22 May 2013

summer in the comfort zone

You know the "what would I do if I won the lottery" conversation? My best friend and I have it frequently. Sometimes gin is involved. In fact, gin and the lottery game are positively correlated. Me and her bought lottery tickets together the week it was launched in the UK. We were just old enough to play (though technically not old enough to watch the inaugural draw on the pub telly. Ahem.)

So what would we do if we won? All the selfless generosity items have to be ticked off first; pay one another's mortgages (and those of all one another's brothers), buy local pet rescue, make record-breaking charity donation. You know the script.

Once that's out of the way, the selfish indulgences can be debated. And that's always more interesting.

It's taken nearly twenty years to be absolutely sure what my first selfish indulgence would be. It would be The Summer Of All Summers.

On May Day, I'd spring the kids out of school and tell the Breadwinner to quit his job. We'd fly somewhere beautiful and decrepit for a couple of weeks, probably Procida, where there's genuinely nothing to do except eat your own body weight in lingua di bue pastries. Returning to London, having got our heads around being bajillionaires, we'd start a Summer of solid gold-plated wonderment; the Chelsea Flower Show, the Hay Literary Festival, a family-friendly music festival or two, a full fortnight of fabulous seats at Wimbledon. We'd string out the gallivanting until the last night of the Proms in September, and then go to Japan to watch the trees change colour from an onsen in the mountains.

Of course we'd stay in a string of achingly beautiful guesthouses and powerfully inauthentic yurts throughout, the weather would be the colour of a peach, and we would all become gently bronzed and gorgeous. Meanwhile, the traditional Procidan fisherman's house we bought for thruppence would be under renovation by Miuccia Prada herself, and our relatives' bickering (over the value of first brother's mortgage being twice that of second brother's) would have escalated and required arbitration.

It would all be rather nomadic, incredibly indulgent and gently adventurous.

Funnily enough, we're not living that Summer.

Mr Breadwinner is working a very, very long way away for a wee while, so I am currently sole custodian of two small children, an elderly cat, a draughty old house and an overgrown garden. If you're a little bit neurotic (I think I just heard him snort at the "little bit" from nine thousand kilometres. Amazing.) this level of responsibility can make you an eensy weensy bit risk averse.

We're not doing bikes. Or scooters. Or secateurs. Or lawn mowing. Or balancing on low garden walls. Or playing the how-long-can-I-hold-my-breath-in-the-bath game. In fact, let's just not do baths. Too slippery. Did I really say we'd make rhubarb jam? We're not doing boiling sugar. Sorry.

In fact, this week is exactly the opposite of The Summer Of All Summers. As if to underline the point, it's actually just started hailstoning on my clean washing line.

But we are knitting, and reading, and watching coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show on the telly. We're ticking off the days, trading for cooperation in whatever currency seems most appropriate: Merida stickers and playdates for her, carbs and chewy silicone kitchen utensils for him, online window shopping and caffeine for me. Safe safe safe. Well inside the comfort zone. Only a few more days to go.

I want to thank everyone so much who voted for our 'Flatterned Man' competition design after reading this post. You are lovely and I appreciate it. Really, during a tough week, it's disproportionately and outrageously uplifting to know that the numbers are still creeping up. There are still a few days left to vote, and while our tally is pretty respectable, we're a good long way off the top spot.

But I've done some sums and if everyone who reads my YA posts were to vote, we'd be neck and neck. So, if you'd like to know about how I came to enter this little design contest, click here. Or if you've got a spare twenty seconds to just give me a wee boost, you can click on the 'Flatterned Man' by me & Robin here.

It's not going to be the multimillion Summer Of All Summers, I haven't bought a lottery ticket after all. But you could help me to the runner up position and it won't cost anyone a penny!

19 May 2013

guilty pleasures and conscious objections

Guilty pleasures: things that I thoroughly enjoy (but, for one reason or another, probably shouldn't). Orange-flavour Revels, pre-bagged salad, Strictly Come Dancing. You know the kind of thing.

So what's the opposite of a guilty pleasure? What do you call something that you should really like, but for whatever reason, you just don't? The closest phrase I could come up with is a conscious objection. My personal conscious objections include: anything done to me in a salon, all seafood, carnations, scented candles, cafes that serve Illy coffee (because of the cups with the handle too small for your finger, gah), Paul Hollywood (a wonderful baker but ick, the bitten fingernails! can hardly watch). I could go on and on and on.

But here's one that I'm nervous to share with you.

I consciously object to baking bread by hand.

