Project Gingerbread Nativity

Christmas in the Belfast Clutterbuck household has a very strong emphasis upon nativity sets.

Long-term friends and readers will be aware that for some time, my mother has been collecting nativity sets from around the world. She receives them as gifts, and we’re always on the lookout for interesting new ones. I haven’t counted them (yet) this year, but we must be approaching 60.

This year, one of the new nativity acquisitions (there have been several), was a Nativity Gingerbread set. I can’t remember which of us discovered it via Twitter, but it was a set of biscuit cutters from (of all places) Urban Outfitters [it’s now out of stock and I can’t find it anywhere else online]. The basic premise is simple, you make dough, cut out nativity themed biscuits, and assemble.

We decided it would be a fun activity for Christmas Eve – Mim and I would take over the college kitchen (leaving our Mum with the house kitchen in which to complete important Christmas food preparations) and within a few hours our project would be complete. It didn’t quite turn out like that. Sure, the gingerbread making was simple, as was the cutting out and baking. Where things got tricky was with the decoration and the assembly…

Project Gingerbread in action

Unlike a gingerbread house, there was no structure to hold together with royal icing [incidentally, my first attempt at making this substance was a triumph] – according to the box, the stable and figures were simply meant to stand around, stuck down with the icing. This, you can imagine, is rather tricky. Fortunately, while cutting the dough, I had an inspired idea. Two inspired ideas in fact:
1. That the manger ought to be three dimensional, in order to facilitate the placing of the baby Jesus within it.
2. That the stable needed doors. We had a cutter for the back of the stable. Cutting out a second, and cutting it in half, and sticking it to the back created an area in which to place the figures.

This meant that when things got tricky with the royal icing and gingerbread magi/shepherds, we could simply prop them up. Genius team work. Here’s the result:

Project Gingerbread Nativity

The method was simple – we used Mary Berry’s recipe for a Gingerbread House, recently demonstrated on the GBBO Christmas Special. We used half the quantities for the gingerbread, and had more than enough. For the royal icing we used a third of the quantity needed for the house, but might have needed more than that, had we chosen a more elaborate form of decoration for the figures. As for the colour, it’s fondant icing, conveniently packaged in a pack of the ready-made variety. And it’s all brought together on a bread board.

Obviously, in the picture above, a key piece of any nativity is missing. Have no fear, we were not going to let that state of affairs persist come Christmas Day. (No nativity should include Jesus prior to that date.) With our creative manger, there was scope for a creative Jesus – so we went for marzipan. Voila, an almond paste deity:

Marzipan Jesus

It was a fun activity, but perhaps could do with being spread out over a couple of days, rather than crammed into Christmas Eve. It was also lacking a few key features – including a Jesus cutter and an angel. We created our own angels (though the addition of them to the scene would have compromised its structural integrity); found a pig cutter (for extra livestock); and attempted to create a sheep via a combination of the pig cutter and a scone cutter (unsurprisingly, this did not work).

Perusing Google image results for ‘gingerbread nativity’, it would appear that there are other kits on the market, so it may be possible to find your own next year…

[In case you’re wondering, it’ll be dismantled at my parent’s ‘Kings Feast’ on the eve of Epiphany.]

Baking – with added vitriol

Last night was not a great night for our student group to be doing the second week of an all-church Bible study that has to be done at the same time as everyone else. Several guys arrived at my flat wanting to know if we could have the Arsenal match on ‘in the background’ (everyone knows there is no such thing as ‘in the background’ when it comes to football); I, on the other hand, was in a state of frenzy at the fact that while I was leading a meditation on Genesis 37, anyone not watching football was watching three women bake cakes and pies.

This year’s GBBO final is the most watched of all the series – 8.4 million people watched last night (that’s more than X Factor apparently). It’s also been fiercely debated in the media and on social media. I had at least two fierce debates with people on Facebook yesterday about who should win – nothing terribly unusual about that, in competitive arenas people are always going to have their favourites. Just as the guys were desperate to see an Arsenal victory last night, I had strong views about who should win a national amateur cake baking competition.

