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

At last April 16, 2013

Filed under: Books,Food — lauravw @ 3:20 pm

hummingbirdbookThat was the longest winter I have experienced.

I dread to think how much our heating bill will be – but at last the heating is off, the windows are open, and there are flowers in the garden. Until very recently, our pond had been frozen over every morning, but now the temperatures have climbed, it’s back to its liquid state. I’ve been checking most mornings to see if there is any frogspawn (we only put the pond in last summer, so this is the first opportunity we’ve had to see frogspawn in it), and so far I’ve not seen any. But today I saw a frog, once this morning and again this afternoon. I shall be checking the pond extra carefully tomorrow.

At the end of this week it’s my 35th birthday, and so baking has been stepped up a notch. I made tiramisu cupcakes yesterday, ready for a visiting friend (though there will only be a couple left by the time she visits…), and tomorrow I’m going to make chocolate rice crispy squares to take in for friends at work. And then the big baking project will start: candy bar pie, from the latest Hummingbird Bakery book. The book arrived a few weeks ago, but this is the first recipe I’ll be trying out. The ingredients are most encouraging: Oreos, Snickers bars, peanut butter, double cream… I’ve booked Friday off and so will have plenty of time to work on it – I’ll let you know how it goes. Can’t promise to save you a piece though.


The Hummingbird Bakery July 10, 2012

Filed under: Books,Food — lauravw @ 1:33 pm

When we were in London last month, we managed to fit in a visit to the Hummingbird Bakery in Notting Hill.

I was very excited about visiting the bakery in person, because ever since I got a copy of the first Hummingbird Bakery book last year, I’ve been really impressed by all the recipes I’ve tried from it. The recipe for vanilla cupcakes is the best one I’ve ever used, and I always use that recipe now if I want to make simple cupcakes.

The branch in Notting Hill is small, but it does have a few seats inside so if you time your visit just right, you might be able to sit and enjoy your cake indoors. Unfortunately for us, we arrived at around about the time school finished for the day, so the seats were all taken by yummy mummies and their offspring – we had our purchases boxed so that we could take them away. I tried the black bottomed cupcakes, which are chocolatey concoctions with a swirl of cheesecake built in. No pictures of the cake itself: once I started eating it, sitting in a park in Notting Hill, my hands were so messy and sticky that to get the camera out would have been a big mistake. It was delicious though.

My mother tried the brownies – I can’t tell you how good they were as she demolished hers so rapidly that I didn’t get a taste, but I assume that means they were very good indeed…

I now have a copy of the second book as well, Cake Days, and last weekend I tried making the Earl Grey tea cupcakes, which were very good. The Earl Grey taste seemed to fade a bit as the week went on, but they were still the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea. The second book seems to have as many interesting recipes in it as the first, and I’m looking forward to trying a few more when I get chance.

And if you’ve not seen it already, take a look at their blog, which often has useful baking tips, and is worth a read.


Brits and baking March 11, 2011

Filed under: Books,Food — lauravw @ 8:45 am

As you read this, if things have gone to plan, I should be in Belgium. So there’s no Friday Tidy this week – but I thought you might like to read about how I got on trying out an American recipe for British baked goods.

I love brownies, key lime pie, chocolate chip cookies, Boston creme pie, and all kinds of other American baked goods. I also love egg custards, fairy cakes, banana bread, millionaire’s shortbread, and many other things that I think of as British. So my collection of books about baking covers both sides of the Atlantic. Some of the recipes I have are all-out British, some are totally American, and some are American recipes adapted by British cooks for British tastes and kitchens.

I think it is the American books I enjoy reading the most: there is something exotic about the recipes for dishes I have not grown up with. But it is usually the British books I turn to when I’m actually going to bake something, in part because I know that I’ll be able to buy the ingredients easily and that I will have the equipment and tools they will require.