I love homemade bread. But for various reasons, I do not bake my own bread by hand. Firstly, we live in an INCREDIBLY small house. In our kitchen there are two linear metres of usable worktop, and by 8am every single morning, those two metres look like this:

This tableau is frantically cleared and lovingly recreated at least five times every day. Add the fact that our house is as cold as a grave for nine months of the year, and any recipe that says "leave dough in a warm place to prove for two hours" becomes absurd in terms of both space and ambient temperature.

The second reason I don't make bread by hand falls into the guilty pleasure category. It's my breadmaker. Which I KNOW will make all the purists wring their floury hands, but honestly, I don't understand why. A twerp I used to know once scoffed at my regular use of a breadmaker, guffing on about "all the pleasure one derives from the kneading and the connection with the living dough blah blah blurg". I asked him how often he actually made loaves from scratch, and he proudly said he did it at least every fortnight (so let's assume the reality was once a month or so). To which I could honestly reply that, by virtue of using a breadmaking machine, we hadn't bought a single sliced loaf for well over a year.

You see, I adore homemade bread, but my intention has never been to connect with my primal whatnots via the medium of dough. My intention is simply to feed my family with bread containing no preservatives and the bare minimum salt and sugar. And using a breadmaker, I can do that in two minutes flat every other day. I can experiment with any sort of seedy, fruity, nutty, sweet, oily and floury additions, get a great loaf every single time, and even set the timer to get that amazing fresh-baked smell when I wake up in the morning. What is not to like?

The third and final reason that I think it's best I don't make handmade bread is that a friend (quite innocently) described me last week as "a lovely girl who grows her own vegetables and tie-dyes her baby's clothes". The only thing that could possibly make that description sound more insufferably worthy is if she had added "oh, and she makes all her own bread too." Smug bloody hippie...

So, while I admire the craft involved in beautiful handmade bread, it's just not something I tend to do very often. Have I defended my conscious objection/guilty Panasonic pleasure enough? Right then, let's move onto this month's random recipe.

Which had to be from a bread recipe book.

Which, of course, I don't have. (Except the one that came with the machine, and that didn't feel quite appropriate.)

So, with quite some trepidation, I asked my lovely friend Lou (who has a wonderful human breadmaker in the form of her husband) to choose me a page from one of her bread books. I texted her a random number, and the result pinged back; Soda bread from Dan Lepard's Short & Sweet. What a relief. No kneading or proving required, and the recipe is online here. Phew!

I tweaked the recipe quite a lot, almost to the point that it's not the same recipe (but I've seen way too many instances of Dan Lepard's people getting well eggy about his material being duplicated on blogs to risk claiming it as a new recipe). Instead, I'll just summarise my modifications; I used wholemeal spelt instead of the normal flour, creme fraiche instead of yoghurt, a bit more sugar, a handful each of poppy seeds and flax seeds, one tablespoon each of cinnamon and finely crushed chocolate (because I'd just read this cinnamon and chocolate nut bread post by our Random Recipe host Dom, and thought it looked rather yum!). I meant to put flaked almonds on the top but I forgot.

Lou also mentioned that she had heard Dan Lepard bake these soda breads on a radio show (you can listen to it here). And if you listen very carefully, he almost justifies the use of breadmaking machines right at the end of the interview.

And that, bread purists, is good enough for me! Check in with Dom over at Belleau Kitchen at the end of the month for all the other bread-y contributions.

Cinnamon chocolate and seed soda breads; breakfasts for the next few days sorted!

17 May 2013

on being late for school again

Squeezing in a few rows before school while she was supposed to be minding the baby? I can't imagine who she got that idea from...

I've enjoyed the glimpses of my friends' lives on Fridays when they post for {this moment}, but I've never considered joining in myself. And then this morning, when this moment happened, I thought it might make some of you chuckle.

{this moment} - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words [oops] - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember.

update :: okay, so it seems that {this moment} is not collecting submissions this week, click through on the link above to see why. I'll try and join in next week instead. In the meantime, we'll be knitting.

15 May 2013

please help :: the one where Mill calls all her favours in

Last month, my best friend moved into a new flat. She asked me to design a change-of-address card, based on a sketch by her father. Her Dad’s an uber-creative who even has an OBE. For services to serious artistry. M’ya-ha darlings, that’s arty royalty right there. So the card turned out well. Her friends loved it.     

Her Dad emailed me more sketches, beautiful little scribbles that would compete with any Quentin Blake. And we all wondered if there might be a way to harness his lifelong sketching talent to my fledgling graphic design skills and make cards that people (other than close family members) might actually want to buy.   