I’d had strong views last year too – I’d loved the work of John & James and therefore I wanted ‘anyone but Brendan’ to win. I wasn’t out to destroy Brendan, I just liked the other two more. That’s how life works. [I’ve been re-watching that series recently and it is a classic. James and Sue need their own baking show!]

GBBOFinalists2013Ruby, Kimberley & Frances.

This year, I wasn’t overly keen on either Kimberley or Ruby – if pushed, I’d take Kimberley on her consistent technical skills – but I loved Frances’ creativity. One friend argued that she wanted Ruby to win ‘because she was so vulnerable and pocket-sized’, but last time I checked, vulnerability wasn’t a way of avoiding a soggy bottom. I wanted her to gain some confidence in her skills – to apologise a couple of times for what you think are terrible bakes (but it emerges aren’t) is fine; to do it consistently is not. Friends debated whether Kimberley appeared smug thanks to editing – but is simply saying that “I’ve baked this before” during a technical challenge really a sign of smugness? Surely it’s just stating fact?

Opinions are fine – but not when they cross the line. What got interesting about this year’s competition is that so much of the criticism was in relation to the finalists’ gender and size. Last year, I don’t recall sexuality being used in such a way, even though 2 of the 3 finalists were openly gay. Why should female bakers still attract such ridiculous interest?

Ruby puts it brilliantly in a column for the Guardian:

Raymond Blanc waded in on the commentary to so helpfully deride the “female tears” on the show. (What are “female tears”, anyway? Are they more fragile and delicate than male tears? Do they wear pink?) Kimberley’s self-assurance – a character trait so lauded in men– has been rebranded as smugness, cockiness and even malice.

It’s a culture of frilly baking versus macho Michelin stars, of real chefs versus domestic goddesses. Food has become divided and gendered, torn between the serious sport of haute cuisine and the supposedly antithetical world of women pottering around in home kitchens.

I saw one male friend complain that the presence of 7 women to 1 man in the semi-final (that’s 1 male judge, 1 female judge, 2 presenters & 4 female contestants) was indicative of the assumption that baking was a female activity. Has he not seen the prevalence of male finalists in previous years? That the series is gender balanced to begin with and baking is judged on talent alone? That seeing women outnumber men on a prime time TV show is still a flipping rarity in Britain??

Another friend posted a link to Ruby’s column this morning, with the comment “now to face up to this in the church too”. I couldn’t agree more. If the world of food has become gendered, how much more is the church? Are “female tears” derided? Is self-assurance seen as smugness or malice? Is there still the assumption that if there’s food to be cooked, women will do it? I’m sure you can come up with your own answers…

Great-British-Bake-Off-2165415Farewell, class of 2013! (Incidentally, did anyone else notice Deborah’s brilliant new hairstyle in the final?) 

Back to the Bake Off. I have a suggestion for the BBC (well two, see above idea of the James & Sue Baking Show). The Bake Off moves to BBC1 next year, now that it’s considered to be mainstream enough. So, how about we make a bit more of the final? This year, there was a rumour that the winner had been leaked – so avoiding a repeat of this would be ideal. A good way to do this would be to make the final a live one.

It sounds ridiculous, I know, but actually perfectly doable. Have the same tents in Somerset, broadcast the day’s baking (perhaps just the showstopper) via the BBC’s red button so you can dip in and out whenever you want to. A friend even suggested multiple ‘oven cams’ so you could choose which cake you wanted to watch rising. Then at the end of the day, BBC1 could broadcast the judge’s decision live. Fabulous. What do you think, BBC?

Oh, and for those who don’t know, my favourite won. Frances made a gorgeous wedding cake and looked stunned when she received her celebratory cake stand. There were audible whoops of joy from my living room. Until next year, Paul & Mary…

When life hands you two jars of stem ginger…

…get baking.

