Monday, February 28, 2011

Do me a favour

I know I have a few readers now; most within New Zealand, but also a number in various countries around the world. No doubt, wherever you are, you've seen footage of the earthquake and felt absolutely powerless to do anything.

Well, I'm sitting right here in Christchurch, not five kilometres from the ruins of the city centre, and I have something I'd like you all to do for me. Namely, make sure you are prepared for such an event happening to you.

Yes, I'm talking about emergency supplies: the same message you've been getting from that bloke on the TV for some years now. A while back, I put together some emergency supplies, hoping I'd never have to use them - and for a year or two, I didn't. But in the past week, I was very glad that I'd made the effort.

You can go all-out and put together a pre-packed kit that is ready to go in case of emergency evacuation, (just remember you'll have to regularly check and replace the contents so the food items don't expire) but even if you just make sure you have supplies somewhere in the house, it's a whole lot better than nothing.

I'm deviating from the usual theme of my blog in that this entry is entirely unrelated to any Edmonds recipe. But, keeping in mind the practical nature of the Edmonds book, I thought to myself, "If the Edmonds book had a page listing emergency survival items, what would be on it?" and came up with the list below. Most of it is the standard stuff, with a few other items I have found useful. It's based on a scenario in which you have  no power, no water, no sewage, and no ability to pop down to the shops. How well would you get by?


  • This is an absolute essential. You really don't know how much you use water for until you have to go without it. Even if you don't get anything else on this list, buy a few large bottles of water and stash them somewhere out of the way. Ignore the useby dates: if they're sealed, they'll keep indefinitely.
  • A large pot for boiling possibly tainted water is also useful, as is a thermos for keeping boiled water hot for drinks, and a funnel to help pour boiled water into bottles.

Alternative light sources:

  • Torches - plus spare batteries.  I also have a small solar-powered one which is great. Head torches are good for reading in the evening.
  • Candles and matches (not suitable post-earthquake because of aftershocks, but fine for other power outages if you're careful).

An alternative means of cooking:
  • Whether you usually cook with electricity or gas, a natural disaster could disrupt your usual cooking facilities. A single-burner gas cooker like mine costs about $25 from The Warehouse, and the propane canisters are about $3.50 each.
  • If you have a barbecue, that's another option you can rely on - as long as you have enough LPG in the bottle. If you run out, will you be able to refill it?

 Food items:
  • Canned food - try to collect a good variety of proteins, fruit and vegetables as well as the standard spaghetti and baked beans.
  • Carbs e.g rice, noodles or pasta (couscous is ideal as minimal liquid is required to cook it).
  • Liquid stock allows you to cook without using any of your precious drinking water. Keep an eye on those best before dates if you're buying it specially for your emergency kit though.
  • Materials for making hot drinks, e.g Milo, tea bags. You may have no shower or toilet, but you can at least have hot cuppa.
  • Milk - you can get long-life, but it only keeps for a few months. I made do with milk powder in my Milo, or condensed milk in a tube is also a good option.
  • Snack food e.g muesli bars or trail mix can give an added energy boost without the need for cooking.
  • If you're packing all this food into that 'get up and go' evacuation kit, don't forget a can opener and some kind of pot to cook in.

  • You need to have some means of receiving Civil Defence information and similar. Get a small radio and have plenty of batteries to power it. This is one thing I did not have before the quake; luckily I was able to borrow Mum and Dad's, or I would have had no idea what was going on. I'll be buying my own as soon as possible.
  • If phone lines are operational, you want to be able to use them. Have at least one analog phone in your house that does not require electricity to work.
  • Have a car charger for your mobile phone. There's no other way to charge it if you don't have power at home.

Sanitation requirements:
  • A bucket - you want one with a lid so you can keep the smell in and the flies out.
  • A spade to dig a hole for emptying your bucket.
  • Toilet paper
  • Hand sanitiser

  • A well-stocked first aid kit
  • Spares of any pills you regularly take.
  • Baby wipes - hand sanitiser is all very well, but sometimes you need to clean your hands as well as sanitise them. Useful for all sorts of things, including wiping jam off kitchen surfaces.
  • Paper towels - remember if you use a dishcloth, you have no way of rinsing it out.
  • Bleach - dilute for general cleaning and sterilising. Can also be used to sterilise drinking water, but you should only use this method if boiling is not possible. Of course, adding a packet of water purification tablets to your supplies is another option.
  • Supplies for pets, i.e food, kitty litter and similar. Take your pet into account when you calculate how much water you'll need - they need to drink too!

