Last week I made a Gingerbread House. I'm not sure what possessed me. I've never made one before but I was planning a pre-Christmas lunch for my sister and her family at which there would be five children so it seemed like a good idea at the time. Have you ever made a Gingerbread House? It's not for the faint-hearted or the time-poor. Unfortunately, the result was somewhat less than perfect as you can see. Walls cracked, the roof collapsed (more than once) and we used twice as much icing as recommended in a vain attempt to salvage what we could.
The thing is, I approached the task of making a Gingerbread House as I approach most things in life in life - full of enthusiasm, optimistic (often unrealistic) about timeframes and flying by the seat of my pants. I didn't read the construction instructions properly and I tried to do everything from making the gingerbread, to decorating and constructing the house all in one evening.
On the up side, it did remind me of a few of my better qualities too. I had a lot of fun once I realised perfection was not the aim. Henry and I laughed hysterically as I scrambled to catch pieces as they fell while still holding other pieces that had not yet set and I didn't give up even after my roofing disaster, in fact, I worked my way around the problem by constructing some roofing beams using bamboo skewers and overlaying them with textured ice-cream wafers I had in the cupboard.
It may be the ugliest Gingerbread House ever created but I still think that the time spent making it was time well spent. If you'd like to give it a go there are some good instructions here and here and if you'd prefer to stick with Gingerbread Men (so much easier to control!) here's my Gingerbread recipe.
3 1/2 cups self-raising flour
1 cup plain flour
6 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons mixed spice
1 cup dark muscovado sugar
185 grams butter, chopped and softened
1/2 molasses (or golden syrup)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1. Sift dry ingredients into a bowl with the sugar.
2. Add butter and mix with an electric hand mixer until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
3. Whisk molasses and eggs together and mix until combined.
4. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth. If the mixture is too sticky to work with add a little more flour but not too much. The dough should still be moist and should come together in a nice smooth shiny ball.
5. Cut dough in half, press into a flat disc, wrap in cling-wrap and place in refrigerator for 30 mins.
6. Remove from refrigerator and pre-heat your oven to 180C/ 375F.
7. Roll dough out between two pieces of baking paper until the dough is roughly 5mm in thickness.
8. Use your favourite cutters to make shapes and lay them on prepared baking trays and return to the fridge for 15mins.
9. Bake for 10-15 minutes depending on the size of your shapes, or until firm.
10. Cool completely before decorating with royal icing, silver cachous etc.
October marks the beginning of festivities in our house with two birthdays in October followed by two in November. Birthday celebrations are of a very elastic in nature around here and can last from one day to a week- throw in Halloween and before you know it it's Christmas.
Last weekend it was my turn and as always I was showered with lovely thoughtful gifts starting with this gorgeous orchid. Next came the books, oh so many books...
As you can see I have a fondness for Wodehouse. The other two books I've been coveting for some time. The glorious big magic book is full of wonderful illustrations and photographs of magicians from the 1400s to the 1950s. I'm not sure I've ever shared my obsession with early twentieth century magic with you before but that's a post for another day!
The other book is a cookbook from the famous Parisian confectioners, ALa Mere de Famille. As an Australian, the thought that this corner store has been in continuous operation since 1761, well before white Australia is almost unfathomable. The recipes throughout the book reflect the different eras covering everything from cakes and biscuits to chocolates, candied fruits, syrups and ice-creams. Most intriguing of all, however, are the stories surrounding how the shop has found new owners often by serendipity rather than through family connection. The right people just seem to appear at the right time including a number of people who were initially enamoured customers.
So as much as I would have liked to just blink my eyes and find myself in Paris, birthday lunch was a little closer to home at our closest Italian equivalent, Brunetti's where we had homemade gnocchi with tomato, basil and buffalo mozzarella, pizza and salade caprese. We also took home one of their profiteroles towers filled with zabaglione cream for afternoon tea and lounged around reading books and dozing for the rest of the day. Bliss!
The early days of Spring have been an erratic affair in Melbourne this year with often very chilly 16 degree days and warm 26 degree days in the same week. It has also been incredibly windy so I've put off planting anything new and needy in favour of maintaining and re-staking existing plants. I'm also holding off on planting tomatoes until the more traditional Melbourne Cup Day but the nice weather on the weekend got the better of us so we all trundled off to the nursery to explore the seeds and seedlings.
After a few not so successful attempts with seeds in the past I like to stick to seedlings so I came home happy with my parsley, basil, mint, oregano and thyme (the rosemary I struck from a larger plant my father gave me - rosemary for remembrance). The kids carry less battle scars than me (although there were those weirdly contorted carrots we grew one year) so they opted for seeds but we all agreed that they should be for relatively quick growing things that they would actually eat.
