30 August 2011

churchill on knitting (...sort of)

Lesson learnt: don't make a man help you with something that he really doesn't want to do. Even if he is the most patient man on earth, and he once took an oath to do everything you say (that's what those vows were mostly about, right?) he can still find a way of turning into a grumpy teenager.

I will never ask my husband to hold hanks of yarn while I wind knitting balls again. Almost immediately his arms drooped and his fingers curled into claws that made it virtually impossible. For a painful three quarters of an hour, the only phrases uttered were:
[me] "can you hold it taut please"
[me] "no, not that tight, I do need to be able to get it off"
[him] "I'm only doing exactly what you said"
[me] "I can do this over the back of a chair you know, I just thought you might be more effective because you are an actual person and everything".

And yes, we're still talking about wool here.

I suspect the dialogue was similar 25 years ago when Mum used to hoodwink me into the same chore. Bottom line, winding wool is just not fun. But all the best stuff comes in hanks, so it's a necessary evil. I'm hopeless at it so if you have any hints, please, do tell.

Anyway, all that super fancy yarn is for another Different lines shawl. (Pattern by Veera Valimaki, you can find it on Ravelry. I LOVE this pattern. I may never make anything else.) I've finished the first effort, a practice run in cheap dk yarn (that I started in this post). It's turned out with the size, heft and drape of a small blanket rather than a scarf. But I have a lovely, shabby, grey tweed armchair back home in Scotland, and this will look great one day, artfully draped over the back of it (amateurishly modelled here by a nasty, beige, polyester rented armchair).

So now I'm on to the real deal scarf, in beautiful fingering weight yarn (as per the pattern) and it is going to be amazeballs. Viola superwash merino, hand dyed in Canada, in colours called raven (dark navy/grey) and radioactive (chartreuse/lime). I'm toying with the idea of picking out one of the stripes in hot pink (it clashes quite nicely in that top photo), perhaps the third largest stripe?

I found a quote in my current bedside-table book, Mimi and Toutou go forth, from Churchill on the monotony of a sea voyage. I think it could equally apply to the repetitive meditation that is knitting.
For a time we drop out of the larger world, with its interests and its obligations, and become the independent citizens of a tiny state... / ...Here during a period which is too long while it lasts, too short when it is over, we may placidly reflect on the busy world that lies behind and the tumult that is before us.
I bet Churchill would have been good at holding hanks for the missus.

Linking in with the lovely people at Small things' Yarn Along.

27 August 2011

desperately seeking seasons

Every morning the weather forecast on the radio is the same: 28 to 32 degrees C with a chance of thundery showers. Every flippin' day. 365. We reckon they have it pre-recorded.

As another Singapore Summer (apparently) draws to a close, we're seriously hankering for Autumn. I'd love to spout all that blah about crisp, fresh outdoor pursuits and fabulous fashionable layering, but honestly those aren't my memories from our last real temperate-zone Autumn. Me and her staying in out of the rain, playing, eating and snoozing - now that's what I'm talkin' about. Idle bliss.

she turned out the lights, positioned the lanterns, and posed. very unusual behaviour for her.

Autumn will never come to Singapore in any meteorological sense but today it has drizzled all day. Me and The Boss have been stuck inside, and with the aircon on, you could almost believe it was really Autumn. So we set about making some lanterns to decorate the flat, because with mooncakes in the shops it must nearly be Chinese mid-autumn festival.

We used this tutorial from minieco because I assumed it would be something my daughter and I could do together (you know in that rose-tinted way that almost NEVER happens). By the time I'd actually read it though and started with the scalpel... and then the matches, it had to become rather a pre-schooler-free zone. But it was still a brilliant way to spend a rainy afternoon - me cutting zigzags and trying not to set the paper on fire, and her colouring in and blethering at the table beside me.

Once lit, she said the immortal words "wow! look at those bad boys!".

Couldn't have put it better myself.

NEWSFLASH! 4th Sept: the divine Chelsey from papermama just picked my top photo as coming 3rd in her "favourites from august" challenge. Hurrah! If you want to see all the others and join in next week (when the subject is "heart") click on the button.

