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