Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015: My year in books

At this time of the year, Goodreads generates a personalised infographic for each member about the books they have read during the year. Those who set themselves a reading goal can see how they did. There's information about how many books and pages you've read, what your longest and shortest books were, which 'popular' books you read, your average book rating and so on.

I'm not sure if you can see my summary, so here's a screenshot of the top bit. You can share your results on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest but I couldn't find a way to export the  HTML to embed in my blog.

I thought long and hard about sharing my year in books. After all, it's not exactly a success story. There are a few 'cheats' (that is, very short books) in there. Several books started, picked up every few months but still not finished. I'm well off my goal of 24 books, clocking in with just 17 completed. I never thought I'd say this, but it actually doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would.

2015 was the year of the podcast for me. I've talked before about possibly having a writing word limit each day. Maybe reading words is also included in this limit? On those days/weeks/months, podcasts have been my way of consuming words and media. It's something I've enjoyed more than I expected, even though it's taken me away from achieving my reading goal for the year.

So will I do it again in 2016? Absolutely! Will I lower my reading goal? No. I have no idea what 2016 will bring but I sure hope it gives me enough time, energy and active brain cells to read two books each month. If not, never mind. I'll enjoy the ride either way.

Did you have a reading goal for 2015 - and did you achieve it? What's your reading goal for 2016?

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Cards Against Humanity

Cards Against Humanity is the best thing to happen to camping trips and parties in years. Billed as a party game for horrible people, Cards Against Humanity is a card game with a difference that achieves surprising results and an unusual insight into the people you think you know.

Here's how it works: there is a pile of black question cards that form the setting for each round of the game. Everyone takes turns to read out a question card. All the players are dealt ten white answer cards and need to find the 'best' answer for the question from their cards. Sounds simple.

What makes a good answer? One that the question asker will find funny, clever or appealing in some way. After everyone has submitted their cards, the question asker reads out all the answers and chooses their favourite. Sometimes it's hard to pick over all the laughter. Others are a bit more obvious.

The trick is to appeal to each person's personality. What do they find funny? What will appeal to their (warped) sense of humour? What will they be offended by? And what will get the biggest reaction from around the table? The winner of each round keeps that black card and the overall winner is the person who has the most black cards at the end of the game. It gets harder as the game progresses and the 'good' white cards get used up.

Here are a few examples of 'winning' questions and answers from games we've played:
Q: What do bad children get for Christmas?
A: Dead parents.

Q: Te Papa is developing a new interactive exhibition on ________
A: Inappropriate yodelling.

Q: How did I lose my virginity?
A: The Italians! (Random, I know - but hysterically funny at the time.)
Now, we've brought Cards Against Humanity on camping trips, weekends away and to friends' parties. Until Christmas night, we hadn't played it with family. After a few drinks and a(nother) huge meal, the cards came out and the inhibitions were promptly dropped as we did our best to outdo each other. We certainly got a whole new look at the people we regularly face around the family dinner table.

Cards Against Humanity: despite protests, I've yet to meet someone who isn't horrible enough to play.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Chocolate Christmas puddings

At this time of year, our team celebrates Christmas by making and giving small homemade gifts to each other. I made eight mini chocolate Christmas puddings for team members as my homemade gift this week. Now, I'm not a fan of Christmas cake, although I can be partial to a bit of Christmas pudding. The best thing about this recipe, though, is the puddings are deliciously overloaded with chocolate. Mmmm.

The instructions below are for assembling the puddings in several stages. (I've bolded the key steps.) You'll need some Jaffas for the holly berry and green fondant to make the leaves, or substitute whatever you have available. You may find these recipes helpful:
Some tips and hints:
  • You can bake the chocolate cakes in advance and freeze until you need them. Triple wrap in plastic wrap before freezing or double wrap and freeze in a zip lock bag. Defrost in the fridge.
  • If the cakes get stuck in the Texas muffin pan, let them cool completely and refrigerate until firm then try again.
  • Make the white modelling chocolate a day or two in advance so it will be pliant enough to roll. I'm told a pasta maker is handy for rolling the chocolate thinly. 
  • Keep cool (but not refrigerated) once assembled to prevent the various bits of chocolate from melting.
  • Wrap individually in cellophane bags or present as individual desserts on a side plate. Most will be big and rich enough for two people to share.

Chocolate Christmas puddings

  1. Make one quantity of the decadent chocolate cake recipe. Instead of baking in a cake tin, grease and line two 6-hole Texas muffin pans (12 large muffins). Pour ~100 ml of mixture into each hole. Don't overfill the muffin pans; you want the tops to be flat so you can turn them upside down to become the bottom of the pudding. Cook on one oven shelf for approximately 1 hour 15 mins.
  2. Remove pans from oven and loosen the sides of the cakes with a blunt knife while still warm. Leave to cool in pans.
  3. Cover top and sides with chocolate buttercream. (Any recipe that makes ~500 g of buttercream will do.) The widest part of the cake will be the bottom of the pudding.
  4. Roll chocolate fondant thinly and cover top and sides of puddings. Make sure the fondant is smooth along the bottom seam, but you don't need to cover the bottom.
  5. Roll enough modelling chocolate to thinly cover about two-thirds of the pudding. Shape to look like drizzled custard and drape over the fondant.
  6. Use an ivy/holly plunger cutters to cut three small green fondant leaves for each pudding. Add a jaffa on top to create a small bunch of holly.

Chocolate Christmas pudding

Monday, 14 December 2015

7 Days Live

It's that time of the year: the 7 Days crew are on the road for their annual pre-Christmas live tour. Travelling all around New Zealand, host Jeremy Corbett and regular cast members Paul Ego and Dai Henwood bring their Friday night comedy to the stage. This year, Urzila Carlson, Ben Hurley, Jeremy Elwood and Josh Thomson joined the gang in delivering laughs to a packed Wellington Opera House.

