New Year’s Resolutions 2014

I am going to be very short of time again this year, what with work, training, studying, making, baking, creating…the list goes on! So I need some manageable yet still challenging goals to aim for in 2014.

1) Enjoy the moment
I’ve sometimes got the tendency to look to the future too much, pondering the consequences of my current actions and being unable to fully enjoy whatever I’m doing. This is going to change this year.

2) Eat well and add to my cooking repertoire
As I mentioned in my review of 2013, although I have increased my fitness, my diet needs a bit more work. Most of what I eat is based on carbs (pasta, rice, bread etc) and some combination of tomatoes and/or cheese. I need to increase the amount of muscle-building protein and nutritious veg in my diet, no mean feat given that I am a vegetarian and very fussy to boot!

3) Write more blog posts
I’m sure none of you noticed but I have definitely written a lot less blog posts this year, not least because I didn’t have time to do 30 Days of Creativity this time around. This year I will write more blog posts, which means making and baking and creating more things to blog about.

4) Have more fun!
I spent a lot of time studying and training this year and I need to make more of opportunities to kick back, relax and have some fun in what remaining spare time I have in 2014.

What are your NYRs for 2014?

Becky

2013 – Year in Review

It’s that time of year again, to mull over what has happened in the last 365 days and look forward to what might occur in the next 365. In 2013, amongst other things, I:

- Somehow gained a Distinction in my latest (now discontinued) OU course: T211 Design and Designing
- Started supplying rowing-themed button badges to Rock the Boat
- Made an unexpected wedding cake for my friend’s wedding
- Celebrated my one year rowing anniversary
- Watched Luisa Omielan’s comedy show What Would Beyoncé Do?
- Had a ‘Health MOT’ and passed with flying colours
- Started a challenging and interesting new job
- Watched The Leisure Society live (again!)
- Won my first race final at a rowing regatta
- Had a Hawaiian-themed joint birthday party for my 30th
- Watched my friend’s long awaited, much anticipated and
very funny debut film ‘Dead Cat’
- Moved house
- Did a screenprinting workshop at Print Club London

As usual, at the start of the year, I decided on my New Year’s Resolutions. This year’s were intended to be more about ‘doing’ and less about ‘thinking’, though I could not have foreseen that a combination of rowing and studying would take over my life for nine or ten months of this year, leaving me little time for anything else (including writing blog posts)!

1) Make marshmallows, macarons and madeleines.
I managed to make marshmallows (and very tasty they were too), and some madeleines for my friend Madeleine’s birthday (though I didn’t get to try them). I’ve not quite got around to making macarons, though having not ever actually tried one I might find that I don’t like them after all! I was tempted by the make-your-own-macarons kits that I spotted in Sainsbury’s the other week, but alas the raspberry ones contain cochineal (off-limits to vegetarians) and the chocolate ones are out too because I don’t like chocolate. So this might be a longer term project. Perhaps I’ll take a class in how to make macarons, because by all accounts they can be tricky little so-and-sos!

2) Make fewer excuses.
This was the obligatory ‘floaty’ resolution but one I’ve been meaning to do for a number of years. I’ve had a tendency to blame stuff on things that are outside my control or that I could change if I really wanted to. Working on making less excuses (both spoken and in my head) has actually resulted in a lot of inner peace this year. I’ve learnt to change things and to just get on with life without coming up with feeble reasons not to do things. Hurrah!

3) Work on becoming very healthy and fit.
This was all to do with rowing, which I think I was a bit cagey about at the start of the year when I wrote about this resolution. Suffice it to say, a year’s worth of rowing training has done wonders for my fitness and figure; I actually have definition in my bicep, calf, stomach and thigh muscles for the first time in my life. The being healthy bit is going to need some work into next year though, as I rely far too much on carbs and dairy products to keep me going, and need to try to get more protein and good stuff into my diet.