These are the things that helped me get by, though bear in mind I was only without power and water for four days; you might have to make do for longer. This list is of course geared to my needs as a single person, but have a think about your own situation and the things you might need. If you have a baby in the house, for example, you'll need a heap of things that aren't on my list.

If you already have supplies of this sort, then well done. See if there's anything on my list you don't have, and suggest anything you think I should add. If you haven't, then please take a look at my list and put a few things together. It's not as difficult as you think, and it might just make all the difference sometime down the track.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Despite everything, the Edmonds Challenge continues

I haven't made an entry for a while.  Initially this neglect was due to the four hectic but hilarious days I spent in Picton, celebrating the wedding of my good friends Lauren and Tom. Since then, however, things have been at a standstill for a much more sobering reason.

By now you will all have heard about the earthquake that hit Christchurch on Tuesday afternoon. I was at work at the time, which, luckily for me, is located in Hornby, not in the city centre. It was a sizeable jolt, enough to send us running for the doorways, but there was no damage to speak of. None of us had any suspicion of the devastation in other parts of town.

The first report to come through was that the Cathedral had been badly damaged, and that fatalities were likely. My brain rejected the concept that anyone could have been killed, but early images of the collapsed spire brought me close to tears. Christchurch Cathedral, previously a symbol of Canterbury's will to survive and rebuild after the September quake, was now a ruin.

As the minutes ticked past, we heard more reports of the total destruction of certain buildings, of people trapped in rubble and crushed in buses. With confirmation of multiple fatalities, and I was forced to accept the horrible truth that dozens of ordinary Cantabs going about their daily business, along with a number of international visitors, had not survived.

Soon enough we were told to go home. Traffic was crawling, bumper-to-bumper on any major road, as everyone else tried to do the same. Most unusually, drivers were extremely patient and courteous as they negotiated the packed streets. I stopped by Lauren and Tom's place to check for damage on my way home. As I shut the car door, I realised with a sinking feeling that I'd locked the keys inside. With no chance of getting the AA out, and no public transport, my only option was to smash a window to get back in.

I continued home with a back seat full of broken glass, inching my way through the traffic, waiting at intersections where solitary volunteers directed traffic in lieu of traffic lights. The damage worsened the further east I went. Close to home there was a lot of flooding, liquefaction and potholes in the streets. With the focus on search and rescue in the city, few areas had been officially coned or roped off as they were in the last quake. Residents had done their best to indicate large cracks or potholes by placing their wheelie bins beside them.

I arrived home to find my house still standing. So far, so good. Not so good when I got inside, though - I was met with the sight of my bookcases and TV face-down on the lounge floor. Stepping gingerly around these, I took a look in the kitchen. Jars of my runny plum jam had fallen from the top cupboard and smashed. Jam and tiny shards of glass were splattered all over the kitchen: it looked like a murder scene.

I checked the other rooms: more of the same. But I didn't have time to do much about it; I had to get over to New Brighton to check on Nana. Phone lines were working only sporadically, and we hadn't been able to contact her. I climbed back into the car and started towards Nana's. Every street I tried to go down was flooded: my own street seemed to be a (comparatively) dry island surrounded by flooding. In the end there was nothing to do but drive through it. It took me over half an hour to drive the few hundred metres of Hills Rd: flooded, potholed, covered in piles of silt, and packed with traffic.

The rest of the way to New Brighton offered more of the same. The roads became ever rougher; I was pushing my little Honda over cracks and holes that should only be attempted in a four-wheel drive. I had no option; neither did any of the hundreds of other drivers doing the same. Finally I reached the retirement village: It was flooded.

Picturing Nana standing alone in her villa, watching the floodwaters approach, I had to find a way to get to her. I took off my socks and shoes, rolled up my trousers and began to wade. The water was only knee-deep and I waded through it easily - too easily, as it turned out. Confidently forcing my way through the water, I couldn't see the crack that had opened in the surface of the driveway. I fell into it, getting myself soaking wet and smacking my shin hard on the edge of the crack.

