Monday, 4 September 2017

New Blog

Hello!  As you might have guessed from previous posts, I've had a bit of a career change recently, and although I dithered for a while about retaining this blog and just using it to talk about something other than bear-making, I eventually decided it would probably work better to start a new blog.

So, I have recently started a blog called Serve With Good Bread, and I would love to see you over there if you're at all interested in cooking/baking/food.  The name is from a favourite serving suggestion which seemed to pop up repeatedly when I was reading books by Elizabeth David, Margaret Costa and Patience Gray.  Definitely a maxim to live by, I thought!

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Coffee morning

Good morning!  There's a charity coffee morning at the Methodist church in the village where I live today.  My mother always makes scones for them, so this time round I thought I'd try making a few cakes.  All my recipes are from Mary Berry, but the first one - for a ginger cake - is only to be found online.  I'm not sure why it never made it into her fantastic Ultimate Cake Book - perhaps I'm about to find out(!)  The online reviews suggest that it's nice, but mild - and she herself wrote that the flavour develops over a couple of days.  I didn't quite have a couple of days, but I made it yesterday, so it at least had overnight to... marinate?  Mature?  Steep?  I'm not sure what the correct term is.  Anyway, it looked great.  The top cracked but it was a healthy-looking, too-big-for-the-tin kind of crack - I'm good with that.

I'd never tried this recipe before, but because I was making it a day in advance, I felt fairly safe in that, if it all went terribly wrong, there'd be time to make a replacement (if not actually another ginger cake) before this morning.

The second cake - made last night - I have tried before, and it was really good, albeit imperfectly cooked by me.  It's an apple and cinnamon cake from the Ultimate Cake Book.  The sponge has walnuts and sultanas in it, and you put a layer of shredded apple and cinnamon in the middle , so it's texturally interesting as well as being delicious.  Last time I under-cooked it and it sank slightly.  I haven't quite got the hang of converting conventional oven times and temperatures to suit our fan oven.  The general idea seems to be that you lower the temperature by 20 degrees, but sometimes it seems like an extra 10-20 minutes is needed as well.

Anyway, I gave this one 10 minutes extra and I was really pleased with it when it came out of the oven.  It cooled for a while on the counter and still looked fabulous.  I removed the tin - all good.  When I got up this morning though, it had dipped in the middle - not by much, but it was rather disappointing.  Then, when I was rushing around panicking about the third cake, I decided on the spur of the moment that this one would look better with a dusting of icing sugar.  Unfortunately it just made it look like it had mould growing on the top(!)  So not a great success.  Hopefully, it will taste alright though - if anyone decides to brave it.

I wanted to try a third cake, and someone suggested that a traybake would be good for a coffee morning, so I had a go at Mary Berry's iced chocolate traybake.  The cake came out looking lovely, but something went amiss with the icing.  Incorporating just half of the icing sugar required in the recipe turned it into a thick paste that was never going to be pourable (which was the next instruction).  I added hot water to make it pourable but half an hour later, when someone turned up at the door to collect everything, it still hadn't set.  Maybe the melted chocolate wasn't hot enough - and therefore liquid enough - for all that icing sugar?

My instinct in this situation was to throw a tea towel over the traybake and say 'Yes, I have made TWO cakes!' My mother took the opposite tack though and said very loudly, 'What about the chocolate cake?  Is the chocolate cake ready?'  So I had to shamefacedly remove the tea towel and dig around in wet icing, trying to come up with some reasonably neat squares of cake.  The lady who had been sent to collect them retreated politely to wait in her car.

To give it its due, the cake held up really well to my excavation efforts and the icing - although I had it smeared over everyone and everything by the end - was that self-leveling kind that always seems to remain smooth on top, so the end result wasn't as bad as I'd feared.

The annoying thing is, I've no idea how any of the cakes tasted.  I still think whole cakes should always be presented with one slice missing, so everyone can see the cook has tested it.  Quality control is so important.

Anyway, someone remind me please not to use any untested recipes, if I do this again.


Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Croissants, bread, life, etc

Yesterday I made croissants again.  They do seem to be slowly improving.  In the pictures above, the gorgeous croissant on the right with the perfect honeycomb structure is the shop-bought version. The series of pictures on the left are mine - the one at the top being yesterday's.

It's all been about trying to get bigger and more evenly spaced air holes in the crumb.  I made a lot of croissants like the one at the bottom left.  They were always a bit moist, so I tried reducing the hydration and adding butter to the actual dough (rather than between the layers of dough), and got the result second from the bottom.  Then something - not sure what - went a bit wrong and I got the flattened version second from the top.  Working on the basis that the added butter was preventing the formation of a strong gluten network and therefore allowing it to collapse slightly, I decreased the amount of butter and got the result at the top left.  It doesn't look too bad to me.  Apparently, I'm still smooshing some of the layers together, and a longer proving time may help.  I also need to work on getting a crisper crust.

