Sunday, 23 June 2013

Baking Blues (Strawberry Tart)

At the end of a week, I often find myself in the kitchen for one of two reasons; the need to relax, or the desire to rise to a challenge.

The former may sound a little strange as most people don't associate a complete day of baking with relaxation, unless they're focussing solely on the enjoyment of eating baked goodies. For me though baking is a time when my mind is completely clear, free from any of the worries or details that are associated with work. I am able to glide through a recipe without feeling distracted by the details of work or drained through concentrating on the recipe.

As I'm not working at the moment, the amount of baking I inflict upon family and friends has sunk to virtually nothing; I have nothing to escape from, nothing that requires a relaxational counterweight.

Yesterday however there was a challenge to rise to. Usually this entails finding a way of using up an excess of open jars of jam, a chunk of meat from the back of the freezer, the crop of limes in the garden...

On this occasion it centred around three kilos of jamming strawberries.

As we have way too much jam in the house, I decided upon strawberry tarts. Crisp buttery pastry brimming with softened fruit and drizzled with a slightly caramelised strawberry coulis before being served with thick cream and icecream.

The pastry was simple (made simpler by the use of a food processor). Put 175g of plain flour, 1/2 tsp of salt, 1 tbsp caster sugar and 120g cold diced butter (the recipe calls for unsalted butter but I use the salt-reduced stuff). If you want, add a big handful of grated parmesan, roasted coconut or lemon zest to direct the pastry towards sweet or savoury. Whiz this together until it resembles breadcrumbs, then with the motor running slowly drop in 3 tbsp of iced water. The mixture should come together to form a very soft pliable dough. If it feels too soft put it in the fridge while you work on the other components.

The strawberries were as simple, lightly stewed with a tbsp of caster sugar and the juice of half a lemon. When these were soft but still retained their shape they were taken off the stove and sieved to remove any excess juice. This juice was returned to the saucepan and boiled with another 2 tbsp of sugar and the juice of the rest of the lemon. This thickened into a berry coulis which could be drizzled over the uncooked tarts or kept for serving.

As the strawberries cooled slightly, the pastry was rolled, fitted and blind baked before these cases were filled with the softened fruit and coated with the remnant coulis. I don't remember how long they were baked for but it was until the visible pastry was golden brown.

 If only I were confident that they could last longer than the evening. 

Thursday, 20 June 2013

A Winter's Tale

I love Winter, not just because it is the season of warm coats and hats and gloves, but because regardless of how cold it gets, the garden does not stop blooming.

Winter starts with the wattle, balls of soft yellow down into which you plunge your nose and drink in the soft honey'ed scent. Years ago we had a Mount Morgan wattle, its velvety grey leaves a perfect compliment to the mini pompoms and low hum of the bees who drown in the gentle scent. Now, the leaves are spikier, but the subtle fragrance still triggers idyllic memories.

In the orchard, the ruby jewels of the pomegranate have become less plentiful, the wattle birds and spiders welcome to the last of the decaying fruit that failed to survive the first of the rains. Their place is taken by the limes and oranges that hang in clusters amongst the dark leaves tempting you with ideas of fresh orange juice and lemon cake. 

In the front garden, the last of the roses are in bloom, an old fashioned rose of the softest blush within which a bee forages, cocooned by the full petals. 

Around the garden the bulbs are slowly making their presence felt, poking through the bed of mulch...

 ...before erupting into a profusion of highly scented jonquils and snowdrops.

Foraging though the rest of the garden, it's the native plants that capture one's attention. The spidery tendrils of a white grevillia at odds with its prickly leaves...

the pink flowers of a hardy ground-cover,

and the recognisable blossoms of the Geraldton and Albany Waxes that lines our roads.

Each plant vies for attention, the Silver Princess using the contrast of the powdery grey leaves with the bright red tendrils that appear as if off the pages of a May Gibbs book. Each flower would have made a wonderful gown for the little Ragged Blossom and her fellow gumnut babies. 

In the interim they provide ample attraction for the garden's bees.

Amongst the banksia the variation is just as spectacular. 

Only a grevillia is at odds with this delightful display, the flowers more reminiscent of the festive season with each cluster parodying the eye-catching baubles of the Christmas tree.

Watching over the garden, from the flimsiest branches of the Jacaranda sits another visitor, with perhaps more rights than any we can lay claim to. He's welcome here, so long as he ignores the frogs and worms, and sticks to the snails and slugs and slaters and mosquitoes and flies...

As darkness falls, a delicate fog may settle in, filling the depths of this sleepy hollow, while above in the crisp night air, the Southern Cross glistens down. 

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Right under my feet.

Living in London, I loved roaming around, discovering the weird and wonderful; the entrances to ghost tube stations, pieces of street art, hidden gardens...
But no matter how much you look, there are always going to be things that escaped your attention, right under your nose, right under your feet. 