I got up and hobbled to Nana's door. She wasn't there - unsurprisingly, she'd been evacuated as the floodwaters reached her house. Wet and bleeding, I surveyed the deserted village and wondered what to do next. Wherever I went, it was going to mean more wading.

Deciding to check at the office for information, I waded (carefully!) the safest-looking path and found someone to ask. At this point I ran into another relative on the same mission, and together we went door-knocking on the dry side of the village, trying to find where Nana had been temporarily moved to. Eventually we found her and made arrangements to take her away for the night.

I got back to my car and headed home, finally reaching my own door as the light began to fade from the sky. I had no electricity or water, but I managed to clear up the worst of the jam and glass by torchlight, before laying down some old towels over the rest and going to bed.

I spent the next day clearing up the worst of the mess in my house. On finding that several of my neighbours didn't have any means of cooking or heating water, I set up my gas cooker outside so we could all share it. I'd also gone down to the medical centre and got a tetanus jab and a dressing for the cut on my leg, so that was sorted.  Mum and Dad made a trip up to Christchurch to take Nana back to Timaru, and brought me plenty of extra supplies, plus a new window that Dad fitted on the car immediately.

The days since have been very long and tiring. I went into work on Friday, but apart from that, I've been at home, wondering what else I could be doing to help. Theoretically I know that just by staying put, looking after myself and helping my neighbours where I can, I'm doing my bit. I wish I could be doing more, but I don't know what.

Yesterday, just to pass the time, I reached for my Edmonds book. I had only limited cooking facilites available, but I was sure I could find something to make. Sure enough, girdle scones (p29) fit the bill as something I could whip up from ingredients I had, and they could be cooked on the barbecue. As an added bonus, they would act as a bread substitute in a meal or two as bread is a bit scarce at the moment.

It's a pretty basic scone recipe - just flour, baking powder and salt, with butter rubbed in, and mixed to a dough with milk. True, I didn't have any milk, but I mixed some up using milk powder and bottled water. Soon, I had a nice little dough wich I formed into a round, cut in wedges and placed on the barbecue. After about five minutes on each side, they were done.

They hadn't risen very much, and some of them were slightly burnt on the surface. For these reasons, they may not have been the best scones I've ever made, but they were cooked through and tasted ok. And they're certainly the best scones I've ever made on a barbecue, within four days of a major disaster. Interestingly, it's just occurred to me that the first recipe I made after the September 4 quake was also a scone recipe. I guess it's natural to reach for something simple and familiar.

I've now got power and a trickle of water back on, so things are starting to become a little easier. Since it's best to try to go on as normally as possible, I will continue to cook, and to write. I'm well aware that, since I still have my home, my belongings and above all, my life, I can consider myself extremely lucky. I only wish that everyone else could say the same.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Custard variant

After jam and rumpot, I still had quite a few plums left. I figured I'd just stew them and have them on my morning porridge. I didn't do a very good job of the stewing, though - the plums broke down so quickly I was soon left with a runny sauce-like liquid (not too dissimilar to my 'jam', come to think of it). Thinking of it as a sauce made me wonder whether I could make a dessert to have with some sweet plum sauce.

While I'm doing very well getting through the puddings chapter, I've fallen behind with the cold desserts. Leafing through this chapter, I found a recipe with the note "serve with fruit". Since there were no specifics indicated as to the consistency of the fruit in question, I figured my 'sauce' would go quite well.

The recipe I'd chosen was blancmange (p198). What's that? Well, it's a custardy kind of thing. It's really quite amazing how many custard recipes there are in the Edmonds book, not only for plain custards and custard sauces, but also custard-like desserts, or desserts that include custard (e.g trifle or fruit flan). Then again, there are few desserts simpler or cheaper than custard, and all these recipes are a testament to the variety of ways you can use it.

Anyway: blancmange. It starts as a fairly standard custard recipe; you stir together milk, custard powder and sugar over a low to medium heat until it thickens. At that point, you add the essence of your choice (vanilla, almond or lemon: I chose lemon) and pour the custard into a mould to set. I don't own any moulds, so I just poured mine into a bowl.

