2014 – Blogging: Could do better…

I don’t need to check my statistics to know that my blogging productivity has been low in 2014. I could provide you with lots of excuses, but I won’t. I’d like to improve on my frequency somewhat in 2015 [this is not a resolution – I do not do resolutions!], but have come to the conclusion that quality is better than quantity and that certain changes to my lifestyle could up my productivity a bit.

So, 2015 is two days old and the media is full of retrospectives. The handy thing with blogging is that it acts as a memory jogging device as to all the year held, so I don’t have to wrack my mind too hard. Here are some highlights that spring to mind…

2014 may not have included thrilling trips to new, exotic locations (unlike 2013), but it did see two returns to Chateau Duffy and a second trip to the great state of Texas.

On a bright July morning, I found myself wondering deserted Parisian streets and had possibly the best views of the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower a tourist has ever had. I was en route to Chateau Duffy #6, which included what may have been my best birthday for quite some years. Surrounded by good chums and new friends, all were willing to celebrate my birthday according to ‘Liz Birthday Rules’ [from 4pm on July 29th, through to the end of the 30th, owing to being born in the Pacific]. There was a banquet in a barn, a quiz and possibly too many hours in a hot tub. (Is midnight to 3am excessive?? I was rather pruney, but hey, birthday privilege!)

Paris in July

Texas was awesome in a whole range of ways, not least because a fortnight of temperatures in the high 20s is quite a novelty for a Brit at the end of October! I will never tire of experiencing new places and cultures, and Texas is a even more of a joy now than it was back in 2012, thanks to the vast number of Texans who have crossed my path in the interim. Love y’all!

In June, I left St George’s after nearly three years of being their ordinand. The memories are plentiful and I’m very grateful to have made several friends there who I’m sure will be in my life for a long time to come. It’s been strange not being ‘officially’ attached to a church, but Christmas has proved that this can be a good thing and will serve as great preparation for all that’s to come in the future.

Celebrating Women at St Paul's

The Church of England did good too. In May, the 20th anniversary of the ordination of female priests in the CofE was commemorated with a fabulous celebration at St Paul’s Cathedral. Talk was full of anticipation of a yes to women in the episcopacy at the summer’s General Synod – and we were not disappointed. By the end of the year, we had the first female bishop. It’s amazing what can happen in a comparatively short space of time! [Obviously, I mean the stretch from July to December, not the twenty years since the 1994 ordinations!!]

My love affair with the greatest city in the world continued throughout 2014. There has been London Transport geekery aplenty, including the achievement of a long-held ambition to visit Aldwych Station. My last few months of central London living were punctuated with trying to complete local(ish) Hidden London walks (which I nearly succeeded in, except for the shortest walk that was closest to my flat, ironically).

Lovely London

East London has now replaced Central London as my local neighbourhood, which at times has been a tough adjustment. (Especially when going home after a night out in town, or on my way back from a long journey. Living so close to several mainline stations for three years spoiled me for life!) But, it’s had a lot of plus points – its proximity to the Olympic Park and Stratfield being two of them; the fact that bits of Epping Forest are just at the end of the street (ideal for running and muddy walks); living with friends who have an insanely cute three year old; and the fact that aforementioned friends finally have their home sauna finished!

I didn’t need Timehop to remind me yesterday that it was a year since series three of Sherlock premiered – and it still ranks as one of my TV highlights of the year. Of course, this is in part thanks to that first episode’s glorious tribute to the secrets of the London Underground, and largely owing to Mr Cheekbones Cumberbatch. In case you’re wondering, yes, I’m doing fine since THAT notice appeared in The Times. My smallest housemate’s request to watch “apples and oranges” (his name for Cumberbatch counting on Sesame Street) the following day was, however, a little too soon…

Sherlock’s disappearance for another year or two was slightly mollified by the fact that the following week, the BBC aired a week of celebrity Bake Off. This short series is something of a bright spark in the dark winter of time between competitive baking series, when GBBO fans are counting down until late summer and a new cohort. 2014 did not disappoint, and like many a review of the last 12 months, the Baked Alaska cannot be forgotten. I still feel for Iain.

I wouldn’t have survived this year without my friends! Thanks to Matryoshka Haus, I found a new place to live and people to help me move. We had fun together in France and Texas, and continue to build community life in the unfriendly city. My Vicar School pals helped keep me sane during a very hard first half of the year, and I miss them terribly now I’m at college as a unique 4th year.

Two definite highlights of 2014 involved the same group of friends, a group that have now been a constant for over half my life. I think the Orchestra & Singers/OneSound reunion weekend brought home to us just how lucky we are to have had that organisation in our lives, and how much it’s impacted us. Four months later, we cemented a new tradition amongst our group, going away for a weekend on which the men amongst us were allowed to participate! Big Cottage 2014 was a roaring success, and the 2015 date is already in the diary.