The flat in which I now live was previously occupied by the church’s curate. Unlike a normal house move, when I arrived at the flat there was a pile of things benevolently left to me by my former colleague – a dvd player, a copy of LOTR (how I laughed), a wealth of cleaning materials, an umbrella and a huge range of jars containing all manner of goodies. Previous curate was a skilled cooker of roast dinners, so many of the jars were condiments suited to such meals (red currant jelly, mint sauce etc), all of which will come in handy once I finally get around to cooking my first ever roast dinner.

Also amongst the selection were two jars of stem ginger in syrup, which presented something of a challenge. What can you use two (large) jars of ginger for? Too much ginger is overpowering, but surely there had to be ways of getting through it? Logically, my mind turned to baking – specifically, ginger biscuits. Everyone loves a ginger biscuit, no?

So I tried out a recipe for ‘best-ever’ stem ginger biscuits. They were fine, except they only used one ball of stem ginger and each jar appeared to contain twelve of them. It would take many, many batches of biscuits before I’d erased the ginger stash.

In the week leading up to Greenbelt, I had a bit of a brainwave: ginger flapjack – surely that had to use more ginger than the biscuits did? I successfully located a recipe that required three times as much ginger as the biscuits, tried it, took it to the festival where it was met with joyous acclaim from my camping companions. [When camping, flapjack is a completely legitimate breakfast food.]

Now that it’s properly autumnal – nay wintery – I’ve whipped the recipe out and modified it for my own uses.

Stem Ginger Flapjacks

175g Butter
175g Golden Syrup
175g Light Brown Sugar
355g Porridge Oats
1/2 tbsp Ground Ginger
1tsp Cinnamon
3 Pieces of Stem Ginger

1. Mix butter, syrup & sugar in a large saucepan. Melt over a low heat.
2. Bring to the boil and remove saucepan from the heat.
3. Add oats, ground ginger & cinnamon. Mix thoroughly until combined.
4. Chop ginger pieces and mix into the porridge mixture.
5. Pour mixture into a square tin (approximately 15cm x 15cm).
6. Place into a pre-heated oven at 150C/Gas Mark 2 for 40 minutes, until golden.
7. Leave to cool before cutting into pieces.

I prefer my flapjacks on the squidgier end of the spectrum, so I’ve slightly reduced the quantity of oats. I am also a huge fan of autumnal spices, so added a dash of cinnamon to the mix. Not too much, but just enough to complement the ginger. The end result is something equivalent to perfection on a cold, blustery afternoon.

Before the oven; after the oven & ready to eat.

Friday Fun for London and the rest of the world

There’s no doubt what the highlight of my non-working week has been – four words: Great. British. Bake. Off. Sadly, this highlight took place with the highlight of my working week (launching the Central London Student Alpha course – a project I’ve been working on since April), meaning I couldn’t watch it live. Instead, I watched it (free Krispy Kreme from the launch in hand) when I got home at 10pm. It had to be watched immediately, as otherwise social media would tell me the winner and spoil the joy. [Yes, I stayed off Twitter till I’d watched it. Addicted? Clearly not.]

My intern lodger had never seen an episode, but she was in the room and got sucked in by my exclamations and the baking puns. Quickly, I appraised her of who had to win (anyone but Brendan) and ran down key baking moments from the last 9 weeks. At the end, she asked quite an astute question: “So, what does the winner win, other than that trophy?” The beauty of GBBO is that yes, that is all they win – no £million baking contract; no job in a patisserie – just the honour of being the best amateur baker in Britain that year. What else do you need? Talking this over with my sister, we mused that it’s unlikely such a concept would work in America, it really seems to be a uniquely British competition (heck, the final takes place in the context of a village fete!).

All this is an exceptionally long preamble to this week’s first piece of fun – a video representation of what a Hollywood version of GBBO might look like. Genius.

One of the reasons why GBBO is so successful is the fact that anyone and everyone can or does bake. Sure, I might be incapable of completing most (probably all) of the technical challenges, but I do love to bake and now take greater care over my work, imagining what Paul and Mary might say about it.