An hour or so later, I checked the blancmange. It looked to have set, so I turned it out onto a plate. The blancmange separated from the 'mould' quite easily, but it didn't actually hold its shape once I'd turned it out. It was in fact a big custardy blob on the plate. Oh well. I poured over some of my inadvertent sauce and had a taste.

It was pretty much what you'd expect - a custard that tastes a bit lemony. The lemon went quite nicely with the plum, but I could see that the blancmange would go better with some actual chunks of fruit instead of just a fruity sauce. On the whole, it was quite nice, but nothing terribly special.

For all that, it's worth bearing this or any of the other custard recipes in mind if you find you need a bit more filling up when you've finished your dinner. Custard is quick, easy to make, cheap and filling. It can be served hot or cold, and as far as desserts go, it's fairly healthy too: there may be a little bit of sugar, but it's low fat (especially if you use a trim milk) and generally served with fruit. And you don't have to stick to the same recipe either: there's plenty of scope for custard variety in your Edmonds book!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Stonefruit additions

Since it's currently stone fruit season, and particularly since I had a dozen or so plums left over from my jam, I decided it was about time to add some more fruit to my rumpot.

I  used a couple of the plums, some apricots and a peach. The plums and apricots I de-stoned and sliced into quarters; the peach I peeled and sliced into wedges.

Peering into the rumpot before adding the stone fruit, I was a little bit dubious as to how the whole rumpot experiment is going to work out. I have some scary brownish strawberries surrounded by soggy-looking blueberries floating in a jar of rum. It's just not as appealing as I expected.

I added the stone fruit, hoping that these nice colourful chunks of fruit wouldn't turn out looking quite as dodgily brown as the strawberries. The fruit amounted to 400g, so I put in 200g of sugar before topping it up with rum and giving it a stir.

There's only a little space left at the top of the jar - enough to put a few chunks of apple, and maybe some pear if I'm lucky. After that, I'll still have to leave it a couple of weeks before I find out whether my rumpot is as good as it originally sounded, or whether it's just been a waste of good rum!

More runny jam

On my most recent visit to Raeward Fresh, I picked up a couple of 99-cent bags of plums, with the intention of turning them into jam. Two bags ended up being more than enough, as you'll see from the next couple of blog entries.

The messiest and most time-consuming part of making plum jam (p227) is halving and stoning the plums. Unlike apricots or peaches, plum stones don't come away from the flesh very easily. In fact, it's a total mission getting the stone to come out without taking half the fruit with it.

Once I'd got the hang of it, the de-stoning went a bit quicker - but I still got plum juice all over the kitchen, and came close to taking chunks out of my fingers more than once when the knife slipped. It was really a miracle that I produced a potful of stoned plums with 0% blood content.

A little water and a lot of sugar joined the plums, and I put the pot on to boil for 15 minutes. Towards the end of this time, the jam was approaching a suitable consistency, but the plum skins weren't breaking down. I decided I didn't want big lumps of plum skin in my final product, so I grabbed a slotted spoon and scooped out most of them.

During the scooping process, I noticed the jam was starting to look quite thick. Not wanting to over-thicken my jam, I cut short my scooping and checked to see if it has reached setting point. It looked alright, so I took the pot off the heat and poured the jam into jars.

While I was filling the jars, I noticed the jam didn't seem as thick as I'd thought; in fact, it was quite runny. Several days later, it still hasn't thickened up at all. So it seems I still haven't learned to judge the setting point very well. Possibly, leaving the skins in is essential to making the jam set.  If not, I guess I just should have boiled it for longer.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Operator error

Earlier this week, I once again found myself lacking anything to put in my lunchbox for mid-morning sustenance. Time to do some more baking! I decided to choose from the 'slices and squares' chapter this time. There were several recipes I had all the ingredients for, but in the end I chose caramel date fingers(p61).

There's quite a lot of date-based baking in the Edmonds book - which suits me fine, of course, since I'm very partial to dates. Caramel date fingers have a date filling sandwiched between two layers of spongy cake. Sounds exactly like my cup of tea!

I began by cutting up a cup of dates, and putting them in a pan over a low heat with some water, brown sugar and cocoa. Oddly, since these were supposed to be caramel date fingers, there was actually twice as much cocoa as brown sugar.