The show starts with stand-up stints by each of the seven comedians before the stage converts to the 7 Days set. A handful of 7 Days games are played out live and unedited. (They're supposedly unscripted, but I'm not so sure any more.) Interesting variations come in the form of My audience member can draw that and a Caption that competition where the audience could text in their wittiest captions for a photo shown on screen. Here's a tip: it's much harder to do than you think!

This was our third 7 Days Live experience and another hilarious night out. We look forward to another year of comedy, laughter and bizarre antics, all the name of 'news'.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

AC/DC - Rock or Bust

AC/DC rocked Wellington last night. A sea of bogans flooded Westpac Stadium, dressed in black and decked out in flashing red plastic horns. The rain came down as the wind picked up, but there was no distracting this excitable crowd. We were relatively sheltered with seats in the stands at the back of the stadium but still endured our fair share of wild weather. Never mind; a bit of extreme wind and rain doesn't get Wellingtonians down.

The concert started 15 minutes late and got off to a roaring start. A dynamic video of song teasers and special effects hinted at what was planned for the night before the band blasted onto stage amid a storm of lightning and pyrotechnics. I haven't heard a concert so loud since ... well, probably since AC/DC last played in Wellington back in 2010. It was electric!

The stage and lighting setup was spectacular. Giant screens meant we could still get a good look at the stage from our seats at the back of the stadium. The lighting and special effects were really well coordinated and the set list was red hot.

And then the problems started. The opening number, Rock or Bust, blasted half of Wellington before ending with distorted feedback. After a lengthy pause, the show continued with Shoot to Thrill, then it all went quiet ... and stayed that way for a long time.

It was too easy; if #rockorbusted didn't already exist as a hashtag, then it wouldn't take long to establish itself. Seriously, a 40+ minute open ended pause is not what you'd want to impose on a hyped-up bogan audience. The crowd was generally patient, although there are reports of a few scuffles breaking out on the field. We took to social media to find out what was going on but no explanation was offered other than "technical difficulties". The crowd waited. Half an hour later, a brief announcement was made about trying to fix the problem, then another long pause. It was a full 45 minutes before the show resumed. A loud hum plagued the gaps in between songs for the rest of the concert and seemed to stamp out any of the usual banter you'd expect from front man and lead vocalist Brian Johnson. It meant that the audience were left wondering in between every song whether the show would continue or pause again, so much so that the usual cheering and shouting for encores were absent.

Aside from the technical difficulties, the concert was amazing. Such energy on stage from seasoned rockers coupled with outstanding visual effects made for a huge night of entertainment, even if it was sometimes hard to make out each song due to an over-loud lead guitar and vocals that couldn't quite be heard over the din.

Thankfully Angus Young has never grown up - and I hope he never does. He duck-walked and strutted his way across the whole stage, all the way out the front on a stage extension and ended by racing across a wall of Marshall stacks without ever dropping a note, even when he was playing with one hand behind his back or using just his school tie as a pick. Chris Slade is a solid replacement for embattled drummer Phil Rudd. The judge was right; the band is doing just fine without him. The stadium anthems blasted out and the cannons booming during the final song, For Those About To Rock, meant that even the most remote Wellington suburbs could be assured that the show did indeed go on. The fireworks at the end made me really glad that the stadium doesn't have a roof, even though it may have averted all the problems caused by last night's weather.

It would sad if this show was just remembered for the rain, wind and the technical difficulties they caused. This was a stellar performance by a legendary band who have clearly still got it. Was it better than 2010? I don't think so, but it certainly held its own among the stream of bands and artists from a similar era touring the world today.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Christmassy cranberry and white chocolate shortbread

This month's Good Bitches Baking involves a special bake off. A whole bunch of good bitches are pitching in to help with a special Christmas bake-off partnership with Kiwibank. We were given two recipes to choose from and special instructions for delivering extra batches of goodness. Check out the #bakingitbetter hashtag to see what everyone's been up to.

I chose to make Christmassy shortbread as I already had the ingredients on hand and knew I could bake a batch with my limited time available after being out of town for the weekend. This is not my recipe but it's been baked by so many local bakers this week that I hope it's ok to share further. I've converted it into grams for those bakers (like me) who prefer to weigh their measurements. I'm also sharing some biscuit baking tips, mostly learned the hard way so you don't have to.

My tips:
  • Form two shorter logs to wrap in plastic and freeze. It's much easier to manage.
  • Freeze the dough logs until solid, otherwise they'll crumble when you cut them. This is good advice; trust me on this one.
  • Use a sharp bread knife to cut the logs into rounds before baking.
  • Make sure your baking trays are cold when you put the dough on them to cook. This stops the biscuits spreading too much and, along with cold dough, helps them keep their shape.

Christmassy cranberry and white chocolate shortbread

  • 225 g butter, very soft
  • 180 g (1 cup) icing sugar
  • 280 g (2 cups) flour
  • 135 g (2/3 cup) white chocolate, roughly chopped
  • 80 g (1/2 cup) dried cranberries, chopped
  1. Beat butter and sugar with a wooden paddle until smooth. (This will take a couple of minutes.)
  2. Gradually add flour and mix until you can't see any dry flour.
  3. Stir in white chocolate and cranberries.
  4. Form into log shapes, about 4 cm in diameter. Wrap in plastic then put in freezer until frozen solid.
  5. Preheat oven to 160°C. Spray a cookie sheet or line two baking trays with baking paper.
  6. Cut frozen logs into rounds, about .5 cm thick. Place biscuits on cookie sheet, at least 2 cm apart.
  7. Bake for about 20 minutes, just until the edges start to turn golden.
  8. Let cool for about 5 minutes before removing from the tray and cooling on a wire rack.
Christmassy shortbread

Sunday, 29 November 2015

8 years a-blogging

Eight years is a long time. A lot can happen in eight years. In cyberspace, it can be a lifetime or two. Eight years ago, I had no idea what would happen or where things would end up when I hesitantly started my blog. Two years ago, I evolved into Caffeinated Weka, a better fit for who I am and where I'm at these days.