The Paper Mama

NEWSFLASH 2! 10th Sept: April at the Gingerbread Blog featured this on her Sweet Saturday link-along. Hurrah x 2! To see all the other projects and to join in next time, click on the button.


26 August 2011

tiger balm and a dirty knee

It's eight weeks until my birthday. In bingo terms it'll be my dirty knee.

My dearest friend is flying all the way to Singapore to help me celebrate, and to ease herself over a broken heart. So I decided to spend the time between now and then becoming a better me: me V2.0. If I achieve the five mini-goals that I set each week, I hope to be bursting with a joie de vivre that she'll be helpless to resist. Also I'll be able to enjoy her visit more, indulge quite a lot, and start the next year on a high note.

This week, one of my mini-challenges was to save lots of money by doing loads of free stuff. So, as well as making these strawberry muffins (so as not to waste a packet of fruit too sharp to eat) and downloading free colouring-in sheets for The Boss from Ottobre and Sarainklings, I set off on an adventure to Haw Par Villa.

If you're at all familiar with that curious panacea for all ills, Tiger Balm, then you already know how the Haw Par brothers made their fortune. With it, they created this villa and the surrounding "Tiger Balm Gardens" and filled it with more than 1000 gaudy, kitsch and sometimes grotesque statues depicting Chinese mythology and legend.

My husband has always refused to go. He's quite a curious and adventurous person, but this simply held no appeal for him. But I had a morning to spare, and other than the bus fare, it was free...

So far, so "whatever" right?

Well, then it all starts to get wild.

The thing that was most confusing was that, surrounded by vibrant colour, I found it almost impossible to see things I wanted to photograph. There are a few snaps that came out quite interesting - I particularly like the Buddha who overlooks the container port (below) - but mostly it was just overwhelming. Overwhelmingly odd.

I try to be rational, so I try not to say wishy-washy things like this but, it just had a really negative vibe. I can't be more specific than that. And what's most confusing for me is that, aesthetically the statues at Haw Par appear to use similar materials, techniques and colours to those on the south Indian Hindu temples here in Singapore. I imagine it must even be the same craftsmen who maintain them. But the temple statues, surrounded by garlands and smoke and voluptuous aunties in dazzling saris, are uplifting and joyful and surprising, where Haw Par is baffling, peculiar and a bit unsettling.

I can't figure out why. A religious aspect is present in both so it's not a lack of devotion. And some of the Hindu legends are equally gruesome, depicting similar beheadings and disembowelments. But in any of the Hindu temples I'm always itching to get my camera out and capture some of the magic (this photo of Sri Mariamman was taken on my crappy wee phone, while I hopped up and down in my bare feet on the burning paving stones, but doesn't it still manage to look fascinating?).

Sri Mariamman Temple, Pagoda Street, Singapore

I love solitary exploring, and I have a soft spot for Tiger Balm, that priceless bartering commodity from my school days. So I'm glad I went to Haw Par Villa. And it was free, so that's one of my mini-goals well and truly checked off. Shame about the gym aspect of this week's list... Here's to more dedication during week two of project me version two point zero.

Linking in with Sweet Shot Tuesday

24 August 2011

life lessons with mimi

The Boss is baffled. Occasionally, as I run my finger along underneath a word, I encourage her to "just join the letter sounds together". She looks at me like I'm a mad woman. Although she knows her alphabet inside out, and has an astonishing grasp of basic Mandarin, the brain switch that turns on "reading" hasn't yet flipped. That's fine, she's only four. One day someone more imaginative than me will explain it in a way that makes sense to her. Anyway, there's more to learning than reading, writing and 'rithmetic. There's knitting.

She got her first needles a few weeks ago (after some unsatisfying sessions improvising with pencils), and we cast on 10 stitches in blue aran.

We only manage a row (at most two) at a time. I hold her hands and guide her through the stitch, but I don't know any knitting rhymes/memory aids to help her remember the movements; I'd love to hear if anybody knows one that's worked for them.

Today she wanted to try doing some stitches without help. I could just look at those Mr Men plastered hands all day. As an American friend of mine would say, they're just too stinkin' cute.

