Tag Archives: baking

Turning the Pot

As I write, I’m looking out at our lily plants, which are in pots at the end of our garden. The recent lovely weather has made them bloom – they are covered with lovely red and yellow blossoms, and their stems are green and thick, and they are the picture of health. This is the first summer in recent years where I think the weather has really suited them, and they are showing their appreciation the best way they know how.

However, one thing has struck me about these beautiful plants, and that is this.

They are growing lopsided. This is because, of course, like every plant, they grow to follow the sunlight. I keep meaning to go out and turn them a little, to see if it will help them to grow more evenly, but I keep forgetting. It doesn’t stop the plant from looking beautiful, and I’m sure it will bloom and survive and follow its usual life-cycle just fine if I never remember to turn the pot, but it does mean the plant will be sideways. And that got me thinking, about growing out of shape and focusing too much on one direction in life and being all out of whack.

My thinking cap is not as stylish as this kitty's, but it's not far off! Image: critical-thinkers.com

My thinking cap is not as stylish as this kitty’s, but it’s not far off!
Image: critical-thinkers.com

You may remember how, earlier in the week, I wrote about how I’d been tired, and under the weather, and feeling a little burnt-out. Well, I’ve been giving myself a little break over the last few days, as I promised I would. I haven’t been pressuring myself to write 5,000 words, or to get absolutely everything on my to-do list done. I’ve even been allowing myself a proper lunch break, away from the computer – and, not only that, but I’ve been watching a little TV during this lunchbreak.

This is a radical new departure for me. I’m not a TV person, and it’s not my favourite thing to do to relax. However, I do have one weakness when it comes to television: I’m talking about cookery programmes, particularly ones about baking.

It has been a long, long time since I fired up my oven to bake anything. I haven’t lost my love for it, but I’ve left it so long that I wondered if I’d ever bake again. That was until I decided to switch on the TV one lunchtime earlier in the week and came across a half-hour baking slot on one of our food-themed channels, and I enjoyed watching it so much that yesterday, I managed to bake some biscuits. They weren’t great – they expanded too much in the oven, and they probably weren’t as tasty as they should have been. But, despite all this, it gave me so much pleasure to take out my scales once again and measure out my flour and sugar, and to crack my fresh eggs into my mixture, and to get my hands dirty with dough. It was the simplest recipe I think I’ve ever used, perfect for getting back into baking after so long away from it, and even if the finished product mostly ends up in the bin I’ll be glad I dipped my toe back into the water.

It’s not a good thing, as a writer and even just as a person, to allow yourself to grow one-sided. It’s a very easy thing to do when you spend so much of your time alone, working away on something that is meaningful, in some ways, only to you; it’s so easy to fall down the black hole of your own mind, and never be able to crawl out of it again. I love my own company, and have always enjoyed time spent on solitary tasks, but even I recognise there is a limit to how long you can focus on one thing before getting a little twisted out of shape. It’s important, I’m learning, to keep in touch not only with friends and loved ones, but also with the other aspects of yourself that you should love as much (or, nearly as much) as your ability to write; your other passions should not be strangled out of existence by your love of words. I love to bake, to walk, to draw, to sing, to listen to music. I love trees, and forests, and lakes. I love art, and history. I love exploring. All of these things are as valid as my passion for words, and sentences, and stories. It cannot benefit me as a person, and therefore as a writer, to allow these other loves to die.

I’m really beginning to understand that a person can’t write in isolation from the rest of their life. Everything you do as a writer feeds into your creative life – every walk you take, every flower you smell, every cake you bake, every person you meet, every song you sing, all these things help to fill the well of inspiration. A person can’t write if they know nothing outside of their own skull – after a short while, all their writing will become solipsistic, repetitive, and dry. It will die. If a person’s other passions have also been allowed to atrophy, what will be left?

Striking a balance is hard in all walks of life, particularly when you’re doing something you love, but it’s very important. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into my morning’s work now, and writing as many words as come to me, but if I write twenty words or two thousand, I’ll be equally pleased with my progress.

And – believe me – this is progress.

Have a lovely Friday. I’m sending you all some of these:

My lilies look just like this! Image: playwrightbetsy.blogspot.com

My lilies look just like this!
Image: playwrightbetsy.blogspot.com

Happy weekend!

Just another Frazzled Friday

First things first. I want to apologise to anyone who tried to read my blog on a phone yesterday. I’m reliably informed that the problem I had with the images I tried to insert made the blog impossible to load on anything besides a computer, so I really do want to say ‘sorry’ if I caused anyone any inconvenience. I’m a great big turnip-headed technotwit, and I don’t really understand how this blog works – perhaps it’s writing me, instead of the other way around…

Anyway.

