Finding work for idle hands: making, baking and more.

Happy Halloween! October 31, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — lauravw @ 7:18 pm

20121031-191831.jpgHappy Halloween from Busywork Towers!

As you know I’ve had my decorations up for weeks, waiting for today to roll around. Last week I stocked up on chocolate bars, lollies, and those chewy sweets that threaten to pull your teeth out. And then last night I emptied all those sweets into my (newly-purchased, while in Boston) Hello Kitty trick or treat bag, ready to dole out to visitors tonight.

I got home from work just as it was getting dark, lit our pumpkin (which has a crow on it this year, and is quite a sight to see – except for the sad mouldy patch round the back, but we won’t dwell on that), and put it outside on the front step, to let all the local witches, ghosts and vampires know that we were open for business.

Within a few minutes there were footsteps on the gravel, and then a knock at the door. Three witches greeted me, and I gave each of them a chocolate bar and a lolly. Then there was another knock, and on our driveway stood a little girl dressed as a pumpkin, with her father in tow. Again, more sweets were distributed.

But that was where I went wrong: I started out too generously, and supplies dwindled fast. After 25 children had called, I only had enough sweets for five more trick or treaters. And wouldn’t you know it, the next time I heard a knock at the door, I was greeted by TEN children in costumes. I quickly explained that there were more of them than I had sweets, and they took it pretty well – thankfully the parents they had brought along with them reminded them they would all have to share their treats once they got home anyway. But towards the back of the group was a little girl who looked very sad that she wasn’t getting any sweets. She had kept her part of the bargain, dressing up and going to a house that looked like it would welcome trick or treaters, and I had failed by not buying enough sweets.

Which is why I have now brought the pumpkin indoors, turned off all the lights, closed the curtains, and am hiding in the living room, pretending I’m not home.


Vermont October 30, 2012

Filed under: Travel — lauravw @ 11:43 am

It’s only been four weeks since we flew home from New England, but it looks like the landscape we enjoyed so much will have changed significantly already. Hurricane Sandy is making her way north today, with Vermont in her sights.

While we were there, we saw areas that had been badly damaged when the last hurrican blew through – bridges that had been destroyed, homes that had been cut off, roads swept away and trees downed. They said on the news today that Hurricane Sandy is a storm the size of Europe, which my little brain can’t really take in.

This picture shows the view at sunrise from one of the bed and breakfasts we stayed in. A nice side effect of the jet lag we experienced was that we got to see the sun come up over the mountains, illuminating all the trees. (Jet lag also meant that while we were in Boston, I was able to get up and go for a swim in the hotel pool before the sun came up. One morning I saw the dark pre-dawn sky turn pink and red through the pool’s roof-top windows, which was a nice start to the day.)

Vermont is a lovely place – definitely somewhere we would like to go back to. The scenery is beautiful, with so many waterfalls and gushing rivers all over the place. One morning we drove past a large lake which was draped in clouds of mist, floating just above the surface of the water.

Farming is an important part of the economy, and we were able to visit two farms and meet the animals that lived there. The first was a small alpaca farm, where cuddly (and apparently very valuable) alpacas roamed around in a lush green landscape. Later that same day we went to Shelburne Farms, close to Lake Burlington. The farm buildings were of such extravagant construction that they wouldn’t have looked out of place at Hogwarts, and they were filled with goats, calves, sheep and hens – and sparrows, who flew in and helped themselves to the animals’ food.

The following day we headed further east and ended up in the sort of small town that shuts down on Sundays. And of course it was Sunday. Just when it seemed that we’d all have to spend the afternoon and evening at the hotel playing cards and eating snacks from a vending machine, Megan found a restaurant for us in the next town, and I spotted that the local bowling alley offered a discount to people staying at our hotel. From its name, the restaurant did not sound promising, but it was actually very good – I wish we’d paid more attention to what went into the meal we had, so that I could try to recreate it at home. And the bowling alley was exactly the sort of experience I always love to stumble across on my travels, a glimpse into how local people live. It was an old-fashioned place, and many of the bowling balls had people’s name engraved on them. There were noticeboards filled with pictures of veteran bowlers, and a bar serving generously-poured drinks. And, unlike any bowling alley I’ve ever been in at home, there were signs up advertising the local gun shop.

It was dark by the time we finished bowling and drove back to the hotel. As we got out of the car to head up to our rooms, we noticed how clear the skies were – there were plenty of stars on display, more than we usually see in our urban surroundings. Megan and Scott are exactly the sort of people you want to be friends with on an evening like this: Megan immediately got us all back in the car, and directed Scott to drive us to a spot even further away from the city lights so that we could see more of the sky. We parked on a fairly remote lane, and all got out of the car to take a look. Within seconds we saw a shooting star.


Baking for Britain

Filed under: Food — lauravw @ 10:47 am

I don’t know if it’s the influence of the Great British Bake Off, or just simple greediness on my part, but I’ve been putting my baking abilities to the test this week. It’s all gone quite well, which has been encouraging. I’m not saying I’ll be auditioning to be in the next series or anything, just that things were edible.