4) Make my own clothes (or modify more).
I still have a pile of ‘to do’ projects in my craft room but didn’t really have any time to do them. This year, instead of making and modifying, I made a point of seeking out small boutique shops (such as my current favourite, Aspire Style), clothing brands that I know work with my figure, and investing in higher quality items that are properly tailored and will last a long time. My shape changed so much from all the exercise that I had to donate two thirds of my wardrobe to the local Oxfam charity shop (resulting in an amazing Tag Your Bag total) so really I have had to start again from scratch. I also bought my first pair of skinny jeans this year, a lovely high-waisted stretchy version that actually fits! Only a decade after everyone else started wearing them…

5) Do a photography project.
This went right out the window when the aforementioned epic rowing-and-study combo kicked in. I managed a few weeks (six, to be precise) but I think that I may have fallen out of love with my camera. Perhaps one of my 2014 NYRs should be to save up for a new one?

Did you make any resolutions for 2013, and if so how did they go?

Becky

Adventures in Baking: An unexpected wedding cake

My lovely friend Sarah (a prolific commenter on these pages) got married to her Lovely Man recently, and asked me to make a cake for the post-ceremony tea-and-cake gathering. I actually made a selection, including marshmallow rice crispy cakes, my famous banana bread, and a popular sticky sugary lemon drizzle traybake.

However the piece de resistance was the ‘wedding cake’ (there was a ‘proper’ iced fruit cake too). Sarah basically gave me free rein to do what I liked! I enjoy surprising people and incorporating as many little things that I know they’ll like into whatever I’m making for them. With that in mind, I sent off a quick questionnaire to Sarah and her fiancé with questions like, ‘what is your favourite colour?’, ‘what are your favourite sweets?’, ‘what is your favourite type of cake?’.

Eventually I came up with this. It was inspired by the pink rainbow cake I made a while back, raspberri cupcakes’ pink and white layered sprinkle cake and about a hundred different ‘piñata’ cakes (particularly this rainbow one and this sophisticated blue one from Betty Crocker). I put all of the couple’s favourite sweets on the inside, and added sprinkles in their favourite colours (blue and green) to their favourite kind of icing (buttercream). Then I topped it with a custom laser cut topper made of mirror acrylic inspired by their favourite song!

You are shining light

sarahwedding%20034

From the outside of course it just looked like a normal, if very tall, speckly cake, so people were amazed when it was cut open to reveal pick’n’mix sweets. Now that the secret’s out, I’m going to have to think of other surprises to hide inside cakes!

Becky

Books Everyone Should Read

I’ll start by mentioning that this post is not about books that I think everyone should read, rather it’s to do with my New Year’s Resolution to read more classic books, and the list I’ve been working through over the past year. The list has been created as a result of analysing several indicators of book popularity, including the UK’s most borrowed library books, Desert Island Discs book choices, and assorted literary prize winners.

I ticked off the ones I’d already read (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Wuthering Heights, Sense and Sensibility, His Dark Materials, Watership Down, 1984, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Chronicles of Narnia, Vanity Fair, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Pride and Prejudice, Memoirs of a Geisha and The Lord of the Rings). I crossed out the ones I won’t be reading, either through literary snobbery (basically Twilight), knowing I won’t enjoy the story (Lord of the Flies etc) and ones that I am just not interested in reading (Harry Potter, War and Peace). Of the list I had left, I managed to read nine, in between reading other assorted books. I’d like to have read more, but I wanted to find the books either in my local library or in charity or secondhand book shops, so that I would be supporting something other than a big company whilst I became more ‘cultured’.

I’m taking a leaf out of my Twitter friend Dan Worth’s book (no pun intended) and writing some short reviews of the books I read last year. I’ll be continuing to work my way through the list this year (I’m reading One Hundred Years of Solitude at the moment, which is a nice big one to cross off the list), and who knows, I may do a little review at the end of this year too.

Emma – Jane Austen
I enjoyed the BBC adaptation of this and watched it again as I was reading the book. It’s lovely to lose oneself in a different time and place. I sympathised with Emma even when her meddling got her in trouble and adored Mr Knightley for his slightly exasperated devotion to her. Her growing maturity and clarity of thought is well conveyed, and it was interesting to join her on her journey into adulthood.