Today, I will be baking again. I’m off to my parents-in-law for the weekend, and you know the golden rule – never go visiting without cake. I have my ingredients all laid out, and my butter is happily softening on the countertop. It makes me wish life was as easy as baking a cake – if you put just the right amount of everything in, and do what you’re supposed to, you know the result you’ll get will be just what you wanted. We all know this isn’t how it goes in life, though – but maybe that’s the way it should be. Mistakes are how we learn – at least, I hope that’s true!

I also need to do a lot of work on the WiP. I’ve been writing away for the last few days, thinking I’ve been making great progress, and I woke up this morning realising that a scene I wrote yesterday makes no sense whatsoever. Talking to my husband this morning, I realised I was listening to him with one half of my brain, and having a conversation with my characters with the other half. That’s difficult, especially when drinking hot tea. So, I want to go back and change that scene today before I go too much further. I know this goes against my ‘finish the thing and then edit it!’ rule, but – c’mon. We all know rules are made to be broken.

I’m thinking about my country today too, with a mix of feelings. Mainly, I’m very proud of my native land, and I love it as much as anyone loves their country, but it’s a source of extraordinary frustration for me, too, at times. We’re facing a referendum tomorrow which I don’t feel will receive the attention it merits from our citizens, and I don’t feel the right information has been given to allow everyone to make a properly informed decision. Because of this, I think the way I’m choosing to vote might be in the minority, and I think that would be a shame. Also, yesterday was the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the atrocities which took place during the Troubles – the bombing of Enniskillen, in County Fermanagh, in Northern Ireland. I was a child at the time this horrendous event took place, and it made such a deep psychological imprint on me that I wept yesterday looking at news footage of the commemoration ceremony. It made me realise how much our country has been through, and how far we’ve come in a relatively short time. It made me very proud, and determined to do what I can to keep those dark days from ever, ever returning.

So, because I’m a busy bee today, I won’t detain you much longer. I can’t even share any images, in case I break every computer in the world, or something. (I promise I’ll get this problem sorted before next week, and sorry again). I hope you all have wonderful Fridays, and not frazzled ones – I feel like mine is going to be a frazzle-fest, but I am open to being wrong about this – and that weekends of pure unadulterated joy await you all.

Thank you all, as ever, for taking the time to read. Now, go have some fun.

 

Memories

Good morning, world. I’m here in my kitchen baking (again), and the radio is playing as I work. The DJs are asking listeners about movies and memories from their childhoods, and it’s got me thinking about my first memory. Well, at least, what I think is my first memory.

When I was born, my parents had just bought our house. It was right beside my dad’s mother’s house, and it was (probably) about a hundred years old. It was in a terrible state of disrepair and neglect, and (spookily) the last owner was an old lady who had died in the house. So, my parents (who were so young… so much younger than I am now!) decided to knock the house and rebuild it. Meanwhile, our little family lived in a mobile home in what is now my parents’ garden. I’m convinced that not only do I remember the back wall of our house as it was being built, but also the kitchen area of our mobile home, and I consider this one of my earliest memories.

My parents tell me there’s no way this can be the truth. I was barely sentient, they say. I was a mere blob of flesh with an appetite and very little hair. How could I possibly remember these things?

I’m also sure I remember our street the way it looked when the house had been demolished – it was like a row of teeth with the middle one missing. To remember this, I must have managed to haul myself up to a sitting position and peer out of my pram, goggling in that particularly unfocused way that only babies and the very drunk have ever mastered. Even I have doubts that I managed to do this; yet, the memory remains.

I also remember (I tell myself) sitting on the floor of our kitchen playing with the pots and pans. My mother has told me I did do this, but I feel the picture I have of it in my mind is more influenced by a photograph than it is by actual experience. I see this memory as though I was outside my own body, so I was either an experienced astral projector at a young age or I saw a picture of this at some stage and have convinced myself it’s a memory. It looked a bit like this:

Most of my childhood memories are sort of like that, though – almost like photographs. I have a memory of walking back to my aunt’s house with no shoes on one very hot summer’s day when I was about six, but I see it like a snapshot of myself taken by someone else. No such photo exists though, because I was definitely on my own at the time. I remember the first time I saw a girl who would later turn out to be one of my best friends – it was on the day of our First Holy Communion, so we were about seven. It was like my mind took a photograph of her as she left her pew, resplendent in her beautiful white gown, to approach the altar; I wouldn’t actually meet her till the next school year, when we were placed sitting beside one another, but this memory of my first sight of her is very clear. I still don’t know why my mind decided she was important, and worth taking note of, before we’d actually met – perhaps, as well as being an astral projector, I’m also a bit psychic. Or something.