The phrase "eight is enough" has been rolling around my head this weekend, but that's probably because the 1970s TV programme of the same name has a certain ring to it. Eight may be enough for a number of things - but not just yet for me and my little blog.

It's hard to tell who visits these days. My Clustr map has gone awol and often spits out completely random data. StatCounter has its ups and downs, although Blogger stats for individual posts are still strong. But do stats even matter? Perhaps. They hold a vanity value, acting like an extrinsic motivator at times when the words struggle to come.

The real value for me is in the online interactions, relationships and support networks that have formed as a result of starting this blog and online persona eight years ago. Most of this happens on Twitter now. I've learned to not get disheartened by dwindling numbers (practically non-existent) of blog comments and accept that resulting interaction can happen elsewhere - and I'm good with that. I can never predict which posts will become the most viewed when I write, no matter which hashtags I use or how I publicise them. In fact, this is sometimes the most random part of blogging: wondering if anyone is out there, and then bam! the hits start coming.

So join me today for a very quiet celebration of eight years in the blogosphere. It looks like eight isn't enough and that I'm here to stay for a while longer yet. Thank you for being part of my blogging journey. :-)

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Sacred Hill wine tasting

Our final wine club tasting event for this year was hosted by Sacred Hill. This winery is around 30 years old and based in Hawke's Bay with vineyards also in Marlborough and the Matakana Coast near Auckland. Grapes such as chardonnay are picked overnight in Marlborough, then shipped north to the winery in a cool truck where it is processed within eight hours of being picked.

The tasting was hosted by a sales rep and a very bored territory manager who looked like she'd rather be anywhere but there. Never mind. It was still good to taste six new wines from Sacred Hill and Ti Point, even if the session was unnecessarily drawn out. I can't help but wonder how their sales figures compared to those from other wine tasting evenings we've been to.

Onto the wine. The chardonnay and a sauvignon blanc made it onto the yes list. Much fuss was made of a special white Merlot, something we were keen to try only to hear that they didn't actually have that sample for us after all. Maybe next time?

2014 Ti Point Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. This sav was fruity and smooth, well balanced and not too light with low acidity. It got better with every sip until it made it all the way onto the yes list.

2014 Sacred Hill Reserve Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Described as a Halo quality wine in grocery store packaging, the reserve label sav was more up front and fruity than its Ti Point counterpart. Although it's probably a more refined drop, it was only a maybe for us.

2014 Sacred Hill Reserve Hawke's Bay Chardonnay. Chardonnay has been a bit out of fashion lately. This one had a smooth finish and the level of French oak was neither unpleasant nor overbearing, making this a surprise yes.

2014 Ti Point Matakana Coast Ruby Rose. Not awful, but not something we'd buy a bottle of. Meh.

2014 Sacred Hill Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir. A dusky red colour and a heavy oak finish. No.

2013 Ti Point Merlot Cabernet Franc. Nope. I'm still not a heavy red wine drinker.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Elton John in concert

"She packed my bags last night, pre-flight
Zero hour, 9 am."
Elton John, Rocket Man himself, touched down in Wellington yesterday for a rocking night at Westpac Stadium. It would be his final time touring this part of the world - or so the promoter said. The man himself may have other ideas, insisting that he will be back. After seeing Elton John in concert twice now (at the same venue), I hope he makes it a hat-trick.

I'll openly admit that I became more of an Elton John fan after seeing him perform live in Wellington in 2006. Sure, I'd played and listened to a significant chunk of his back catalogue while growing up as a pianist but had written him off as a performing peacock, strutting and preening on stage while his amazing band of tireless musicians did all the actual work. How wrong I was! From the moment those ethereal opening lines of Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding blasted out, to the instantly recognisable opening staccato piano chord of Benny and the Jetssss, I could see we were in for a huge night.

Fast forward to 2015 and much of the set list was the same. But just like a vintage wine, it sounded even more mature and enjoyable this time around. Wow, what a performance! With around 2 1/4 hours of solid piano playing and entertaining, there are too many highlights to single out. Hits, B-sides, lesser known numbers and stellar megahits rang out right through to the Crocodile Rocking encore that had the whole crowd on their feet. Also, the glow sticks and battery-operated candles that used to be for sale outside events have now given way to a sea of cell phones lighting up the stadium for Candle in the Wind. The cell phone lights also made an appearance during Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me, which Elton dedicated to the late Jonah Lomu.

Elton talked about how his writing partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin is now into its 48th year. He also introduced long serving members of the Elton John band: Nigel Olsson on drums and Davey Johnstone on guitar. They've collaborating for more years than I've been alive. What an achievement!

The only fly in the ointment (apart from the cold wind - but a beanie and coat fixed that problem) was intermittent sound quality, with keyboards and bass out of balance and the top end missing during some key numbers. I crossed my fingers that it wasn't a local sound mixer on deck last night.

Will he be back? Here's hoping. Maybe then I'll finally get to hear him perform his elusive tribute to John Lennon, the legendary Empty Garden.

Friday, 20 November 2015

This American Life

2015 has been the year of the podcast for me. I'm very late to jump onto this bandwagon. I've always been more of a reader but commuting by bus armed with an iPhone has now made me a more captive audience for media I can consume via audio and video. Also, podcasts are a great option on days when my eyes are too tired to stay open and read my Kindle.

For quality and consistency, I can't really go past This American Life. I was introduced to this podcast via the first series of Serial and quickly became hooked. Described as "a story in [two/three/four] acts", This American Life is a one-hour radio programme that centres around a theme. The show's format is slick, well produced and features punchy writing. It doesn't ramble or go over time and you know that what you're going to get will be good, even if the subject matter is unfamiliar. Episodes are often told in first-person narrative and approach themes from personal viewpoints that you wouldn't necessarily expect.