Something else we can all relate to is the comforting power of a hot beverage. Some might choose to express their personality via their mug choices – but how about doing it via a mug-warmer?
I’ll leave you to work out which might be most appropriate for me.
Let’s just say I don’t do mornings… 

It’s more than possible that you might have seen the next piece of fun, but the moment I saw it (on Wednesday) I knew it had to be in Friday’s Fun – given as it incorporates one of my favourite Friday Fun components: periods, and the fools they make of us.

So, first, you need to read this Facebook comment:

And then you need – NEED – to watch the response from Bodyform. (And watch it right to the end – trust me!)

Finally, two pieces of London themed fun – because we all know that London simply is the best city in the world. Firstly, a Tumblr that every London should resonate with – #WhenInLondon. It’s a collection of GIFs (what is it with them at the moment?!) that express the emotion of various situations Londoners find themselves in. Here are a few that resonated with me:

‘Oh we’ve all thought about doing it’

(That one’s especially for Mim.)
Lastly, something that could keep you amused for the rest of the weekend – a brilliant picture containing  lots of representations of tube stations (thanks to Time Out).
Obviously, you’re going to want to click and enlarge that.

Baking Rules

Often, I appear to arrive very late to the party when it comes to things that are actually exceedingly good. Downton Abbey, Twitter, Apple products and the West Wing would be some examples of such things. [Actually, I’m so late to the West Wing party that I still haven’t watched it yet – a fact that seems to continually disappoint people. It’s not like my LOTR aversion, I do fully intend to watch it, I just need to acquire it. And make time in my busy schedule.]

Another example would be the Great British Bake Off. It features competitive baking and the fabulous Mel & Sue – how did I stay oblivious for it for two whole series?! I was sucked in during the charity celebrity version last year and was instantly hooked – even though Sue was missing. When ‘proper’ series 3 arrived on screen to fill the gaping post Olympics void, it was an instant fixture in my week. This has now transformed itself into the highlight of my working week: Wednesday evening has to involve an hour long soak in a hot bath while watching that week’s episode. [I work on Tuesday evenings therefore live viewing is an impossibility.]

In addition to the Wednesday evening ritual, I’ve had to set myself some GBBO ground-rules:
1. Do not watch while hungry – unless dinner is in the oven and will be immediately available after viewing.
2. Never, ever, watch it before breakfast. I made this mistake early on in the series and nearly had to go off in search of a French pastry at 8.30am. (Not that such a thing would be tricky to locate in Bloomsbury…)
3. It pays to know in advance what the theme of the show will be so you can stock up on foodstuffs you’re likely to be craving before the programme ends. This evening I’m kicking myself for forgetting it was bun week – a Chelsea Bun has never been so desired. (It also featured jam doughnuts. Lord have mercy.) Note to self: next week is biscuit week.
4. Do not get overly attached to bakers – or develop an irrational disliking of them. I fear my particular favourite might break my heart, and I also shouldn’t unfairly judge a woman just because she’s a vicar’s wife who bakes. [NB: It’s the BBC’s stereotyping of Vicar’s wives that I dislike, which causes my irrational disliking of individuals…]  You never know who’s going to develop a soggy bottom and face the wrath of Mary and Paul…
5. Never, ever attempt to emulate the bakers’ feats. It will only end in tears and a lot of wasted ingredients. I’m perfectly happy with my limited baking skills and will not attempt my own show-stopping cake until I’m ready to do so.

These bakers might be my favourites, but I couldn’t possibly comment…

What I’ve also realised this evening is that watching GBBO in the bath, while your new intern lodger is within earshot, can be a bad thing. I’ve clearly had too much time on my own this summer and think nothing of yelling encouragement at the bakers, agreeing vocally with the judges or laughing at the numerous baking puns (imagine a world with tarts and buns – it’s a punster’s paradise). Oh well, it’s best that she learns early on that I’m an eccentric soul.

It deeply saddens me that there’s only three episodes left. What on earth am I going to do in its absence?? Unless… Unless anyone has 7 series of the West Wing to hand?