First up was a Swiss roll, which I filled with Kahlua whipped cream. (Which reminds me: I need to buy more Kahlua, I add it to everything. I’m not sure if this is a problem.) This was the second time I’d made a Swiss roll, the first attempt being a couple of months ago. They both worked out well, but this second one didn’t crack when I rolled it up, so I think that makes it the winner. They were both delicious though. Unfortunately I think I had the camera on the wrong setting when I took pictures of it, as they all look very blurry. Or perhaps all that Kahlua starts to have an effect on you after a while? Either way, no photos to show you other than a quick Instagram snap.

And then at the weekend I decided to try the Gooey Chocolate Stack, from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess book. This involved making two things I’d never tried before: meringues, and creme patissiere. And they both worked! I did a bit of reading about the recipe online before getting started, and found the general consensus was that you should assemble it just before serving. This was a good tip, as by the second day, the leftovers still looked fine but the meringue in the middle had pretty much dissolved, leaving a chocolate mousse-like substance (not a bad thing, but I think the dish was more interesting when it was fresh and you could see all the layers).


Halloween decorations are go! October 16, 2012

Filed under: Halloween — lauravw @ 3:02 pm

The shops have been full of Christmas cards and decorations since August, so I don’t think it can be too early for the Halloween decorations to go up. (There is actually a house on the next street that has had decorations up for at least two weeks, which means they are even more enthusiastic about Halloween than I am!)

Today the wind is doing its best to blow the leaves from the trees, and there’s a chill in the air that feels very autumnal. I love it.

I still have more to report about my trip to New England, which I’ll get round to soon. It already feels so long ago, but we have plenty of pictures, and I kept notes on what we did every day. But this evening I’m going to do nothing – it’s been a busy few days, and I intend to sit with my feet up, watching the final of the Great British Bake Off. I made a batch of oatmeal cookies earlier, so I can enjoy something homemade while I watch. With our holiday and other distractions, it had been over a month since I baked anything. I really enjoyed it, and it’s comforting to know the cake tin is no longer empty.


Inside America’s Test Kitchen October 9, 2012

Filed under: Food,Travel — lauravw @ 1:37 pm

While we were in Boston, our friends Megan (Not Martha) and Scott flew over from Seattle to spend time with us, which was a real treat as it had been two years since we’d last seen them. Megan had been invited to tour the offices and studio of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated while she was in Boston, and we all got to tag along.

They are not brands we’re familiar with in the UK, but there were some similarities to Good Housekeeping. The recipes are tested and tested and tested – I was interested to see how rigid their processes are for doing this. They produce everything on a domestic scale, using domestic ovens – because all the recipes are aimed at the home cook. I loved seeing a noticeboard by the kitchen featuring photos gathered from Flickr and Twitter, each showing people’s successes at following the recipes. One of their founding principles is that they test everything, from ingredients to tools, and then use whatever their tests reveal to be the best – steering very clear (with a few noted exceptions) of product placement and freebies.

The site they work from is not huge and not fancy – I was amazed at how much they produce from what seemed to be fairly limited surroundings. (It’s something I’m trying to keep in mind now I’m home and back at work!) They seem to get an awful lot done – magazines, books and TV programmes – we were lucky enough to be given copies of some of their newest books. One features a recipe for Boston cream pie, which I may try out over the winter to remind me of our holiday. I make Boston cream pie occasionally already, using a Nigella Lawson recipe, so I really should try a more authentic version. I may still buy the creme patissiere for the filling though – I’m not sure I can face the effort of making that.

Speaking of Nigella Lawson, has anyone else got the new book, Nigellissima? I pre-ordered a copy and so it was waiting for me when I got back from Boston. As a vegetarian reader, there’s not a great deal in it for me – I had expected more, since Italian food is so varied. There are certainly recipes in it I will be trying, but not as many as I’d hoped. And, reflecting the changes in Nigella herself over the past year, this is a much slimmer volume that her previous books.


Back from Boston

Filed under: Travel — lauravw @ 1:26 pm

I’ve been far away from Busywork Towers of late, spending a couple of weeks enjoying the spectacle that is New England in the fall (autumn, to those of us on this side of the Atlantic).

We started out in Boston, a city we visited once before, almost exactly ten years ago. This week I dug out our photos from that holiday, and was interested to see I’d been drawn to take pictures of many of the same things this time around. It’s quite a compact city by American standards, and so if you like walking, you can explore much of it on foot. (Though admittedly there was one particular day when, having walked too far, I was on the brink of just lying down and refusing to take another step. Luckily there was a cafe across the road and we were able to recover in there for a while.)

As ever, when I travel I like to investigate the food on offer – and no holiday is complete with time being spent in a foreign supermarket. There were a few good ones to explore this time, particularly the Whole Foods close to one of the hotels we stayed in. Another food highlight for me was Flour Bakery – I am envious of the many office workers and students we saw there, who seem to be able to use the place as their regular lunch spot. It’s famous for its cakes, and the Boston cream pie I tried was so good that once I’d eaten it, I joined the back of the queue so that I could buy something else to try. They had such a huge range of stuff on offer, from cakes and meringues to breads and soups. Fortunately they have produced a book of their recipes, and heavy hints have been dropped to certain people about how I could easily find a space for that on my bookshelves.

I took a lot of pictures – they are all on Flickr if you want a peek. I’ll write some more soon about the other places we visited while we were away – it certainly beats dealing with the enormous pile of laundry that threatens to topple over and crush me…