The first film I remember seeing in the cinema was Bambi. This doesn’t mean I was, in fact, born in 1942 – it must have been an anniversary showing, perhaps. I am old enough, however, to remember when smoking was still permitted in cinemas here in Ireland; my memories of watching Bambi take place through a haze of cigarette smoke. I also remember (patchily) watching E.T. the same way. I went to both these movies with my dad, and he still likes to tell people how I babbled about stars and aliens and little men in the sky the whole way home after we’d been to see E.T. I think it’s one of his favourite memories of me.

Whether or not my memories are actually memories, or just mis-remembered photographs, I still treasure them. My parents were great photography enthusiasts when my brother and I were young, and we have a wonderful store of images to look back on – and they’re not just pixels on a screen, either. They’re actual photographs, in a collection of biscuit tins, yellowed with age, varying in size as the cameras changed and modernised through the years, and I love them all.

Anyway, time to come back up memory lane now! My cake is cooling on the rack, and it’s time to move on to my next task of the day. I hope you’ll share some memories with me in the comments below, and that you all have wonderful days today.

P.S. I won’t be blogging tomorrow as ‘real life’ is interposing again – I’ll tell you all about it next week. Hold tight till then.

On Friendship

Or, how I nearly baked my wedding ring…

Yesterday, two of my oldest friends came to visit me.  We hadn’t seen one another for a while, but that was no impediment to the banter and conversation that flowed all morning – we’ve been friends since our early teens, and they’re pretty much family to me at this stage.  Both my friends are baking enthusiasts, like me (though they’re far more advanced than I, of course), and so, early yesterday, I started work on my baked treats – I wanted to get some baking feedback from expert tasters, but also I just wanted to make a fuss of my visitors.  One of my friends is allergic to most known forms of food, however, which makes life fiendishly difficult for her; she manages to cope with it heroically, though, and she’s a selfless baker, making all sorts of gorgeousness for other people which she can’t eat herself.  It meant that a lot of the baked treats I was making were no use to her at all, and I had to be very careful with regard to what I could make for her.  It was important to be mindful of not cross-contaminating her food with anything she’s allergic to, like gluten or dairy products.  Spelt bread (dairy-, egg-, gluten- and yeast-free) seemed like the obvious answer, and once I’d got the go-ahead from her, I got cracking.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever baked spelt bread before, but the dough is very gloopy and sticky – quite a bit stickier and gloopier than regular bread dough.  At least, the way I make it, it is!  I was mixing my dough together with my hands, sort of ‘vacant and in pensive mood’, when I realised that something wasn’t quite right.  I narrowed the problem to my left hand, and then to my wedding-ring finger.  I glanced down at my hand to find it freed of my wedding ring, and realised that the dough had managed to suck it right off my hand!  Cue several minutes of rooting through the dough in order to find my only piece of precious jewellery/symbol of my marriage; I eventually found it, rinsed it, and put it right back where it should be.  If I hadn’t noticed (which could easily have happened, as I was busy and preoccupied), my wedding ring could easily have had a trip to the oven; hopefully, it would have emerged from the bread unscathed, and all would have been well.  I told my friends about this once the bread had been safely eaten (and pronounced delicious, by the way), and they roared with laughter, making me promise that it would be the subject of today’s blog.  So, here it is!  I’m a woman of my word…

It’s interesting that this happened in October, though, because (as my friend Sarah pointed out) this is the time of year in Ireland when rings are traditionally baked into bread and cakes.  There’s a type of food which we call ‘brack’ (or sometimes ‘barn brack’) which is like a bread/cake hybrid into which a ring is baked around Hallowe’en, and whoever gets the ring in their portion – assuming they don’t choke to death on it, of course – is supposed to get married before the year is out.  I remember the thrill of eating brack as a child, hoping even then to get the ring in my slice.  It did happen once, while I was in the company of my cousins, and the teasing was unmerciful – but I was secretly pleased, and I cherished the ring for a long time despite the fact that it was only a piece of worthless metal which turned green almost immediately after it was removed from the cake.  I’m not sure if my childish desire to find the ring was about being ‘the winner’, or about a fascination with the idea of being married – perhaps it was a bit of both.