This week, This American Life celebrates 20 years and fans are encouraged fans via Twitter to name their favourite episode. Being 19 years late to the party, I'm not in a position to nominate my favourite episode. There are a few episodes that stand out for me:
This morning, I listened to a back episode of Alec Baldwin's Here's The Thing featuring an interview with Ira Glass. (Wow, a podcast interview about podcasting - how meta!) It gave a glimpse into how Glass's personal life and background may influence the show and its topic and how he often deviates from the neutral default position expected of mainstream journalism. It's an interesting listen.

If you're new to This American Life, I'd suggest choosing a few episodes by diving into the archive then subscribing to future podcasts. You'll be hooked in no time.

Monday, 16 November 2015

10CC in concert

From time to time I get emails from my dad with a band name in the subject line. It usually means one of two things:
  1. Dad is asking whether I have a particular CD that he'd like to borrow and, if not, whether I'd like to buy it for him.
  2. Dad is suggesting an upcoming concert that I should buy tickets for us to go to.
Last week's email from Dad said 10CC. This time, however, there was a slight twist. Dad had been given two tickets to 10CC in concert in Wellington and wondered if I'd like to go with him. That makes a nice change!

I delightedly announced my news to those around me. Here's how the general conversation went:
Me: "I'm going to 10CC on Friday!"
Them: "What does that mean?"
Me: "They're an English rock band from the 70s ..."
Them: "What do they sing?"
Me: "*Play* - what do they play."
Them: "Do they sing I'm Not In Love? I like that song."
Me: "There's so much more to 10CC than I'm Not In Love."
Them: "Oh, that's right! They also sing the cricket song!"
Me: *shakes head and sighs*
On to the show. We were promised an opening acoustic set of songs written by front man Graham Gouldman that were performed by other bands in the 1960s - something I was really looking forward to. The lights came up to a Gouldman acoustic guitar solo version of Pamela Pamela by The Mindbenders. Band members were progressively introduced and they each joined the stage with an acoustic guitar in hand until there was a full compliment of four guitarists, playing beautiful versions of classics such as A Heart Full of Soul and For Your Love (The Yardbirds), No Milk Today (Herman's Hermits) and Bus Stop and Look Through Any Window (The Hollies). Gouldman described the circumstances behind the songs and how they came about, the common element being good storytelling as the starting point for each song. Perfect harmonies rounded out a feelgood set of happy vibes.

The 10CC concert set list itself was a well polished selection of the band's biggest hits along with a few of their more obscure numbers. For a band renown for their top notch studio production, they managed to authentically replicate their sound on stage without jeopardising any of their 'live' vibe. One of my favourites was played early on, a detuned version of The Things We Do For Love that still featured great harmonies but just didn't spark as much in a lower key. An extended version of Art for Art's Sake was a highlight, complete with fades in all the right places and great bass solos.

The true test, though, was whether the band could pull off I'm Not In Love with its gazillion overdubbed backing tracks live on stage. I'm almost disappointed to report (refer to above conversation) that it was absolutely note perfect. Not a single harmonic gap and a perfect balance between the backing track and live performance. Damn! I really didn't want to like it so much but this song was totally impressive, even for this cynical musician. The crowd were on their feet for an over-pumped version of Dreadlock Holiday and the extremely fun Rubber Bullets, which I'm proud to say I still remember absolutely every word of and sang all the way home.

For me, the secret to 10CC's appeal is well crafted storytelling coupled with excellent instrumentation and production, performed seemingly with ease by skilled multi-instrumentalists. I was surprised to see a single bass guitar makes it way around three different sized band members. Sharing a guitar, let alone a bass would be sacrilege in any other band! Ditto sharing a mic between four singers harmonising an a capella song (Donna as the first encore). The sound mix was really on form.

What a great concert! Fantastic musicians performing an excellent back catalogue, great company (Dad) and a happy trip down musical memory lane.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Bread making class

Bread making is something I've come to enjoy this past year or two. I never thought I had the patience for bread making; bread is not usually something you can whip up in an hour or on a whim. It requires planning in advance but the result is entirely worth it. With or without a bread maker and armed with a few simple recipes, bread making is actually quite achievable. Besides, it's practically impossible to resist freshly baked bread!

We were back at Crave Cooking School this week for a bread making class with chef Zoe Lloyd. Bagels, corn bread and sourdough were on the menu.

I love sourdough. One thing I've always wanted to do is start a sourdough starter - and keep it alive. This is not as easy as it sounds. We looked at the instructions and talked through the steps several times. Although I took detailed notes I'm still not entirely convinced that it's going to work for me, but I'm now ready to transfer my starter into a glass jar in preparation for feeding it this weekend. I guess I'll cross my fingers and hope for the best!

The mixing and baking process itself for sourdough is similar to most other breads. We began combining the mixture into dough form and kneading it by hand before finishing it off in this super duper dough mixer. The dough hook on my Kenwood mixer will come in handy when I make sourdough at home.

Is there room for one of these mixers in my kitchen?
We then shaped our dough, slit the top and left it to proof before baking. This is what they looked like straight out of the oven. You'll have to imagine the incredible smell for yourself.

Sourdough fresh from the oven
Next up, bagels. I can usually take or leave bagels; eating something with the texture of cardboard really doesn't appeal to me. Making my own bagels, however, opened my eyes to how good they can be - and no hint of cardboard whatsoever. Using basically the same ingredients as pizza (flour, yeast, salt, sugar, olive oil and water), these bagels were a really pleasant surprise in both flavour and texture. They're also easy enough to make and shape by hand. After they've proofed, they are boiled then baked.

I like the idea of everything bagels, where you top them with everything you can get your hands on (think poppy seeds, sesame seeds, flaky salt, peppercorns, fresh garlic, onion flakes ...) and fill them with even more yummy stuff. Here's my everything bagel filled with salmon and cream cheese.