While the filling was reducing down to a paste on the stove, I prepared the base. It's a familiar process: cream butter and sugar, beat in egg and add dry ingredients. I then split the dough in half and pressed one half into the bottom of a 20cm square cake tin. As usual, it didn't look like it would spread enough at first, but eventually, with use of wet hands and teaspoon, I had the whole base of the tin covered evenly.

The instructions for the second half of the mixture were to roll or flatten it into roughly a 20cm square shape on a piece of baking paper. This was a bit tricky - the dough was quite sticky and was more inclined to stick to my hands than the paper, until I tried flattening it between two sheets of baking paper, which was more successful.

By the time I'd finished with that, the filling had become a thick brown paste. I poured it on top of the base and tried to spread it evenly over. Then came the tricky bit: I had to transfer my baking paper-pressed dough onto the top of the filling. I managed to peel the top sheet of baking paper off ok, but when I tried to transfer the dough to the tin, the paper didn't want to come off.

With very careful easing I managed to peel the paper away. Since my shaping of the dough had been approximate, there were still edges where the filling wasn't covered. Attempting to spread the dough across to fill these areas gave me a very clear understanding of why the top layer of dough is pre-rolled/flattened instead of just being spread over the top. It was difficult to spread the dough without smearing the filling or making holes in other places.

A little perseverance eventually produced the desired result - that is, if the desired result is to have smears of filling all through the top layer of the dough - and the slice went into the oven for half an hour.

When the slice had cooled a little, I cut it into fingers and tried one. The filling was lovely and moist, and went well with the cakey layers. I didn't think it merited the description 'caramel' though - the filling tasted quite chocolaty, which was weird in combination with the dates.

I've been eating this slice ever since, thinking how the odd chocolate/date combination really ruins a slice that would otherwise be very nice. It wasn't until I sat down to write this that I took another look and realised that there's nothing wrong with this recipe after all. There's only supposed to be two teaspoons of cocoa in it. I put in two tablespoons. No wonder it tasted so chocolaty!

Yet more evidence that I need to read recipes more carefully - clearly I haven't learnt my lesson yet. I think I feel a 'take 2' coming on!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Savoury selection

On Friday evening, having put my relish on to boil, I turned my attention to the savoury nibbles I'd offered to bring.  I'd decided to make salmon puffs (p194), savoury tartlets (p195) and devils on horseback (p193).

I began with the salmon puffs, cutting 5cm rounds out of pre-rolled sheets of pastry. These went into the oven until puffed up and golden, then I took them out, split each puff in half, and cooled the tops and bottoms separately. I was quite pleased with the way these came out - they were perfectly golden and each 'half' was nicely rounded to allow room for the filling. It'll be worthwhile to remember these easy cases, which could be used for all sorts of fillings.

With the salmon puff cases finished, I moved on to the savoury tartlets. More puff pastry, this time a block rolled out to 6cm thickness and cut into rounds to line patty tins. The filling consisted of sautéed onion and bacon, topped with a mixture of eggs and milk.

When the tartlets came out of the oven, they looked absolutely gorgeous, all puffed up and golden. Inevitably, they collapsed as they cooled, and I packed them away in a container ready to take over to Lauren's.

On Saturday morning, I got up early to continue my preparations. I iced my chocolate eclairs, then made the filling for the salmon puffs - a mixture of smoked salmon, cream cheese, parsley, lemon juice, and (oddly) whipped cream. I didn't put this in the pastry cases yet though - I didn't want them to go soggy.

I had one last dish to make: devils on horseback. These simple canapés have only two ingredients - prunes and bacon. You simply wrap each prune in a strip of bacon, and pin it in place with a toothpick, then put them under the grill until the bacon is cooked. The juicy sweetness of the prune contrasting with the salty bacon is just delicious. Unfortunately, I overcooked my first tray, and didn't have time to make any more before running out to meet the others for our dress fittings.

 Returning from the dressmaker's, I went straight back into the kitchen and made another batch of devils on horseback. Thinking I had plenty of time, I sat down and read a book for a little bit, then (some time later) suddenly realised it was almost time to leave and I wasn't at all ready. A lightning-quick job on hair and makeup was followed by a quick change of clothes, then (carefully covering up my outfit with an apron) I ran back into the kitchen to finish off my savouries.