It was such a funny intersection of my young life and my old(er) life yesterday, then, when I nearly baked my actual wedding ring into a bready cake during the month of October.  It makes me feel like the dream I’ve cherished since my childhood has finally come to pass, and I think the little girl who found the ring in her brack all those years ago would have smiled to see my frantic searching through the dough yesterday morning.  I’m glad it happened on a day when I was seeing two of my oldest and dearest friends, women who I’ve known since we were all girls; we’ve grown up together, gone through school, university and early adulthood together, shared joys and troubles all down through the years, and weathered the storms that come with friendships that endure for nearly two decades (so far).  It was a wonderful treat to see them yesterday and it’s brilliant to have friends who make you feel like a teenager again – without the moodiness, spots and pressures of school, that is!  I hope they read this blog today, and that they know how much I love them and how proud I am of both of them.  I’m raising a cup of tea in your honour, ladies!

Baking Lessons

So, yesterday evening I hit another small milestone in my WiP – I got to 109,000 words.  The last few thousand words have been a real struggle – I’ve felt like I’ve been carving my characters’ actions out of solid rock for the past week.  I’m not quite sure why that’s the case, because most of the rest of the story has flowed freely, and this part should be no exception.  I know what I want to happen, it’s all plotted and waiting to be written, but for some strange reason it just seems… hard.  I’ve theorised that it’s because I’m trying to write a scene filled with action and ‘scenes of grave peril’ – not something I’m used to – and I think it’ll benefit from an edit and rewrite.  But of course, in order to edit and rewrite, I have to write the blessed thing to begin with.  Enter the quandary.

In any case, last evening I got to 109K.  I was pleased, and I feel the work is reasonable.  It’s not at all perfect, nor anywhere near it, but the dialogue is strong, the characters are developing all over the place and I love the scene they’re in.  But, as with every first draft, it’s clunky in places, like badly buttered bread; lumps of plot in random spots and lots of parts where everything is spread too thinly, and every once in a while a character acting a bit like an automaton because I’ve decided I want to move things on a bit.  I know this isn’t good, and I know I’ll get to it once the story has all been told.  In fact, I’m looking forward to going over it again, like a cake decorator with a palette knife, and smoothing the whole thing out.

In order to celebrate my 109K, though, I decided I’d do a bit of baking.  I had an ulterior motive, too – I have a friend who is a particular fan of my shortbread biscuits, and I’m calling to visit him and his wife today so I wanted to bring some along.  My biscuits (or ‘cookies’, if you prefer!) usually turn out all right despite the fact I don’t own a mixing machine – I cream the butter and sugar together in a big bowl with my largest wooden spoon, and it’s tiring but it really works out the stresses of the day.  The only thing I forgot last night was to make sure the butter was soft!  The first batch of biscuits reminded me of the work I’ve been putting into my WiP – it was like making cement shortbread.  I knew the butter hadn’t been properly mixed, but I went ahead and tried them in the oven.  Some of them melted a bit, and they puffed out more than I’m used to, but they came out looking all right.  My husband kindly offered to go and get me more butter for a second batch (as I felt the first weren’t up to gift standard), and they worked much better – more like my usual standard – but some of them were slightly overdone.  I’d forgotten that, because I’d baked so recently, the oven would be much warmer than normal.

So, I was left with two batches of bicuits – a portion of the first batch and a portion of the second batch were pretty good, and the rest were just edible.  It made me think about how you can follow the instructions and do your best, and still come out with a product that isn’t exactly how you imagined it would be.  It might be slightly misshapen, perhaps a little more or less baked than you’d like – maybe it even has a lump of butter in the middle (whoops!)  But, overall, you have to admit that the finished product is fine.  It mightn’t win awards for beauty, but it will do the job.

The method I’ve been using up to now for the WiP isn’t working so well in recent days – but I’m beginning to wonder if that’s a good thing.  My characters are different people now than they were at the beginning of this journey, so naturally they’re thinking and reacting differently.  It’s hard for a poor old writer to keep up with them!  They’ve never faced such danger before, so it’s new ground for them and for me.  Last night’s shortbread was a slightly different recipe to my normal one – usually I bake stem ginger shortbread, but last night’s was chocolate (I couldn’t get any glacé ginger).  So, in a way, it was new ground, too.  I didn’t make the most beautiful shortbread in the world, but it’s certainly worth eating – and my first draft WiP won’t win the Booker Prize, but I hope it’ll be worth reading!  With practice, I’m sure my chocolate shortbread biscuits will be just as delicious as their ginger cousins, and I hope my second, third and fourth edits of the WiP will resemble – but be a marked improvement on – the current, slightly half-baked, first draft.

If at first you don’t succeed… bake, bake, bake again!