Atonement – Ian McEwan
A surprising book in many ways. I’ll admit to knowing nothing of the storyline beforehand, except for the green dress made famous by the film adaptation. The book told the story from the point of view of the three main characters, offering different snapshots of the same moment, which showed how the moment was significant to all three in different ways. As the story continued, I relaxed a bit about whether they would all live ‘happily ever after’, only to then be physically shocked by the revelations of the final chapter.

Dracula – Bram Stoker
There are so many vampire-related books and films and TV shows around these days, and they almost all draw their inspiration from this book. It was fascinating to discover the origins of many  vampiric myths and attributes whilst reading this book. I especially liked the character of Mina Harker - a determined, intelligent young woman who I cheered on as she held her own with the menfolk.

The Three Musketeers – Alexander Dumas
Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that I had the theme tune from Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds running through my head every time I picked up this book, and concentrate on more serious aspects, shall we? This was a lively story, full of duels and derring-do and beautiful women. It was surprisingly almost explicit in places, considering that it was first published in 1844. An enjoyable book.

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
This only counts as half a book from the list as I’d already read ‘Little Women’ many times, but not its sequel/second part, published at the time as ‘Good Wives’. I found the full version of the book, containing both parts, and enjoyed catching up with the Marches and all their happenings. I’d already seen the film (check out a very spoilerific trailer here) so this was another example of the book adding more depth to a story that I already knew.

Moby-Dick – Herman Melville
I’m still not sure what to make of this, five months after I read it. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book like it. The structure and narrative are unusual, and I now know more about cetaceans and the gory business of whaling than I ever thought I would. The ending left me gobsmacked and I had to reread the final chapter about three times before I could process the story in my head. I may yet read this one again just to see if I can comprehend it a bit more fully.

Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
Another mindblowing book. I read this as part of a kind of self-imposed ‘Vonnegut Month’ when I decided to see what all the fuss was about and borrowed all of the Vonnegut books the library had. I think perhaps reading all those books in quick succession did not help me to get to grips with the story in Slaughterhouse-Five particularly well. I was also unsure what to expect – but I got pseudo-autobiography, war, time travel and aliens. Dizzying!

Middlemarch – George Eliot
I found this book quite depressing. I could see where the characters’ bad decisions and ill-advised life choices were going to take them and felt powerless to do anything; after all, they’ve been doing the same thing since the novel was published in 1874. There were lots of long, prose-y paragraphs that were actually quite difficult to understand, though I liked the part of the book where the author explained the differences between men’s and women’s views on love and relationships – differences that still apply in the 21st Century!

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
This is another book where I saw the (amazing and beautifully shot) film adaptation before reading it. In that regard, I knew that I would enjoy the book. I wasn’t quite prepared for Mr Rochester to be so ‘wild’ and a bit mad (his back story is not explained in the film as much detail as in the book). Jane has a maturity beyond her eighteen years and the book gives an insight into her thinking and her reasoning for things. A book I expect to read again and again.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my mini reviews. I hope I can read more books from the list this year, to continue my cultural education!

Becky

Adventures in Baking: Lemon Drizzle Traybake

People know that I bake, and that I’m pretty good at it (and modest), so when it’s their birthday or a special occasion, they like to request cakes from me! This one is no exception: lemon drizzle cake, requested by a colleague in honour of their birthday. I’ve made loaf-shaped lemon drizzle cakes before but although they turned out reasonably well, they just didn’t have that ‘wow’ factor. So this time I decided to try doing it as a traybake, following the recipe from the Queen of Baking, and judge on The Great British Bake Off, Mary Berry. Although I’ve used her basic recipe, I’ve made some little modifications to it here and there.

Mary Berry's Lemon Drizzle Traybake

Ingredients

275g self raising flour
225g butter, softened
225g caster sugar (I used 110g golden caster sugar and 115g normal caster sugar)
2tsp baking powder
4tbsp milk
4 large eggs
grated zest of 2 lemons

For the topping:
Juice of 2 lemons
175g granulated sugar

1. Lightly grease and line a 30 x 23cm tin. Preheat your oven to 160°C.

2. If you have an electric mixer, mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. If, like me, you don’t have an electric mixer, start by creaming the butter and sugar together, add the eggs and milk and mix well, then add the flour, baking powder and lemon zest and continue to mix well for a few minutes.