The next attempt will have to wait for a little while however.  I seem to be in the middle of a bit of a work crisis.  I have been pot washing at two restaurants (both owned by the same person) and it was all going relatively smoothly until one of the other kps went away on holiday.  Part of the reason I was taken on in the first place was to cover holidays, but because I'm working in two places, I ended up double-booked.  It's been a real headache to sort out.  One of the places was quite relaxed and flexible about it, the other not so much.  Either way though, I feel like I've been doing a half-arsed job for everybody - including the art & craft centre - where everyone has to be out of the building quickly on a Wednesday so I can rush off to a washing-up shift.  Unsurprisingly, nothing quite goes right under this kind of pressure.

So this week, I gave notice at one of the restaurants - the second job I took on (and the 'not quite so relaxed' one).  It doesn't feel right letting people down, but I feel like I need to make sure I'm honouring my original commitments first and foremost.  There are other reasons too.  If everything goes to plan, I'm starting my course in September. so I'll need time to study for that.  I also have the big Kensington bear fairs - one in September, and one in February - which I need to work towards.  I haven't made anything in a long time: I could really do with clawing back some time to sew bears.

As a result of trying to juggle shifts and make everything fit, I've ended up with five consecutive days of double shifts this week(!)  I may be good for nothing by Sunday night.

Anyway, I'm taking full advantage of my day off today, by doing very little indeed.  We went out for breakfast and I've made a walnut cake from Margaret Costa's Four Seasons book.  I'm also trying a variation on Elizabeth David's bread recipe (and committing a cardinal sin by changing two things at the same time).  I'm increasing the percentage of wholemeal flour in the recipe, and upping the hydration, which is supposed to give you better bread.  I have to say it's looking rather sad and saggy at the moment, so I'm just pinning my hopes on a marvellous 'oven spring'.  Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, 27 July 2016


Good morning!  When I was at work on Sunday, one of the chefs was talking about how the muffins they made kept turning out wrong, and  whether they were being proved for long enough.  It had me baffled for a good ten minutes.  I was standing there, washing up, thinking, why would you leave muffins to prove?  I've made them loads of times and never proved them, and they always turn out alright.  It was only when I saw them coming out of the oven that the veil of fog lifted - English muffins!

I don't think I've ever tried these before.  As Dan Lepard says, 'since those little [American] cakes in paper cases invaded the supermarket shelves and stole the name, our own little plain bread muffin has become neglected in Britain'.  Embarrassingly, that is true in my experience (it's only thanks to the supermarkets that I actually know what an English muffin looks likeI've often trollied passed them on my way to pick up the American version.)

Anyway, the ones that came out of the oven at the pub on Sunday did look a bit puffy - more like lovely, well-risen bread rolls than muffins.  I went home and looked them up.  The first mystery was why they had been baked in the oven at all.  All the recipes I could find referred to them being cooked on a griddle.  Dan Lepard's cider vinegar muffins are griddled then baked, but I'm almost positive this wasn't the case with the ones at work.  (I have been mistaken before though.  Since the sinks face away from the rest of the kitchen, I probably miss a lot of the important stuff.)  Presumably when they are griddled, the act of flipping them over to cook them on both sides gives them their distinctive flat shape.

I did eventually find a recipe that involved no griddling - by P. J. Hamel, on the King Arthur Flour blog, here.  In this case, the muffins are kept flat by proving (and initially baking them) with a baking tray placed over the top to prevent them rising too high.  They're also flipped over (trays and all) after 10 minutes, to cook on the other side.

I tested both versions yesterday, and the results are shown in the pictures above.  The photo on the right is the Dan Lepard griddled/baked variety, from his book Short and Sweet: The Best of Home Baking.  Both photos on the left are of Hamel's baked version.  Of the two types, Lepard's are bigger and have the interesting speckled brown/black pattern and puffy white edges which seem very characteristic of English muffins. Hamel's have, dare I say it, a rather boring, evenly-baked appearance, like a flat bread roll.

The biggest difference is in the taste though.  Hamel's muffins don't just look like bread rolls, they taste like them too - albeit with a nice light, airy texture.  The two teaspoons of vinegar that went in them are virtually unnoticeable in a taste test.  By contrast, the cider vinegar muffins - which both contain more vinegar, and were left to prove overnight - have a very noticeable tang.  I'm still not sure whether that's a good thing or not(!)  Apparently sourdough bread has a similar, slightly sour taste but I've never tried that either - clearly something I must remedy.