Everything bagel filled with salmon and cream cheese
In between the sourdough and bagels proofing, we also made loaves of cornbread, a type of quick bread using cornmeal and with a teaspoon each of paprika and cayenne pepper to give it a little kick. This was my favourite freshly baked bread of the night and one that I went back for seconds. No pics for this one - I was distracted by the amazing taste and smell.

As a result of Tuesday's class, it's been a bread-filled week. The cornbread is in the freezer and will be defrosted this weekend. The sour dough was devoured at a family birthday tomorrow night and the bagels became lunch each day.

Thanks once again to the Crave Cooking School team (Zoe, Lucy and Marco) for a fun baking class. I've now got a few more skills to add to my breadmaking arsenal and a sourdough starter that I'm determined not to kill.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Kahurangi Estate wine tasting

Kahurangi Estate is a family owned winery situated in Upper Moutere near Motueka in the Nelson region. Kahurangi specialises in making quality handmade wines and features some of the oldest commercial vines planted in New Zealand. As well as producing wine locally, Kahurangi imports and distributes a range of wine, port, sherry and congnac from around the world.

Our host for last week's wine tasting evening was Wellington-based sales representative Sarah McCormick. We sampled five wines from two of Kahurangi's locally made labels (Kahurangi Estate and Trout Valley) and three imported wines, which is how I've divided up my tasting notes. We've now added an imported prosecco and a tawny port to our wine list.

Locally made wines
  • Kahurangi Estate Gewurztraminer 2013. At 13.5% alcohol and 9.5 grams of residual sugar, this off dry Gewurztraminer had an oily finish that I didn't like. Apparently it cellars well for three years.
  • Trout Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2014. The first of two sauvignon blancs we sampled was a very sweet, fruity wine with strong notes of passionfruit. It might have appealed more if it was better chilled. We'll add it to the maybe list.
  • Kahurangi Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2014. This second sav smelled amazing! The strong passionfruit notes and a light, clear colour appealed. Unfortunately, it had an awful aftertaste that I couldn't pinpoint. Sadly, what started off so promising ended up on the no list.
  • Trout Valley Pinot Gris 2015. We had much debate at our table about the tasting notes talking about "dried pears". As far as most of us are aware, dried pears wouldn't smell like much, but fresh pears could add a subtle flavour. Sadly, I couldn't taste the pears at all and once again, there was something about the aftertaste that put this wine straight on the no list.
  • Trout Valley Pinot Noir 2014. Nope. I'm still not a red wine fan.
Imported wines

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Good Bitches Baking

It should be obvious by now that baking is one of my favourite pastimes. In recent years, baking has become my predominant hobby or interest. There are so many things I love about baking: the flavours, the smells, the creativity and the mystery of putting a whole lot of ingredients into the oven to have them turn out in a completely different form an hour or so later - regardless of whether or not that form was intended. Baking for me can be equal parts stressful (decorating cakes) and stress release (baking muffins, loaves and everyday cakes) but always pleasurable.

Perhaps my favourite thing about baking is the reaction I get from recipients, especially those who weren't expecting a baked treat. This is one of the reasons why I bake almost exclusively for others these days, either for special occasions (birthdays, family dinners) or just to cheer someone up. Sometimes all it takes to make someone's day better is a piece of homemade goodness made with love. Bigger problems require bigger cakes!

Good Bitches Baking was set up a little more than a year ago by two people who wanted to "spread a little sweetness in our community, one bite at a time". What started as a good idea quickly grew into a team organising seven chapters with 430 volunteer bakers and drivers delivering homemade goodness all around New Zealand. I jumped on board as soon as I heard about it in May 2015 and absolutely love being a good bitch baking. I even have the t-shirt to prove it!

Favourite hobby and TV series baked into one!
I love thinking about who might be receiving my baking, what they might like to eat, what new recipes I can try and how I've (hopefully) made someone's day. I'm never certain exactly when my baking will be eaten (on delivery, later that day or even a day or two later) so I think about what will keep well, travel safely and still taste good even if it's not stored in a particular way. The baking doesn't have to be elaborate, either. The baking I do for Good Bitches is more 'homely' and rustic than the decorated cakes and cupcakes I usually make. Here are some of my baking boxes before being packed up and ready to go on Sunday mornings.
Apricot and sultana slice
Banana cake with chocolate fudge frosting
Blueberry and coconut cake
Chocolate cranberry biscuits
Spiced apple walnut cake
Here's how to get on board with Good Bitches Baking. If you're not a baker or a driver but still want to support this cause, there's a Givealittle page where you can donate to the ongoing costs (printing, cake boxes and other operational costs) of the project. I'm rostered on for a couple of weekends this month and absolutely can't wait to get my Christmas bake on next month. Great work, bitches!

Thursday, 29 October 2015


The taste of summer is gradually revealing itself as time marches towards the end of the year. So many of my favourite foods will be available soon, just in time for Christmas and the holidays. One I'm really looking forward to is the arrival of passionfruit.

Passionfruit evokes such happy food and family memories for me. Growing up, my family had a passionfruit vine running all along the side fence of our back yard. Both my brother and I loved passionfruit from an early age, especially fresh off the vine - but there was a rule: we were only allowed to pick passionfruit up off the ground, not the tree. Each morning, we'd sneak out the back door in our pyjamas and collect up fallen passionfruit ... then shake the vine to see if any more just happened to fall off. Although we knew they weren't actually ripe enough to eat until the skin was rumpled, it didn't stop us from trying to hurry the process along.

Nowadays, I still love the tang of passionfruit. (Perhaps this explains my fondness for Marlborough sauvignon blanc?) Fresh is best and pulp is ok as long as it's been made naturally (ie, not artificially flavoured). I also loved to bake with passionfruit and the BEST flavouring comes in the form of Fresh As freeze dried powder. Along with its raspberry counterpart, I now keep a constant supply of passionfruit powder in the fridge. It's great in cakes, buttercream frosting and to flavour meringues. Also, being a family favourite flavour, I made white chocolate passionfruit mud cakes for both my brother's and my birthdays this year.