I had big ideas of prettily piping the filling into the salmon puffs, but very soon found that I hadn't chopped the salmon small enough for that. The piping nozzle immediately got clogged with lumps of salmon, so I ended up spooning the filling in. It worked just fine that way - and you could hardly see the filling once I put the tops back on them anyway.

The filling was quite runny - I think because of the whipped cream. Next time I make these I'll just use soft cream cheese and forget about the whipped cream. I've often used the salmon/cream cheese combination in the past and it always goes down well.

I hurriedly piped cream into my eclairs, packed everything into containers or on platters, laid it all carefully in the back of my car, and drove across town to Lauren's, where I made a fairly unsuccessful attempt to reheat my tartlets (soggy!) and helped set out the rest of the food before the other guests arrived.

The hen's party was really quite hilarious. We spent the afternoon making and drinking mojitos, playing dodgy hen's party games and generally having a good laugh. I didn't take the 'pantry item' prize with my relish, by the way: it was deservingly awarded to Sandy, who brought not one pantry item beginning with 's' but a whole basketful.

The food I and my Edmonds book provided all went down very well. Oddly, my soggy savouries were very popular: despite the sogginess, they still tasted pretty good. Still, I'd recommend serving them either cold or immediately after you first bake them. Several people got quite excited when they saw the eclairs, most of which disappeared despite the fact that they're very messy to eat. The salmon puffs and the devils on horseback got positive comments as well, so on the whole, I reckon that making all those nibbles was definitely a worthwhile effort.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Pantry item

As an aid to introductions at the hen's party tomorrow night, we've all been asked to bring an item for Lauren's pantry beginning with the same letter as our first names - prizes given for originality.

I initially intended to re-label a bottle of red wine as 'Robyn's Reserve Red' and create a lengthy description on the back using as many r-words as possible. I was quite enthusiastic about the idea at first, but when it came to making up coherent, relevant sentences using only r-words, I couldn't put together a version I was satisfied with.

The hen's party was getting ever closer, I wasn't getting any further with the wine description, so I started to think of other possible pantry items. Ideally, I should make something from the Edmonds book, but I didn't think there was anything starting with 'r' that I could pass off as a pantry item. Without much hope, I picked up my Edmonds book to flick through the jam and pickle chapters - just in case.

As I thought, the only 'r' recipe was raspberry jam, and I'd already made that. There weren't any recipes beginning with 'r' amongst the pickles, chutneys and sauces.. but there was a tomato relish (p234)! How about 'Robyn's Relish' as a pantry item? Homemade, too - that's got to count for something!

I hadn't left myself much time to get it made, though: by the time I bought my ingredients, I only had today to make the relish. The tomatoes and onions have to be salted and sit for 12 hours - a difficult length of time, if you're doing it during the week - so I was up at six this morning, chopping onions and blanching tomatoes.

The tomatoes and onions had produced quite a bit of liquid by the time I got home this evening. I poured this off and put the vegetables in a pot with some brown sugar, chillis and malt vinegar. This mixture bubbled away happily for an hour and a half while I pottered about preparing jars and making nibbles for the party.

When the boiling time was up, I mixed together a paste of mustard powder, curry powder, flour and vinegar, and added that to the pot. Another five minutes' boiling, and the relish was ready. I'd only done a half-recipe, which turned out to be exactly the right size to fill two of the jars I had prepared.

After the jars had cooled down, I took the larger one, and prettied it up a little with a cover and a label. Robyn's Relish: one pantry item beginning with 'r', ready to go. Now all that remains to be seen is whether someone else has come up with something better!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Party pastries

It's Lauren's hen's party on Saturday night, and I've offered to bring a few nibbles. It's a good excuse to knock off a few more recipes of the kind I can't really make just for myself. I've selected a couple out of the 'party finger food' chapter, but the first thing I've actually made is a batch of chocolate eclairs (p81).