It's difficult to come to any definite conclusion about the muffins without knowing what they should taste like.  Clearly there are ways of achieving the right look, as above.  I'm not sure I would bother going to extra lengths to achieve a flat shape though, if the end result tastes just like ordinary bread.                                                   

Thursday, 23 June 2016


Afternoon!  Meet Velma (right), pictured here with Pepe.  She is my original prototype, redone and smartened up considerably.  It seemed a shame to abandon her, when she looked so perfectly penguin-like.  The thread she's sewn in is the wrong colour, but for the most part its covered over with black paint, so it can't be seen.

They seem to be taking an inordinate amount of time, these penguins!  It's partly the whole paper mache thing with the feet, and the fact that its a new design, so I haven't been sure exactly what to do with it.  Partly also though, I have been focusing on other things - a bit more of the washing job, lots more baking, a bit of research into different courses I could do.  I am waiting to find out now whether I've got into one - although they haven't exactly been quick getting back to me, so I'm probably not going to be lucky this time.

Anyway, I'm going to make a few more penguins - perhaps another one so I can have a display of three at the Art & Craft Centre, and then another three to put aside for Hugglets at the end of the year.  I will try and time the process, so i know how much to charge for them.  I will put one in my Etsy shop too - do give me a shout if you're interested in having one.  :-)

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Pepe the penguin

Hello!  I was wondering whether to post or not - having posted these pictures on social media elsewhere - and then I noticed that once again, it's been almost a month since my last post!  Where has the time gone!

Anyway, I bet this is a surprise, after my previously posting about a bearded dragon!  I was getting very frustrated with my dragon design, and decided to take a step back, just briefly, and concentrate on something else for a while.  I've wanted to make a penguin for a while, and someone actually asked me recently if I might make one, so I thought I'd give it a go.

Getting the design together has been relatively easily - he's a heavily modified mash-up of my puffin and crow designs - and I was really happy with the cotton prototype I came up with.  He is a Humboldt penguin.  However, when I tried making him in a proper fur fabric - a lovely soft, Schulte viscose - it all went terribly wrong, and the result looked really clownish.  I ended up painting the prototype, and it looked good, so Pepe here is made in interfaced cotton, and painted in acrylics.  It's not ideal.  The paint is a bit visually flat, and obviously not as tactile as a fur fabric, but it is so versatile and gives a much, much better effect!  I have a precedent for using cotton in my barn owl, and I figure I can swap to a different fabric later if I change my mind.  I suppose I'm just worried that I'm taking the easy way out of a fabric dilemma.

Anyway, Pepe just needs his feet covering in paper mache, and he'll be good to go.  What do you think?  Does he pass muster?  :-)

Thursday, 12 May 2016

New design in progress

Wow, it's been a while!  Over a month!  Partly this is because I've been busy baking (and reading about baking); partly, it's because although I have been working on a new design (above), I haven't been making much progress.

He is meant to be a bearded dragon.  I love his tail, and his body, and his head, but the legs have really been giving me trouble.  First I tried making them in fabric, which resulted in a puffy, 'inflated glove' look, which didn't rest on the ground well, and the seams of the tiny, skinny toes kept bursting when I stuffed them. Then I tried making the feet out of wire, with some kind of fabric covering over the leg and the main part of the foot.  This just looked lumpy and - well, rubbish really.

Then I came to a point which I always come to when I'm trying to make patterns, but which I've never really noticed before.  It's the point where I've tried everything I can think of to achieve the 'perfect', realistic thing that I have in my head (and in photos), and nothing works, and I finally accept that nothing is going to work and move on to looking at second-best options.  It's a weird moment.  On the one hand I'm desperate not to concede that point - because I really want my design to be fabulously realistic.  On the other hand, once I've accepted the inevitable, things suddenly get a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable.

So, fabric legs weren't going to work, I decided.  There's always the needle-felting option, but I'm not good at needle-felting, which means I would have to either put up with second-rate results, or delay finishing my dragon until I'd done some serious practice.

Then I thought about making the legs out of fimo clay - first with a wire armature and then, when that didn't work, just clay alone.  This is the point where I took the picture above.   The legs are sewn loosely onto the body, so they can move easily as he moves.  Unfortunately, fimo is rather too fragile.  As you can probably see, I went to put him down without looking and one of his legs got caught underneath him, snapping two of the toes on his right foot (ouch)!  

It's a shame because I quite liked the effect otherwise.  Possibly the legs could do with being slightly bigger, and rounder and chunkier, but otherwise I think they look quite lizardy.  There is a slightly strange romper-suit look about it - with the limbs being a different colour to the body, but presumably this can be sorted by painting the legs to match the body.

So, my next step is to look for a more resilient form of doll-making clay.