Apart from availability, I find the biggest stumbling block on the road to passionfruit indulgence is the price. Have you seen what it costs to buy passionfruit these days?? I always thought $20/kg was an outrageous price to pay for fresh passionfruit until I saw the price on the Countdown app today: $45/kg! I'll definitely wait until they are in season in a few months' time before thinking about buying some.

Passionfruit is easily one of #myfavouritethings. When I grow up, I want to plant passionfruit vines of my own and eat their fruit all day long.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Lemon desserts class

Crave Cooking School is a purpose built cooking school and production kitchen in Lyall Bay. We've attended several excellent classes at Crave (knife skills, fish filleting and bread making) but I don't seem have blogged about them. Clearly, they've coincided with some of my busiest writing times at work, meaning I'd used up my daily word quota by the time it came to blogging about them!

On Saturday, we went to a lemon dessert baking class hosted by Luke Crawford from Neo Cafe and Eatery. I love baking with lemons and we used beautiful Meyer lemons from Twisted Citrus in sunny Gisborne.

Meyer lemons
There were three dessert items on the menu for this hands-on class. We began by making sweet pastry and lemon custard filling for a lemon tart. Sour cream lemon tart is a family favourite of ours and these individual tarts followed a similar process. Now, I don't have much patience for blind baking using beans, ceramic balls or rice and have always pricked the pastry several times with a fork instead. It turns out I was on the right track, but brushing the pastry with an egg wash will seal any holes made by the fork. Bam!
Lemon tart
Next up was lemon syllabub. (To be honest, I had to google syllabub beforehand. I've decided it's similar to ambrosia in texture, calories and flavour profile.) Wow! If ever there was a decadent dessert that is deceptively simple, lemon syllabub is it. If you google the ingredients, you'll see that it's pretty much cream, sweet wine, sugar and lemon rinds. We had individual servings of syllabub for first afternoon tea.

Finally, it was onto something a little trickier: lemon soufflé. The process was very different to the chocolate soufflé I make. This is not a recipe that can be refrigerated prior and is best prepared immediately before cooking. There is something incredibly fun about watching a recipe rise and rise in the oven then delicately settle into its final form. After a few soufflé attempts, I've decided that this dessert is not as scary as I'd feared and the results are worth the careful attention the recipes require.
Second afternoon tea: lemon soufflé
Thanks to the team (Luke, Marco and Lucy) for an enjoyable afternoon of baking, learning and eating. We'll be back again soon.

Monday, 19 October 2015


From time to time, I make a well loved dessert called pudding.

Pudding never starts out intending to be pudding; it always results from a baking failure crossed with a rescue mission of some description. Pudding is never much to look at but it always tastes good. Its ingredients are usually obscure and come together in surprise flavour combinations. Basically, pudding is my code word for "a spectacular baking fail that was rescued by {insert decadent ingredient/s here} and served up as a planned dessert".

Last week, I eagerly set about baking my aunt's famous sponge cake using the swan eggs I'd been given. The recipe looked simple enough. I had everything I needed and got busy baking. The sponge took much longer than expected to cook, then rose and rose (and rose) very high before collapsing spectacularly. As a final insult, the remnants stuck to the bottom of the tin.

After googling "what to bake with broken sponge pieces -trifle" (because I'd decided that it's still too early in the season for trifle), I moved on to search for a simple chocolate mousse recipe. I broke the collapsed sponge into pieces, arranged them in a dish, poured over layers of decadent mousse and refrigerated it all for a few hours. Voilà - pudding!

Fast forward to the family dinner the failed sponge was destined for.
"What's for dessert?" my seven-year-old nephew asks.
"Pudding," I say.
"What sort of pudding?" he checks.
"Special pudding," I clarify.
"Yum! This pudding is delicious!" my nephew declares. "Can we have special pudding another time?"
"Yes, but it will probably be a different type of pudding next time," I promise knowingly.
Another time, my failproof pavlova did just what it had never done before. Googling "what to make with broken meringue pieces" resulted in Eton mess, to the delight of British family members.

I can think of many more examples where pudding has been a surprise yet welcome addition to the menu. It confirms what I've always believed: there is nothing that whipped cream, ice cream or custard can't rescue.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Mission Estate wine tasting

Mission Estate Winery was established in Hawkes Bay by pioneering French missionaries in 1851. Their story about how the winery was established is an interesting one and not something I can do justice here on this blog. The estate itself was elaborately built then moved to its current location in extraordinary circumstances. Find out more on the Mission Estate website.

Our host for the evening was the hugely entertaining Trevor from Mission Estate. Trevor is a born storyteller, full of amusing anecdotes and history about the wines, winery and vineyard. He also offered some great advice: try every type of wine, even if it's a varietal you don't think you like. You never know when you may come across one that you do like - and we certainly did tonight with a surprise addition to our yes wine list

NV Mission Fête. This non vintage wine is the only sparkling wine produced by Mission Bay. It's made of 97% pinot gris and 3% barrel aged chardonnay using the Charmat method. A very sweet, tangy finish made this wine a maybe for me.

Mission Estate Riesling 2014. I'm the first to admit that I don't really understand rieslings. Fruity, aromatic, sometimes oily ... however, this riesling was our favourite wine of the evening. Smooth, not harsh and slightly zesty, we added it to our yes list and ordered two bottles for our new wine rack.

Mission Estate Pinot Gris Light 2015. Another surprise for the evening, this low alcohol pinot gris had far more flavour than expected with a tangy, yet smooth, finish. I'd drink a glass of this, although would probably fall short of buying a bottle, making it a maybe.