To join in with the lovely people at Small Things' Yarn Along, I need to post a photo of knitting and a book. So here's a picture of her precious scarf and something I'm about to start reading: Mimi and Toutou go forth: the bizarre battle for Lake Tanganyika, by Giles Foden. This book was lent to me by my Dad, who said it was one of the strangest true stories he's ever read. I'm intrigued.

The blurb reads: "At the start of WW1, German warships controlled Lake Tanganyika in Central Africa. The British had no naval craft at all upon Tanganjikasee, as the Germans called it. This mattered: it was the longest lake in the world and of great strategic advantage. In June 1915, a force of 28 men was dispatched from Britain on a vast journey... ...to haul 2 motorboats with the unlikely names of Mimi and Toutou through the wilds of the Congo. The 28 were a strange bunch - one was addicted to Worcester sauce, another was a former racing driver - but the strangest of all was their skirt-wearing, tattoo-covered commander, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson..."

I'm totally sold. And if the cover design is characteristic of the book, it reassures me that this should be a humourous and eccentric read (rather than a weighty war memoir... although I'm partial to those too).

Some friends have commented that my Dad probably only bought the book because my family nickname is Mimi. (Only about half a dozen people use my nickname, but those few never call me anything else.) Hopefully that tenuous link isn't needed to enjoy the book. On the other hand, nobody needs any justification to croon lustily along to Maurice Chevalier's classic Mimi, but I'm very glad I have an excuse.

My baby brother and I indulge in the Mimi croon as frequently as possible. Our French isn't up to much, but like I said, there's more to learning than reading, writing and 'rithmetic. There's crooning badly in faux French.

22 August 2011

sugar & snaps: part 3

[Previously on sugar & snaps... part 1 and part 2: turkish delight]

I have some life rules. They're all quite personal to me, but one or two might also apply to you. Currently, the list includes:
  1. there is always room for dessert
  2. if I can knit/floss without a moment's preparation, it's time to put on more/bigger rings
  3. never attempt to go grey gracefully in my 30s again (disgracefully in my 40s maybe, but for now pass me the sodding bottle)
  4. never, ever read a Rastamouse book aloud to my daughter in public
After a wince-making storytime in an airport departure lounge recently, number four is definitely the most important on this list. My Jamaican patois isn't bad. It's insultingly bad. Shudder. But (moving swiftly on) no self-respecting list has only four items on it, does it? Thankfully, making marshmallows has furnished me with a fifth, to which I firmly suggest you pay heed.

I had to decide whether to go with the Hope & Greenwood recipe for "mallows d'amour" or Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's marshmallow recipe from the Guardian website way back in 2006. If I was being a smarty pants I'd say that I chose the latter because the very idea of presenting something called "mallows d'amour" to my husband makes me a little bit sick in my mouth, but actually I chose HFW's recipe because I wasn't confident about some of the substitutions I would have had to make to the Hope & Greenwood version.

Fundamentally the principles are the same though (for details, go to HFW's Guardian recipe link above). And luckily this list does have five parts.

1. You bring sugar to the hard ball stage.
HFW says 122C, H&G say 127C - I went with H&G on this decision because, although Mr HFW is a bit of a idol in our house, I reckon the people who run a sweet shop probably know more about sugar.

2. Meanwhile, you dissolve some gelatine powder.
I pimped this with some pink colouring and rose essence in a nod to Hope & Greenwood, but HFW doesn't bother.

3. Also, you whip some egg whites.

4. You pour the gelatine into the hot sugar.

5. You pour the gelatine/sugar into the egg whites, and beat.
HFW says to beat until it's thick but just pourable, H&G say to beat for 25-30 minutes. I managed 15 minutes and then my mixer started making bad noises and I figured a batch of marshmallows wasn't worth breaking my food processor over.

That's basically it. You pour the gloop into a prepared tin and let it set before cutting it into squares which you coat with sifted icing sugar and cornflour. The results were simply amazing. Light as a feather, Johnson's-baby-lotion pink, and with that perfect ever-so-slight crust around each piece. Truly, I thought that last week's turkish delight was a personal triumph, but it pales into insignificance compared with these marshmallows.