For the past couple of months I have been poring over the Martha Stewart Baking Handbook, which Megan very kindly sent me for Christmas. I love how elegant everything looks – it is stuffed full of fattening foods, yet they present the pictures in such a dignified way that you wouldn’t feel greedy if you ate them all. There are a few recipes I’ve had my eye on, but the one I was most keen to try was chocolate shortbread. I struggled a bit with the ingredients – not because they are unusual in this country, but more because they have names we’re not used to. Next time I use an American recipe, I want to look up all the terms first, so that I’m not having to go online every couple of minutes to see what the British equivalent of something is.

For reference next time:

  • Superfine sugar = caster sugar
  • Confectioners’ sugar = icing sugar
  • All purpose flour = plain flour
  • A stick of butter = 113g

I do have a set of American measuring cups, but I just don’t understand why they don’t use scales to weigh everything! I find that filling up the little cups with the right amount of flour/sugar/whatever just leads to a mess all over the kitchen worktops, and it means I can’t simply stick the bowl I’m using onto the scales and add things in as I work. And how on earth are you supposed to measure out a cup of butter?! I also have my doubts about how accurate it is to measure by volume rather than by weight.

Anyway, I set to work and, despite my initial difficulties with translating things, I was soon eating some of the most delicious shortbread I have ever eaten. I don’t have one of those big stand mixers, but I do have a small electric whisk, which I used to bring together the ingredients to form the dough. It struggled a bit as it’s quite a heavy dough, but we got through it OK in the end. And while I may have started to lose my temper somwhere in the middle of the process, the end result was so worthwhile that I would be more than willing to go through it all again.

And by the way, while in a bookshop on Sunday I saw three books about whoopie pies. Two of them were distinctly American, and while they look like very good books, life is a lot easier if the recipes you are using use the language, ingredients and measuring techniques you are familiar with. So I was happy to see that the third book is by an American chef who runs a bakery in London. I bought it, and will be trying out a recipe from it just as soon as I get back from Belgium!


“Then what are we fighting for?” January 17, 2011

Filed under: Books — lauravw @ 8:25 pm

Things have been getting rather ugly here in Austerity Britain, what with violence blighting some of the protests against government spending cuts. And that makes this story about library users in Buckinghamshire all the more endearing: their library is under threat of being closed to save money, and so to protest, they withdrew all of the books. Every last one of them.

“Every library user was urged to pick their full entitlement of 15 books, take them away and keep them for a week. The idea was to empty the shelves by closing time on Saturday: in fact with 24 hours to go, the last sad bundle of self-help and practical mechanics books was stamped out.” (The Guardian)

I am lucky enough to live near an excellent and very popular library – it’s not at risk of closure, but it has had its staff and book/CD budget drastically cut (luckily for them, my habit of returning books late means they get a steady trickle of cash from me in the way of overdue book fines). It makes me very sad – British public libraries are such special places. For much of my childhood, my mother worked in libraries, and I enjoyed visiting her at work and getting to potter around behind the scenes, withdrawing more books than I was technically allowed, and getting to pick from new books before they went on the shelves.

In thinking about libraries I am reminded of a quote I saw on Twitter the other day. I’ve not been able to find the source of where I read it, but some Googling has found the quote:

“During the Second World War, Winston Churchill’s finance minister said Britain should cut arts funding to support the war effort. Churchill’s response: “Then what are we fighting for?””


Comfort food October 22, 2010

Filed under: Books,Food — lauravw @ 12:37 pm

It’s been terribly quiet here at Busywork towers: I’ve not been well (on the mend now though, I think) and so have for the most part been lying low.

I have had the opportunity to leaf through my new Nigella Lawson book, and also to try out a few recipes. One in particular has been a huge hit, and we’ve made it several times already: the Marmite pasta. If you love Marmite, I think you’d enjoy this recipe a lot.

Another recipe that has been tested is the one for chocolate banana muffins, which worked really well and is a good way to use up bananas that are somewhat past their prime. Our usual way of using up browning bananas is banana bread, and while the muffins make a nice change, I’m not sure they’ve edged out banana bread as the recipe of choice.