Mission Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2014. Now onto my favourites: Marlborough sauvignon blanc. (Yes, clichéd - I know.) Grown at Cable Station in Marlborough but made in Hawkes Bay, this sav smelt like tinned asparagus (seriously!) although didn't taste like it. No, instead there was an overwhelming infusion of evil capsicum. No thanks!

Mission Estate Rosé 2015. This rosé is a blend of merlot, malbec, cabernet franc and syrah grapes. It didn't do anything for me.

Three more nos in quick succession (but no surprises as I'm not much of a red wine drinker):
Vineyard Selection Merlot 2013. A beautiful, deep plum colour.
Mission Reserve Syrah 2014. Also a beautiful colour, this time deep purple. So. Very. Heavy.
Mission Estate Late Harvest 2014. I'll keep trying stickies and other dessert wines until I find one I like, but this late harvest Gewurtatraminer was not for me. (87 grams of residual sugar!)

We're looking forward to a wine weekend in Hawkes Bay later this year and will definitely book Trevor in for a tour of the vineyard and estate.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Swan eggs

I am lucky to have had a good supply of duck eggs for a couple of years now. Apparently every duck egg I bake with is one less duck my colleague and her husband have to worry about, so I'm happy to take those worries off her and bake up a storm in spring time.

These are swan eggs rounded up from black swans. Like duck eggs, each swan egg consumed is one less chance of these birds overpopulating their habitat at this time of year. They are equivalent to about four chicken eggs, although some are bigger than others. I have only ever tasted them in baking so can't comment on their flavour.

Swan eggs with a chicken egg for comparison
Dad has entrusted me with two of the precious swan eggs he was given. He didn't say it outright but I know he expects me to practise baking his sister's famous swan egg sponge cake with them. Just one swan egg topped up with a couple of chicken eggs makes a big fluffy sponge and no-one does it better than my aunty. Her sponge cake is legendary in our whānau.

Swan eggs take quite a bit of cracking open. I have memories of Mum trying to break into one by dropping it on the back doorstep. Dad seems to think the edge of a knife and a granite bench will get me into these beauties.

Now that I have the goods, I need to work up the courage to tackle the sponge cake. I'm glad I have two eggs to experiment with, just in case the first sponge doesn't work out. As usual, photos will follow if I'm successful in my mission. Wish me luck!

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Coffee cup stack

Wandering around the Eastbourne Carnival last November, I came across a stall for Studio 86 exhibiting the art work of Whanganui artist Tina Drayton. Tina's paintings are bold, colourful and funky in a style that appeals to my taste. She has painted several series with themes of kiwiana, home and beachside living, animal, café and fashion that also show her sense of humour.

Over the years, I've always had a hang up about not buying art until I had walls to put it onto. I collected a few small pieces that could be stored and transported easily, but nothing big. That would come with the walls, I promised myself.

One piece caught my eye. Coffee cup stack is an original piece (acrylic on canvas?), although there are others in the series with different colour schemes. Each coffee cup has a different pattern, is simple yet funky and abstract (just how I like it) and sums up this coffee drinker perfectly. I kept coming back to the stall to look at the painting. When I was almost certain I wanted it to be mine, I txted a friend who lives nearby and asked her to come and be an enabler for me. "Buy it," she confirmed. Who was I to argue?

The colours are far more vibrant than they appear in the photo. Also, the canvas is BIG - 1.2 m high and 30 cm wide. Now I understand all the comments at the fair along the lines of, "Do you have somewhere to put it?" and, "Are you sure it will fit in your kitchen?" Yes, it does - but thankfully we have high stud ceilings.

My original coffee cup stack painting is absolutely one of #myfavouritethings. It gives me something bright, cheerful and happy to look at every day and has received numerous positive comments from friends and visitors. I love it so much that I returned to the Studio 86 stall at the Petone Fair in February to buy another of Tina's pieces ... but that's another blog post.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Biking the Martinborough wineries

There is something incredibly romantic about the idea of cycling idly through acres of picturesque vineyards on a summer's day. The bicycle has a basket and a bell (practical and fun), it's sunny, the air is fresh and there are pretty spring flowers everywhere. Ahhh.

The reality is a little different. Getting a group of fourteen novice riders together and keeping them together between multiple venues along various stretches of road can be challenging. Still, it can be done and that's exactly what we managed to achieve last weekend in the wine village of Martinborough. Five vineyards, lots of laughter and several more additions to the wine list made for an excellent day out.

Our first stop on Saturday morning was at The Cabbage Tree Vineyard. We enjoyed meeting the vineyard owner and winemaker, David Bull, for a free wine tasting session. Cabbage Tree is a boutique vineyard set on 3 acres with 4000 vines, meaning 4000 bottles in a good harvest. All their wines are cellared before sale, which made for noticeably smooth drinking on all four samples. We also cleaned out their supplies of quince jelly and bagged walnuts. I love walnuts!
  • Semillon 2013. This is the only semillon produced in Martinborough. It has quite an up front acidity that I didn't like.
  • Chardonnay 2013. Apparently chardonnay will grow almost anywhere. This chardonnay is fermented in barrels for almost a year then bottled. Too much oak for me.
  • Pinot Noir 2009. This dusky red wine was barreled for nearly two years (sooo oaky!) but the finish was smooth because it had been cellared for five years.
  • Merlot 2010. Not often grown in Martinborough, the merlot vine flowers for just four days in November but a strong wind can blow off the pollen and destroy all the crops for that year. Gosh! It had a beautiful, rich red colour and was smoother than other merlots I've tasted, making it onto my maybe list.
Next up was Palliser Estate Wines. This was an elaborate and informative wine tasting experience hosted by manager Sara Benton and cost $5. I knew from our Wellington on a Plate dinner with Dai and Dal two weeks ago that the Palliser Estate Methode Traditionelle 2009 is becoming a firm favourite of mine and had this confirmed once again. We then sampled eight more wines across the Pencarrow and Palliser Estate labels - two each of pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir.
Just around the corner is Muirlea Rise, a boutique vineyard specialising in reds. I'm not much of a red wine drinker so sat out this tasting but hung around for the entertainment from host Shawn Brown. He was full of good advice. For example:
"You wouldn't trust a skinny cook, so why would you trust a sober winemaker?"
Good point. We noticed that the labels on some of the wine bottles were upside down. Apparently this is because their wines should be cellared - and it can be hard to see what you're storing when you pull wine bottles out from a rack, so an upside down label suddenly becomes the right way up. Bam!