Chocolate eclairs are made from choux pastry, something I've made before, so I was reasonably confident they'd come out ok. Perhaps I was even a little too confident: despite the fact that I'd been feeling fuzzy-headed and absentminded all day, and that the first thing I did on arriving home was knock a water glass off the kitchen bench, shattering it everywhere, I still felt that tonight was a good night to be making pastries.

At first, things were going quite well. The choux pastry itself is not difficult to make: simply bring water and butter to a rolling boil, then take it off the heat and beat in flour. Let it cool slightly, then beat in three eggs one by one until you have a nice glossy mixture. I got to this point without having any problems. It was the piping that got me into trouble.

I'd intended to get a box of disposable piping bags with my groceries, but as a result of the aforementioned absentmindedness, I'd neglected to buy any during an unnecessarily long grocery mission spent going back and forth and around the supermarket in circles as I remembered various items I wanted. This meant I had to use my ordinary piping bag.

My piping bag works perfectly well for whipped cream, which is what I mainly use it for anyway. But the moment you try piping a denser mixture with it, the mixture (in this case, choux pastry mix) oozes out the seam rather than the nozzle and makes your hands all gooey, meaning it's much more difficult to keep a decent grip on the piping bag.

I'd decided to try and make the eclairs quite small, since they're supposed to be finger food. Even so, I didn't intend to pipe the pastry in such skinny little lines, but that's the best I could do with the dodgy piping bag. I filled a couple of trays with piped lines of pastry, put them in the oven and hoped for the best.

They didn't rise - well, they did, but not nearly enough. When the cooking time was over, I had a number hard little turd-shaped lumps of eggy pastry. Well, I couldn't use those! I'd have to do a second batch. But first, it was time for a walk: I grabbed my jacket and wandered to a local supermarket for some piping bags.

Returning to the kitchen, I mixed up another batch of pastry, and this time I was able to pipe it into reasonable eclair shapes. They still weren't perfect, but they were a heap better than the first lot, and far quicker and easier to pipe with a non-oozing piping bag! After about 20 minutes (less than the half hour in the recipe) at 200 degrees for the eclairs to puff up and go golden, I turned the oven down to 120 and left them in there for another 20 minutes or so to dry out.

After all this, I now have 28 decent-looking eclairs. I still have to ice them and fill them with cream, but that can wait until Saturday. Meanwhile, I've got more finger food to make!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Back into baking

I haven't done any baking for a while. In fact, I didn't need to do any baking for the whole of January, since I was still making my way through the remains of my totally excessive Christmas baking: I can't imagine what made me think I'd need so much. Still, having finally eaten the last piece of Christmas cake, I'm now in need of baking for my morning teas.

I haven't done much from the 'scones, muffins and loaves' chapter, so I thought I'd pick something out of there this week. Date loaf (p27) is always a favourite (though I don't recall ever trying this particular recipe) so I decided to give that one a go.

It's best if you make a start on this a while before you actually intend to bake it, as the dates need to be soaked in boiling water with baking soda and butter for an hour. As long as you're organised, you can set this up and do something else for an hour while your dates go all soft and gooey in the hot water.

When the hour's up, just beat in brown sugar, an egg, some walnuts and vanilla essence, then fold through the dry ingredients. I stupidly used my Pyrex jug for this - a good size for soaking the dates, but not so great once you've added a few more cups of ingredients. It was difficult to combine the ingredients with so little room in the jug, the result being that the mixture was a bit overworked before I had it all combined.

I poured the mixture into a lined loaf tin and popped it in the oven. The recipe had a cooking time of 45 minutes; I set the timer for 40 and took it out to test when the buzzer went off. The top was quite dark (and split, likely because of my overmixing) but I was a little worried that the centre might still be a bit gluggy. It's hard to tell from the toothpick-test when you have those sticky dates in there to gunge up the toothpick. I didn't want to risk drying out the loaf though, so I decided not to put it back in for the final five minutes.

I left the loaf in the tin for ten minutes, then turned it out onto a rack. I cut into it immediately, of course, because I just couldn't resist a slice of date loaf warm from the oven. It wasn't at all heavy in the centre as I'd feared: in fact, it had quite a light spongy texture. There were chunks of walnut to give it a bit of bite, and, of course, those lovely sweet gooey bits of date. As date loaves go, this is a pretty good one. I think I'll be making this again.

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