I’ve also tested out Nigella’s egg custard. I have rather a sweet tooth, and this recipe just wasn’t sweet enough for me – which surprised me as Nigella is not usually one to hold back on the sugar. I’ve mentioned before that my mother makes the best egg custards, but that she does so using a recipe that exists only in her head. She’s coming over later, and has promised to let me watch while she makes an egg custard, on the condition that I don’t interfere (!). She doesn’t even weigh things when baking, so my secret plan is to weigh the bag of sugar before she adds it to the custard, and then to weigh it again afterwards, so that I can calculate how much sugar she has used. Hopefully she’ll be unaware of this and so will not consider it an interference…

Incidentally Jamie Oliver’s new TV series has featured a recipe for Portuguese tarts, which are very similar to the kind of egg custards that come in a pastry shell. I haven’t tried it out yet but I plan to. We used to buy Portuguese tarts from a little bakery in North Yorkshire, and they were delicious.

And finally, the other recipe I’ve tried from Nigella Kitchen is for mexican lasagne, which was delicious and easy to make. It uses mostly canned ingredients (black beans, corn, tomatoes), and instead of lasagne sheets you use tortillas. We found it had a bit to much liquid in, so I’d reduce that next time I make it. And there certainly will be a next time – it was very good.


Nigella Kitchen September 26, 2010

Filed under: Books,Food — lauravw @ 11:55 am

To help get over the coming-back-from-holiday blues, I ordered myself a copy of the new Nigella Lawson book. It arrived this week and I’m not disappointed. It’s been a busy week (the laundry! going back to work! life!) so I’ve not had as much time with the book as I would have liked, but I did manage to sit and flick through it for half an hour, a stack of page-marking sticky notes at my side to mark the things I most want to try. There are a LOT.

It’s clear from some of the recipes that certain products will now be in great demand, thanks to an endorsement from Nigella (like that business with Delia Smith and the cranberries a few years back). I already want a bottle of Frangelico, a tin for making brownie bowls, and a nutmeg grater.

I’ve got my eye on making the Frangelico tiramisu, the brownie bowls, and something that involves Crunchie bars. There’s also a recipe for Marmite pasta, which really appeals to me (your mileage may vary on that one). And I’m going to make an egg custard – my mother bakes fantastic egg custards but doesn’t weigh anything or use a recipe, so I’ve never been able to emulate them.

The TV series that accompanies the book starts on Thursday – I’m out that night so will have to record it and catch up the next day…


Bookishness May 23, 2010

Filed under: Books — lauravw @ 1:30 pm

For plenty of people, all this sunshine and long hot days are very welcome. But for me it means hiding indoors with a migraine and hoping for a break in the weather so I can venture outside. Happily before the days heated up, I had ordered a new and rather large sunhat from Boden, so I’ve been able to hide underneath that on the rare occasions I’ve stepped out.

But there is plenty to do indoors! I have been going through old magazines and cutting out the articles I want to keep, filing them away in a pretty polka dot folder. And I’ve almost finished my study hall skirt. I’ve also been accumulating library fines – I like to think this means I’m helping the library buy new books, but it does infuriate me that so often I’m late returning my books (bear in mind I pass the library twice a day, and they let you renew your books online and by phone…). At least the fines were on books I’ve been enjoying: one in particular was a really good find. It’s Marie Claire Idees: Papercraft, and if you’ve ever read (or tried to read) Marie Claire Idees, you will know that it is in french, whereas this book has helpfully been translated into english. I did A-Level french and was reasonably good at it, but much of the vocabulary used in a craft magazine is rather specialised, and so I’ve struggled to make much sense of it. Not so with the book though – and from looking on Amazon I can see there is also a Marie Claire Idees book about bags.

There are a couple of new books that I’m looking forward to – Bill Bryson has written a social history book about domestic life, which I’m really looking forward to reading (once it comes out in paperback, I think). And later in the year Amy Butler’s new book about sewing bags will be out, just in time to be put to use making people bags for Christmas presents.

And now I think it’s time for some more ice cream.