Across the road is the appropriately named Martinborough Vineyard. We tasted seven wines for $5 and I added one more wine to my yes list.
  • Te Tara Sauvignon Blanc 2014.This is a juicy, fruity style wine. Less up front than a Marlborough sauvignon blanc, it had a soft, smooth finish.
Other wines we sampled but were nos for me but some found favour among our group:
After lunch in the village square, we headed in the opposite direction towards Poppies Martinborough. Poppies is a boutique winery operated by wife and husband team Poppy and Shayne Hammond, formerly of Dry River Wines just across the road. This picturesque venue was hectically busy by mid-afternoon, with several large groups either waiting for $5 wine tastings or enjoying their famous platters.

Poppy the winemaker was our host and we sampled all six of her wines. It's important to note that Poppies wines are only available at their cellar door, so you won't find them at a wine distributor or supermarket. None of them made it onto my yes list but I enjoyed hearing about each wine's nuances from Poppy and learning more about how they were produced.
  • Rose 2015. Very light and subtle in flavour.
  • Sauvignon Blanc 2014. Quite different in style to other savs. Subtle flavour but too sweet for me.
  • Chardonnay 2014. This old-style chardonnay made from the Mendoza clone is just about to sell out. Oaked in larger 350 litre French oak barrels, it makes for a slightly more subtle oaky finish.
  • Pinot Gris 2015. This newly bottled wine was only into its second day of tasting. Very, very sweet, it was made from a Mission clone from Hawkes Bay.
  • Pinot Noir 2014. This wine had a beautiful ruby colour and is made from 33 year old vines that were there before the winery began producing for Poppies.
  • Late Harvest Riesling 2014. Not as sweet at some other sticky wines with 55 gram of residual sugar. Still far too sweet for me.
A few tips if you're thinking of biking the Martinborough wineries:
  • Start out by grabbing the latest wine map from the Martinborough Information Centre or download a copy before you head out. While most of the wineries are situated close to each other along one road, there are others just a few blocks away that are well worth visiting, too. 
  • Check out the cellar door hours. Most are open 10.30-4 on weekends but winter and weekday hours vary.
  • If you're planning to buy bottles of wine along the way, wear a backpack or make sure your bike has a basket. Some wineries do free deliveries to your accommodation later in the day but not all offer this service.
  • The cost of most tastings averages $5; some are more, some are less and a few are free. Some wineries will refund your tasting fee if you buy a bottle from their cellar door; others won't. Not all will accept credit cards or EFTPOS for tasting fees so carry some cash.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Bugsy Malone (1976)

Bugsy Malone (1976) was on tv tonight. Bugsy Malone! I couldn't say how many times my brother and I must have watched this musical movie as kids but I do know that the last time I saw it must have been at least 25 years ago. Could it possibly be as good as I remembered?

This all-child cast featured the very cute Scott Baio (who can believe he's now 54!), Jodie Foster as nightclub showgirl Tallulah, the tough talking Italian Fat Sam and the cleaner forever waiting for the tap dancing audition that never comes. These tap dancing gangster kids were the height of sophistication and cool, slinking around the back streets of 1920s Chicago at night with their pedal cars and splurge guns shooting gallons of whipped cream.

Even after all these years, I can vividly remember random lines of dialogue and musical numbers word for word. For example, here's what happened the first time Bugsy and Blousey met.
"What's your name, anyway?"
"Sounds like a loaf of bread!"
"Blousey Brown."
"Blousey Brown! Sounds like a stale loaf of bread!"
And then there's Tallulah's big nightclub act:
"My name is Tallulah, I live 'til I die.
I'll take what you give me and I don't ask why.
I've made a lot of friends in some exotic places.
I don't remember names but I remember faces."
It all came flooding back tonight as I rewatched Bugsy Malone, hoping my nostalgia for a childhood favourite wouldn't be tainted by a dated, badly acted movie. Thankfully, I sat through scene after scene with a cheesy grin on my face right until the gloriously messy, cream-pie filled finale.
"We could have been anything we wanted to be ..."
Here's the trailer - for nostalgia's sake.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Mistaken identity

Apparently our minds are good at playing tricks on us. Information overload can wreak havoc on our brains and it's been found that childhood memories are often a figment of our imagination. Scary, but true.

Our primary school class photos have started resurfacing recently on Facebook. Many of us are still in touch while others are reigniting old friendships after 30+ years. Most of the class photos were scanned by an old friend, Allie, and are tagged with captions along the lines of, "Gosh, we were so cute then!", "Whatever happened to so and so?" and "Phil, you don't look so happy. Was Murray punching you again?"

There have been lots of laughs and memories, along with several profile pic changes to our younger selves. Those who care to stalk me online will now see a shy, pig-tailed girl in a blue school uniform who bears a remarkable resemblance to my father. Another friend, Serena, cropped a class photo and used it as her profile pic. So did Allie, the instigator of all this.

Here's where it gets tricky. Serena and Allie have used the same cropped photo as their profile pics. Allie has noticed this and asked Serena why she's used her photo as her own. In the meantime, Serena has messaged me from the UK to ask, "who's this Allie person and why is she using my photo on Facebook?"

Although it was a long time since we were all in that photo, I know who is right. I just don't know how to tell Serena that she's not the little girl she thinks she is.