In the early part of 2012 I stumbled upon information regarding an art exhibition I wanted to see at the Guildhall Art Gallery. It featured paintings that even then were strangely recognisable though I had no idea as to why I knew them; paintings of misty country lanes and the sweeping curve of London's Victoria Embankment. As I discovered, these ones were typical of  John Atkinson Grimshaw's a self-taught artist who favoured capturing the light of the full moon playing down a country lane, or the soft light of dawn through a country manor's garden, and the urban industrial landscapes silhouetted against the winter sun or full moon.

Reflections on the Thames, Westminster, 1880
So engrossed with the contents of the exhibition, and my inspired attempts at photography, I failed to notice the circle of paving stones marked out in the courtyard of the Guildhall. 

It was only watching a Time Team special 18 months later that I realised what I'd missed so completely. The Guildhall Courtyard was on the site of London's Roman Amphitheatre and the paving stones in the surface had marked out the circumference of the remains right under my feet. Inside Guildhall, the remains were accessible by the public while neon lights marked out the lower stalls around the edge of the arena.

 I just wish I'd appreciated it properly whilst I'd been there.

Next time...

Friday, 14 June 2013

A lesson well taught.

Like with many people, teachers have shaped my life, through school and through uni, helping me to learn the subjects which interested me and those which were necessary through life, and directing me along a path that would carry my interests through from academic transcripts into the rest of life.
In addition I seem to gravitate towards them naturally. It's in my nurture. You see my parents are teachers, so was an ex-boyfriend. My London housemates are teachers, converged in one city to experience the hell of teaching London children, as were many of the friends I made travelling around Europe at the end of my stay.

Seeing a small collection of my old teachers at my high school reunion and recalling to mind many others who I had not seen in so many years made me realise just how much they shaped my memories of school, and how much I have to thank them for. These were the ones who embodied entire years or subjects, or shaped a continued disinterest in various fields. And yet they were also the ones who encouraged interactions, team-based 'learning' and applied everyday matters to the topic at hand.
  • One of my earliest teachers was my year one teacher; a brilliant teacher, if a little scatterbrained, who would engross the class so completely in activities that the changeover into new periods would have been missed completely. But she was a teacher who knew how to get the most out of the small charges in her control. Comparing her to my sister's year one teacher a few years later made her dedication and skill all the more striking.
  • A early primary school teacher who took over our class in term two only to find the entire class had taken a dislike to her because she was different from our term one teacher. She persevered and opened up a world of art and make-believe before our very eyes and taught us to watch the world grow through tiny plots of garden just outside the classroom door. 
  • A carefree, relaxed man who somehow managed to teach in spite of a tendency to wander in and out of classrooms that weren't his own kicking a footy. 
  • A teacher with a pride in our achievements, all our achievements and plastered every inch of the walls and windows with our creations. 
  • The English/History teacher who knew our names, who knew each and every one of us and encouraged us to expand ourselves. He had an open door policy to his office and we love him enough that me may have abused the privilege ever so slightly. He gave the impression of putting the students first and when he was promoted made a point of wandering the school yard at lunchtime interacting with anyone and everyone. 
  • A History teacher who recognised and encouraged(?) the dynamics of her class and allowed them to shape the class for three consecutive years. Whether it was rivalry, combative spirits or something else its hard to say, but in at least one of those years it prompted our progress. 
  • A Human Biology teacher who made understanding elements of the human body easier through the use of examples from her son's life... who just happened to be one of our classmates. 
  • A short term student teacher who gained the respect of her year 10 class and successfully taught us an understanding of Romeo and Juliet. Though I only like the play for the memories of those classes. 

However unfortunately memories also surfaces of those teachers whom you remember for all the wrong reasons. Those who consistently failed to control the class, those who remain little more than comic figures running through familiar settings. A few were unique though: 
  • One was a Maths teacher who was a brilliant teacher of maths and ensured you learnt every concept completely. However this was achieved though fear to the extent that no one liked him as a person and anyone who had to deal with him outside of maths lessons felt as though they were constantly on tenterhooks. 
  • The other most memorable one was a physics teacher who has left me with a complete lack of understanding of physics. His class taught me the importance of the circle in meditation, the words to  Monty Python's Galaxy Song and comprised an assignment: 'research the influence the ruling planet of you star sign has on you life'. I never did learn physics, but I got an awful lot of writing done in that class. 
Going back and seeing my old teachers again make me realise how significantly they contributed to my education, not just academically, but to my education as a person, as an informal teacher and to my appreciation of the cultural heritage, history, natural beauty of the world in which we live and the opportunities open to us if we only think to look for them.

Schooling a response.