Of course, a major stumbling block sits squarely in our path; he’s retired and I’m a full-time Mum, therefore neither of us has a grubby fiver to spare to print cards that may or, let’s face it, may not sell. 

And that’s when a little competition was announced; to design a Thank You card for a fantastic British company, based not far from where I live, called Pedlars. Entering the competition gives me and The Prof a chance to see one of our designs alongside the work of more established surface designers which, frankly, is exciting enough to begin with. And maybe, just (breathy) maybe, with your help we could see our work in print without having to plunder my child benefit or his old-age pension.     

Click here to vote for our flatterned man design

So, I’m looking at you with my biggest shiniest eyes (you know like when Puss-in Boots turns on the soppy in the Shrek movies) and imploring you, if you have a couple of minutes please take a look at the competition page and, if you think it has any merit at all, vote for the ‘Flatterned Man’ card by Robin and Camilla.

The voting is open until 29 May 2013. So here goes: social network sustenance matrix activated.

Thank you beautiful creatures; your support means the world to this nerdy girl and that arty Grandpa. I think, with your help, there's an outside chance we might just do it...

08 May 2013

let me spin you a yarn about grass

I had this friend a few years ago. She was a trained gardener, very generous and extremely fragile, something she tried to conceal with a cheery exterior. Our babies were born on the same day in the same hospital. While I was out one day, she popped by and left a wee plant on my doorstep, dug out of her garden. We had just moved into our house and she knew the garden was an empty wasteland. I was incredibly chuffed and planted it in one of the new beds I had created in the front. It was kind of grassy and stripy, and grew that first year into a pretty swishy clump of gauzy loveliness. That was six years ago.

Since then, she emigrated to Australia and unfriended me on Facebook. Which is OK. I'm not quite sure of the reasons for the latter, but I'm certainly not going to try and read anything into it. Like I said, she's quite sensitive and I almost certainly offended at some point. It wouldn't be the first time. And it's not like I haven't unfriended people on Facebook before (or more commonly, ignored their friend requests for, like, years.)

Anyway, six years later, and I have just spent the best part of four glorious sunny May holiday days trying to eradicate the mystery grass from our front garden. It had spread across an area of about two square metres, forming a dense mat of roots so strong I've broken several garden implements, and done something moderately worrying to my back. It's killed every plant that used to live in its orbit. My fifty beautiful pink tulips, which used to grow a foot high and stopped passers-by in the street, have been reduced to eleven slightly stunted specimens.

I've ripped up border edging, shovelled gravel, cursed, sweated, gone a bit swirly behind the eyes and had to have wee sit down, and dissected some of my more precious plants to tease out the roots of this thug. It had spread under, over, through and between everything. A quick Google search and I think I've found the name of it; variegated ribbon grass. Or bastard freaking variegated effing ribbon grass (if you happened to be within earshot).

Now I'm not sure what the moral of this story is; beware gardeners bearing gifts maybe. Especially if they flee the country and sever all ties. So listen here people, do as I say and not as I do: never ever, ever plant something called variegated ribbon grass. Don't even think about it. If it's grassy and stripy, WALK AWAY.

I know I haven't got rid of it all, it'll be back. And one of the websites I read said it could live for up to twenty years. So while she may have forgotten me, I suspect our connascent babies will have long left home before I forget her.

So that's what it's all been about round here. Beautiful sunny days and gardening. But in the evenings, as I prop my naggingly niggling lumbar discs against a pile of cushions and wait for two ibuprofen and one cold Tiger beer to work their magic, I've been knitting and reading. And like all the best knitting and reading, they're colour coordinated, natch.

Every Spring I try to read The Jewel Garden by Monty and Sarah Don. It's beautiful and inspiring and makes me excited for Summer. (As an aside, it also briefly includes the most accurate description of depression I have ever read.) On my kindle I'm also reading Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver for our book group. I'm not even going to be half way finished it by the time we meet, but it's good so far. Not a keeper, but maybe it's yet to peak.

The Varjo for my MIL's friend is really taking shape - it's beautiful. That woman is a genius designer. Did you know she has a new pattern out? I want to make it more than anything I've ever made. But the trouble is I want to make it in EXACTLY her colours. I think that pink she used is Madelinetosh Tosh Merino Light in "Pop Rocks". I searched for anywhere online that has it in stock, and eventually found one place in the States. The total bill to make this garment was going to come to $120 by the time the wool was shipped to the UK. So I guess Happy Street will have to wait!

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