkers start dreaming of a white Christmas.

1 December is a firm Christmas watershed for me. Up until this date, I will not tolerate any Christmas-based activity in any form. However, I concede that from this date, it's all on - but not a moment before. No way. Never. Apart from registering for @NZSecretSanta, because I would have missed out. The same goes for the Christmas ham I ordered a couple of months ago. But that's it.

Ok, I've cheated slightly this year. Because I had some time and space available yesterday, I got a head start on my Christmas baking by freezing a batch of gingerbread dough and a container of chocolate truffles. And maybe dusting off my Christmas playlist ready to sync with my phone today. And a little spot of Christmas present planning. Well, it was really about seeing what is already in the present cupboard and making a mental list about who I still need to buy for. But that was it. Honestly. Oh, I forgot about updating this year's 12 days of Christmas calendar email for work last Friday (and planning my activity), but that's only because I have another really busy week coming up and ... well, it saved me some time this morning.

So apart from all that, the buildup to Christmas is once again very low key for me, even if I was really excited about this year's Wellington Advent Calendar beginning today. Ooh, I must find my Nutcracker CD.

I'm not sounding very convincing, am I?

Do you avoid or embrace the season?