Big Cottage 2014

Just like last year, the act of reflecting upon the year past has made me think about Firsts. No matter how hard I try, I can’t completely escape the pull of my 2010 decision to track all the things I’ve done for the first time, so another post on that topic will be imminent. After that, we’ll see what 2015 has in store!

2014 – a year of bread?

I have said many, many times that I do not do New Years Resolutions. They’re pointless. Yesterday was January 10th – the day when it’s apparently most likely that resolutions will be broken. I personally subscribe to the theory that new starts (if needed) can happen at any time of the year, all you need is determination. This is why, in the first days of a new year, I prefer to think of things that I’d like to do or achieve over the year ahead. Much more positive!

I’ve been thinking for a while that it was time to up the ante in my baking adventures. Yes, I make brownies that are near perfection (they are one of the few things that I will boast about); yes, I do a good line in scones, muffins, cupcakes and biscuits; but am I anywhere near the standard of GBBO? No. Not that I intend to reach that level, but there are some things I’d like to get the hang of.

High on that list is bread. Until 2014, I had never baked a loaf from scratch (I’d used a couple of those packet mixes you add water to), but surely it’s a good life skill to have? And who better to learn from than my favourite GBBO contestant of all-time – the snuggly jumper wearing, Shetland born, finalist James?

Having followed him on Twitter for over a year, I’d witnessed his passion for encouraging people (even beginners) in baking bread, which even included the publication of Brilliant Bread. Now, a lot of people jump on the “I’ve just appeared on a cookery competition, so I’ll publish a recipe book” bandwagon [it’s rather like celebrity fitness dvds], but this wasn’t one of them. The tweets from people using it clearly had great success, so I added it to my pre-Christmas wishlist – from which it was duly purchased by a family member who may also have wanted the book…

Brilliant Bread book

First things first, this book has the best first chapter of any recipe book I’ve ever owned. It contains no recipes, just explanations of the key ingredients, methods, techniques and varieties of bread making. I’m really not a natural baker, I often don’t understand why we do things, and I need clear instructions – so this was ideal. [I also have an incredible skill in remembering exactly what people, well, usually Mary Berry, have said in cookery shows – and then reciting these in appropriate situations, making it look as though I know what I’m doing. I don’t.]

Secondly, the chapters contain recipes in order of difficulty, so you can confidently progress through different types of bread, without fearing that you’ll suddenly hit one that takes you out of your comfort zone. I like that there’s a focaccia in the first chapter of recipes – I’m sure I’ll have some students willing to test that one.

Thirdly, it’s unpretentious. There’s no fancy equipment needed (the only new thing I’ve needed is a dough scraper that cost £1.99, I have lots of trays and tins) or terribly fancy ingredients. For under £2, I acquired a bag of strong flour and some yeast sachets – at home I had water and salt. Job done.

Fourthly, it appears to work. Admittedly, I’ve only made one of the recipes so far, but Twitter attests to its success.

As proof, here is my First Loaf:

First Loaf in progressFirst prove; second prove; third prove; into the oven; out of the oven…

First loaf - done Not too shabby? Obviously needed more flour to make it look like the photo.

Lessons learnt? Start baking bread a lot earlier than you think is necessary! I got distracted and it was 5.30pm before I got going, meaning it was 9pm before it was done – given that my evening meal plan was leftover chilli plus fresh bread, this was a little unfortunate. I think I still need some work on the shaping technique, but the slices had a good crumb and there was no proving line. (I was too busy eating the bread to take photos once it was done.)

As for baking accomplishments to achieve this year, there’s a list aside from simply working through the book:

  • Chocolate teacakes – you know, the kind with marshmallow inside. (A technical challenge in GBBO 3.) It’s been a dream for a while and now that I have both the moulds and a sugar thermometer, it shouldn’t be an issue – but it is a lot of work for only 6 cakes, and a lot can go wrong… 
  • Macarons – made without resorting to one of the cunning kits I pick up on my semi-regular visits to French supermarkets. (Now available in Sainsbury’s, but honestly, I’ve not found them to be as good as the French ones.)
  • Marshmallows – this is a follow up to the teacakes. Teacakes have smooth, unset marshmallow inside them, but I’m intrigued by the kind you’d put in a hot chocolate. Again, this is where the sugar thermometer comes in.

Obviously, I’ll need tasters/guinea pigs. I definitely need someone else with me on chocolate teacake day, because I would be more than capable of eating all 6 myself. (As an added motivation – if needed – the Lakeland moulds I have fit to the size of a digestive biscuit, meaning we’d have some of those to nibble on during the rest of the process.) Tempting?