3. Empty the mix into the tin and level the top with the back of a wooden spoon or spatula.

4. Bake for approximately 40 minutes, until golden and the sponge springs back when pressed lightly.

5. Leave the cake to cool in the tin for a few minutes. (I didn’t remove my cake from the tin but if you want to then you can remove it from the tin using the baking paper. Carefully remove the paper and allow the cake to cool on a wire rack.) Prick the cake all over the top with a fork. This will allow the topping to sink into the cake a little way and imbue it with lovely lemony sugary mmmmm-ness!

6. While the cake is cooling, mix the topping ingredients together in a small bowl. Drizzle the topping over the cake while it’s still slightly warm. When the cake cools, this ‘syrup’ forms a crunchy lemony sugary glaze.

7. Cut into squares once completely cooled. Grab some for yourself before it all disappears!

What’s your favourite go-to cake recipe, or your favourite cake?

Becky

Project 52 – Week One

My New Year’s Resolutions continue to help me get creative. For my photo project resolution, I’ve decided to do a Project 52: one photo a week for a whole year. One a week is a nice gentle start and it means that I can really be picky about any particular week’s photo.

This week, I was struck by the contrasting colours and shapes of this old roof. The regular square orange tiles and the round green mosses dotted randomly are a very good example of man vs nature.

mosstilesmontage

Would anyone like to suggest a theme for this week’s photo?

Becky

Adventures in confectionery: Vegetarian Marshmallows

As I mentioned in this post, one of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2013 is to make macarons, madeleines and marshmallows; specifically, vegetarian marshmallows (normal marshmallows contain gelatine which is derived from animals).

Well, my mother asked for vegetarian marshmallows for her birthday (which is today) so a couple of months ago, I started to scour the internet for recipes. I stumbled across this comprehensive recipe and method for making them, but decided that the likelihood of getting hold of all the ingredients was pretty low, as it’s an American recipe. I would probably have to spend a small fortune getting them sent over the Atlantic!

I noticed a few links to commercial mixes in the above link and duly investigated. I liked the look of Angel Foods NZ the best (and I love anything to do with New Zealand so it was always going to be the winner in this case!). They also have a very helpful instructional video so after watching and establishing that the marshmallow-making technique is unusual but not particularly difficult or complicated, I decided to take the plunge and buy some mix. Alas, Angel Foods NZ cannot ship to the UK but they very helpfully directed me to Ananda Foods, who sell the same mix but manufactured in the UK.

I made the marshmallows following the instructions in the box (which are slightly different from the Angel Foods video), using icing sugar to line the containers, and a generous dash of vanilla extract for flavour. I thought I’d keep it simple to start with! The recipe itself was pretty simple, and I enlisted help to whip up the contents of one sachet while I stood by the saucepan with the agar/syrup mix and stirred it as it reduced down to a thick brown syrupy concoction. Mixing the two together was luckily not as splattery as I’d feared, and the resulting marshmallowy mass was easily poured into the waiting containers. Removing the contents after they’d set proved similarly straightforward, and I cut them into squares and tossed them in icing sugar to take the edge off their stickiness. After a few hours, the individual marshmallows had formed a lovely crust and were ready for sampling:

Vegetarian marshmallows

I haven’t eaten ‘proper’ marshmallows in over a decade but these little squares of loveliness tasted almost exactly how I remember proper ones tasting. They were a little gloopier, but that’s the nature of products containing agar or similar seaweed-based gelling agents as opposed to gelatine. The recipient of these freshly made vegetarian marshmallows thought they were brilliant, so I’d say that my initial attempt at marshmallow-making was a success!

There are two lots of mix in the box from Ananda Foods, so I can have another go and perhaps try making a different colour or flavour of marshmallows next time. Any suggestions?

Becky