Perfection? There must be a catch. Well, yes, there is. And this is where life rule number five comes in. To summarise:
  1. always room for afters
  2. wear as many rings as impede knitting/flossing
  3. don't go with the grey
  4. no Rastamouse in public
  5. NEVER add stuff to boiling sugar in anything smaller than a cauldron
Hugh's fairly-witless instruction was that when you pour the gelatine into the sugar it will "bubble up a bit". A word of caution, making marshmallows is simple and everyone will think you're a genius, but unless you use the biggest pan you've ever seen, this will end in a bloody disaster.

I started with a really big pan for my sugar, but then I changed it to a smaller one because my sugar thermometer is only about five inches long, so I couldn't peg it to the side of the deep pan and still reach the sugar. Big mistake. The bit where it "bubbles up a bit" is like a potion out of Harry Potter, pink froth just kept coming and coming. And of course it's pink froth at 127C and full of gelatine. You can't put it over a basin because the plastic would probably melt, and you can't put it over your sink because you'll block it solid. In fact it's so hot you can't do anything except watch in horror as it pours over the side and burns immediately on your hob top. The house is full of smoke and the smell of burning, alarms are going off and a pleasurable morning has turned into August in North London.

The burning mixture did smell exactly like a thousand marshmallows singe-ing on a bbq. Every cloud has a silver lining I suppose.

I know, the pictures don't look that bad, but trust me, you would not BELIEVE how sticky this stuff is. Once the mess had cooled enough for me to start the clean-up operation, any gloop on the cooker that hadn't burnt solid was the exact consistency of warm chewing gum. When it's stuck in someone's hair.

It took an hour and a half to clean the hob, during which time I vowed that no matter how good the final marshmallows, I would NEVER do this again. But at that point I hadn't tasted them...

I will definitely be doing this again - that's how good they are.

Linking up with the lovelies at Life Made Lovely Monday, Gingerbread's Sweet Saturday and Happy Homemaker UK's Post of the Month Club

17 August 2011

yarn along: a star and the stripes

I have been working on this sock-striped sweater for The Boss for a really, really long time. The needles are so small, the wool so fine, and I need to follow the chart so closely that I start to get cross with it quickly and have to put it away for a few weeks. By the time I go back to it I've forgotten what size I decided to make, and where exactly I left off. I'm hoping my frustration won't be too obvious when it's (eventually) finished. It's called Macy, from a Rowan Kids pattern book.

Though I've actually finished this book recently, I think my book group back in the UK is selecting it this month (with a little pressure from me admittedly). I doubt there'll be many times in my life I get the chance to revel in a friend having had a book published, but this is the first! He's officially an author now, and I'd say a critically-acclaimed author (as in there were great reviews in all the papers) and a celebrated author (as in lots of us went out for drinks after the launch = celebrated, yes?). It's about the loss of his brother in the Indian Ocean tsunami, so though it's very emotional, it's also a true monument to brotherhood. So, if you've got some book tokens lying about, I commend it to you.

Linking in with Yarn along, click on the title.

15 August 2011

paper mama photo challenge: eyes

Some parents keep all their baby's shoes as momentos. We keep glasses, and we're building up a fair collection. While this picture (for Paper Mama Photo Challenge: Eyes, click above) doesn't literally include my daughter's pupils and irises, it definitely includes her eyes.

This shot of baby glasses was taken during a made-up shopping game and broke the cardinal rule: DON'T play with your glasses! But rules (and glasses) are there to be broken now and again.

13 August 2011

sugar & snaps: part 2
turkish delight

Following last week's post I’m ready to give turkish delight another go. It’s taken about three years to recover emotionally from the last attempt, but I have every confidence in this Hope and Greenwood recipe, as printed in oh comely magazine. I hope neither of those enchanting companies mind my reproducing and commenting on the recipe here; I’m a big fan, I’ll link to your websites at every opportunity, and I won’t make any money from it. Promise. Come to think of it, I haven’t made any money from anything in ages.

So, rose and pistachio turkish delight...