It's said to contain some of the best years of your life, but truthfully you either love it or you hate it.
I'm talking about school.
If you're lucky, it can teach a love of learning, a curiosity to discover the world and marvel in its intricacy, provide some of the best friends you'll ever have, and prepare you to face the world on your own.
But school is also about petty quarrels, superficial values, crushed hopes, and extreme schisms across a multitude of divides. From the imposed ones of what stream of maths you're allowed to take, what career paths you're encouraged not to dream for, to who's cool versus who is able to slip through the years virtually unknown.

When high school ended it was nice to put it all behind you; take what you want and leave the rest behind, brush the dirt from your shoes as you step through into a brand new world. Start again, from scratch. As you pass through the years, exploring the insular universes of university, work, travel, living abroad... school slowly fades into the background, only rearing its head when you run into familiar faces or familiar places. So when a reunion looms on the horizon, you start wondering.
How many people do you wish you'd kept in contact with? Wish to reconnect with, hopefully pick up where you left off, but on a better footing.
How many people do you wonder what they're doing, even if you know you'll never stay in contact outside of this?
How many people do wish you'd put aside your petty quarrels and befriended all those years ago?
Will this provide the opportunity to make amends? Is it too late?
But there's always the other side of the coin: how many of your classmates are still caught up in those petty rivalries? 'My rock is bigger than yours', 'my baby bump bigger', 'my job cooler, more impressive...' Have they grown up at all in that interspersing time?
Have I?

I suppose you can say curiosity won the day. I went. There were people I wanted to see, people I wanted to reconnect with, people I wanted to connect with for the first time. And there wasn't anyone I didn't want to see. I'd matured since the days of those petty rivalries. Surely they had too. So I went, with some misgivings, few expectations, and I enjoyed it. We'd grown up, we'd arrived with the same motivation, the same mindset, the same desire to celebrate the opportunities we had been granted through a thorough education with a brilliant cohort.

It was delightful to catch up with colleagues, to hear about the success they'd made of their lives thus far. The pure enjoyment they were getting out of life and the work they loved. To hear how they were following their dreams, regardless of whether these had changed or just adapted as we aged. To be remembered for all the right reasons, to be remembered at all...

What the night also offered was a chance to catch up with some of those teachers who had helped to make school so memorable. Those who'd inspired you to learn, who'd made classes worth going to, who'd tolerated your antics however outrageous and whom you just knew had gossiped about you in the staffroom afterwards.

However each evening of happiness is impinged with elements of sadness. Those students who hadn't come, whom you knew would never come, those who had disappeared off the face of the earth and even their friends had no idea of what had become of them. Teachers who had succumbed, however unwillingly, to mental disorders, to early onset dementia. Those who had pored their life into the school to make your experience of learning such a positive one. Those who had been forced to walk away.

Our next reunion is as much as 10 years away.

I wonder...

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The healing properties of the Marshmallow

It's reaching the time of year when hot chocolate is becoming a standard beverage, not just for its hand warming properties and sweet liquid energy but also because it comes with marshmallows.
Coloured mounds of fluffy sugar that slowly dissolves on your tongue.
They come by the bag,
and by the jar. the soft sticky fluff without the crystallised coating...
But I digress.

On the bookshelves at home is Nicholas Culpeper's Complete Herbal, an encyclopaedia of herbs and their medicinal properties, past and present. And though it may sound strange, one of the plants mentioned is the marshmallow.
Well, actually it's the Marsh Mallow, Althaea officinalis.  'A perennial... with hairy white stalks, spreading branches, soft and hairy leaves and palish-pink flowers' that grew in marshy land.
According to Culpeper the Marsh Mallow opened up the body and took away hot agues, inflammation and swelling. This helped against pleurisy and other lung diseases, sore throats, kidney stones, hard tumours and swellings of the testicles. On the exterior, when boiled in oil,  it smoothed and moisturised the skin. It was also associated with childbirth, with 'the juice drank in wine [helping] women to a speedy and easy delivery' while the 'leaves and roots boiled in water... gives abundance of milk to nursing mothers'.
But this doesn't sound anything like the marshmallow as we know it today.

Marshmallows as we know them today are actually a descendant of a confection created using the gelatinous properties of the Marsh Mallow. The roots of the plant contains a mucilaginous extract and it was this that was mixed with honeyed water and drank to relieve coughs, hoarseness, shortness of breath and wheezing, coating the inside of one's throat in a mucus-y substance as it slid down. As this remedy was known to the Ancient Egyptians, it's not difficult to see how these properties could have been adapted and solidified to create a dessert type recipe. Such a recipe, and more modern ones, uses the plant's sap or pith (the soft spongy centre of the plant's stem) and boils it with sugar/honey and nuts to create a soft chewy confection. This evolved slightly in 19th century France with confectioners whipping the sweetened sap to create the aerated confection as we now know it.
Today, gelatin is used.
Pity, as it would be nice if marshmallows still cured a sore throat.

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