Note: this isn’t something to do with the kids. In fact, I wouldn’t even do it when they’re in the house. Boiling sugar scares the beegees out of me.

You will need:
groundnut oil, for greasing
900g granulated sugar *
1tbsp lemon juice
175g cornflour
1tsp cream of tartar
2tbsp rose syrup
2-3 drops pink food colouring
100g shelled pistachios
icing sugar and cornflour, to dust

* aka: a shed-load of sugar. I was stunned at how much.


Line a 20cm square baking tin 4cm deep on all sides with baking parchment and lightly oil it with groundnut oil.
Ha. This bit I can do. I’m totally on a roll.

Place the sugar, lemon juice and 340ml of water in a pan and put it over a low heat. Stir until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring it to the boil without stirring and slowly, using your sugar thermometer, bring the mixture up to 118C. This will take about 15 minutes.
Okay, so now I know where I went so catastrophically wrong last time. I am far, far, far too impatient to wait for the sugar reached the right temperature. It took ages. Perhaps my hob heat was a bit low, but I was there for at least half an hour, if not longer. So I’m already a big fan of my sugar thermometer. She's a disciplinarian.

Meanwhile, in a separate pan (this one must be really deep and truly heavy bottomed), place the cornflour, 570ml of cold water and the cream of tartar. Give the mixture a good stir and place over a low heat.
Just like making gloop back when I used to run creative workshops for the under 1s. (What? You've never played with cornflour gloop before? With an under 1? Trust me, gloop + baby = fun.)

Keep stirring so that there are no lumps (it’s like making cheese sauce). Bring to the boil and beat quickly until the mixture looks like wallpaper paste. Take off the heat.
Hmm. Never wallpapered before. Don’t know what wallpaper paste looks like. Mine looks like this.

Place the cornflour mixture back on the heat. As soon as the sugar mixture has reached 118C, pour it over the cornflour mixture. Stir it well – it will look like an ocean of icebergs – and if any lumps persist, whisk them out with a metal whisk. Keeping the heat low, bring the mixture to a geyser-plopping simmer. Let it simmer like this for an hour.
Ocean of icebergs? Not quite (not that I’ve seen one). And by the way it doesn’t smell very good at this stage, very starchy. Bringing to the geyser plop takes quite a while too (not that I’ve seen a geyser either). This isn’t something to try if you’ve anywhere to go in a hurry. My un-airconditioned kitchen has now hit 30 degrees and I'm getting ratty. You'd probably picked up on that.

Take the pan off the heat, stir in the rose syrup, the pink food colouring and the pistachio nuts. This will turn the colour from a strange and unappetising yellow to a pleasant pink. Pour the pink blubber into the prepared tin and leave the Turkish delight to cool and set overnight.
So here’s where my guess work comes into play as I could only get rose essence and that super strong pink colouring paste. The mixture tastes quite nice and lemonish already, so I don’t want to overdo the rose essence. I try half a teaspoon. With the colouring paste I dip a skewer in the little packet and then swirl it about in the turkish delight. It goes a pretty violent pink. I think I’ll leave it at that. I have slightly less than 100g of pistachios, can’t imagine where the rest of the plate went during the past two hours.

Once set, cut into squares and dust with equal amounts of icing sugar and cornflour sifted together.
It worked! And not only that, but it worked beautifully and lusciously and deliciously and rosily. And it gave me quite the most sublime spoon-licking experience of my life (like I said, this is not a recipe to do with the kids around).

The only thing I'm not sure about is how to get the sort of "dryness" around each piece of jelly (as you find in the authentic stuff), so that the powder coats the cube rather than sinking into the jellyish wetness after a few minutes and making it sludgy. Perhaps it has something to do with the ambient temperature of my flat, which never drops below about 27C. I was going to give most of this away as gifts, but this powder/sludge interface won't be a good look by the time I see them next week. Hey ho, we'll have to eat it all ourselves.

Now if you’ll just excuse me, I think I need to go and floss my teeth... and de-sticky my camera.

I believe this recipe came from Hope and Greenwood’s book Life is Sweet.
I think I might need to find me a copy.

Linking in with life made lovely monday and sweet shot tuesday.

10 August 2011

inappropriate knitwear and a "grand" novel

Since I'm always knitting something and reading something, a linky photo of knitting and books? Be rude not to. Click the title to get through to the Yarn Along page.

This shawl is totally inappropriate for the climate I live in - but I guess I'll be back in Europe next winter. I LOVE the pattern (found on pea soup's lovely blog) but I hate the colour I picked. I've never worn burgandy red in my life as it always looks like a school uniform. Logical step? Combine it with grey... GREY. GREY? What was I thinking? Nevermind, I've got a bag of loveliness from my last trip to loop in London. Consider this one a practice run.

A Different Sky has a sticker on the front dubbing it a "grand novel of Singapore". Seems like a strange thing to call it, wouldn't a "great novel of Singapore" have been more appealing? It's very good, but it's the third novel I've read charting the same period in history, and perhaps it suffers by comparison. It's easier to read than The Singapore Grip (Farrell), but I think Tanamera (Barber) is still my favourite of the three.

The Boss and I are dipping in and out of her first Moomintroll novel at bedtimes. I think I'm getting more (nostalgia) out of it than she is though. The chapters are a bit long if you're only four and a half, but sheer bliss if your parents gave your copies away to the church sale of work when you were eight. (cue: violins)

sugar & snaps: part one

I bought a magazine called oh comely last week in the airport. It’s only the second issue I’ve bought, but then again it’s only the second time I’ve seen it so that’s a success rate right there. What would marketing bods call that: 100% consumer uptake? Anyway, I think I’m about to indulge you in some buyer socialisation or some other marketing jargony nonsense by telling you that oh comely is a total inspiration and you should read it.

I was concerned it might be a bit indie artsy for me, or perhaps a bit derivative dah-ling. (Derivative, such a classic put down. And such nonsense, virtually everything's derivative isn't it? I vow never to say it again. Promise.) But the proof is in the pudding, and after reading it cover-to-cover on the long flight back to sunny Singapore, I have plans for at least three little missions, thanks entirely to the bright ideas in oh comely. My conclusion is, therefore, that the magazine is inspirational (or that I’m indie artsy fartsy). Whatever.

The three projects are as follows: 1) make a matchbox pinhole camera, 2) make Turkish delight, and 3) make marshmallows. (Ambitious postscript to projects 2 and 3: photograph said delights and mallows with pinhole camera.)

09 August 2011

a small sky

While London burns, if you crane your neck a little and peek just over the edge of the murky sky to the east, you'll see that it’s National Day here in Singapore. It’s 30 degrees in the shade at breakfast time, flags are fluttering, the kids are all on holiday, and later we’ll indulge in the shiny-eyed patriotism that is watching the National Day Parade on the telly.

National Day commemorates Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965. It’s also a day when Singaporeans around the world celebrate their nation and its values. I can't see the concept of a National Day working in the UK (just look at what's going this week, not much national pride going on there). I suspect British people are too cynical to get behind overt patriotism anyway, and the nation's too much in debt to stomach it.

As National Day crept into its fourth hour I was wide awake; that tricky second night of jetlag. The first night is usually bliss - exhausted from the trip and the restless journey, you sleep as if drugged and wake feeling wonderful and just a little bit smug. You’ve escaped jetlag! But by the second night you’re screwed. At 3am, with eyes full of grit, your stomach grumbles expectantly while friends and family eat dinners thousands of miles away. The post-flight dehydration seems only to be getting worse, and then The Boss wakes up for a twilight blether about a bad dream.

The combination of jetlag and National Day reminds me how far away I am, both geographically and ideologically. But I took a photo last week in my garden in Scotland, and looking at it brings me a little closer to home. More than the granular quality of the dewdrop or the bloom on the alchemilla leaf, it's that the reflection of the sky is very small. Granted, it would have been a significantly better photo had I had got something clever reflected in the droplet, but today I just need the sky to look small, 'cos we're really not so very far away after all. Majulah Singapura.

To see some photos by people who would definitely have captured something cleverly reflected in that droplet, see Sweet Shot Tuesday.
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