Enter Little Gardeners seeds and their lovely Rainbow Veggie Salad mix (radishes, rainbow silver beet/ chard and carrots - we've held off on the carrots!) and some cucumber, lettuce and rocket. As you can never have enough basil we also bought some basil seeds which came impregnated in a paper disc which you just pop into the soil. I'm not at all sure where I am going to put all the resulting seedlings but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
I was so excited to hear that Eleanor Catton's book, The Luminaries had won the Man Booker Prize today. I've had it sitting by my bedside waiting patiently for me to find the time to dive in and lose myself in this rollicking 19th century, astrologically-inspired thriller. It's one of three BIG books that I've been waiting patiently to see released this year. While Catton wrote her 832 page prize-winner in just two years, it's been seven years since Marisha Pessl released her clever, crazy debut novel, Special Topics In Calamity Physics, while true to her word that she would only ever write one book every ten years, Donna Tartt's, The Goldfinch is her first book since 2002 (you might have read her wonderful debut novel The Secret History way back in 1992).
Big books are a big commitment and mixed reviews are almost a given when ambition and size collide but advanced reviews for 'The Goldfinch' here and here have me counting the days until its release. Marisha Pessl's 'Night Film' might be a bit more of a gamble given her propensity for melodrama and structural experimentation but as this reviewer noted, 'Just because you know you’re on a rickety ghost train doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ride.'
I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort, when I am filled with music.
Last week we bought a piano. It is new, cost a pretty penny and demands a room of its own but I'm already convinced that it will be one of the best investments we'll ever make.
For the past couple of years the kids have been learning piano on a digital keyboard with weighted keys and although the grand piano samples on it were very good (and the kids loved all the effects and pre-recorded songs) I've been yearning for something a little more solid. I did consider upgrading to a digital piano, after all, they are cheaper and more compact with the added bonus that they never need tuning but the romantic in me just couldn't wrap her head around the fact that 'there's nothing inside'. I mean, really. Just take a look at the inside of a piano...
To have music in your life is such a gift. Between the four of us we play a very eclectic repertoire, everything from 'London Bridge Is Falling Down' to Chopin's 'Nocturne in E flat' by way of Disney's 'A Whole New World' and the odd Tom Lehrer tune. It's been so long since I've learnt anything new so it was reassuring to know that my fingers still knew their way to Middle C and my brain still knew how to sight-read music so I've downloaded the sheet-music for The Violet Hours by The Civil Wars. Who knows I might even be able to casually sit down and play it here in January.
Walking the kids into school this week in this glorious Spring weather I was reminded of this lovely piece on 'desire paths' by the gentle author over at Spitalfields Life. I'm sure you have a favourite desire path yourself where you walk off the beaten track even when a perfectly good footpath has been provided for you by your local council? For me there is something so very human about the way we choose to navigate around rules and regulations following our nose, always on the look for something unexpected (like that amazing tree in full bloom right in the middle of the small clearing above).
Our school is not in the middle of the woods. It sits on a fairly busy highway and has a regular car-park and drop-off point out the front with two lolly-pop ladies to help you cross the road but we prefer to park down the side of the school and wend our way along this desire path (there is actually more than one). The light is different every day, we sometimes get wet feet from dew on the grass and at this time of year the smell from the pine needles and the nearby wattle is heady. If you're lucky you might catch a pair of Rainbow Lorikeets circling but most days it's more likely to be a family of magpies caroling in the trees. Why would you go any other way?
So, I made it! For the first time in many years I felt the fear and did it anyway. And we're talking feel like you're going to die fear. Walking across the tarmac every single fibre of my being was shouting, 'run, run and don't look back'. As I walked up the stairs and into the plane I was shaking uncontrollably all over and my heart was beating so loudly that I literally could not hear myself think. Once on board I turned to the flight attendant and said, 'I don't think I can do this'. It was getting hard to breathe. I stood there for a little longer knowing that the rest of my family was already on board willing me to tough it out but respecting my need to do it on my own terms. Suddenly I had one of those 'life flashing before your eyes' moments where I realised that if I didn't take this flight it would be the beginning of a long string of other things I would never do in my life. Before I knew it my legs were moving independently of my body and was walking towards my seat. Other passengers were, of course, amazingly understanding, one older lady even offering to hold my hand across the aisle.
As the plane taxied out I shut my eyes and started to meditate something I was sure I wouldn't be able to do in such a heightened state of anxiety but I could and I did for most of the 2 hour trip. Coming back was better (the lure of home perhaps?) and I was only what I call 'normal person' nervous. I took my Rescue Remedy, listened to Respighi's The Pines Of Rome over and over again, the only classical music I had on my iPhone, and after some turbulence and circling (of course!) we finally touched down.
And look what I would have missed out on if I hadn't gone...
Reading: a million things at once including 'The Love Charm of Bombs' by Lara Feigel; 'Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and One Short Story' by Julian Barnes and 'Finn Family Moomintroll' by Tove Jansson.
Looking: out a cloudy skies
Playing: at being a filmmaker
Sewing: labels onto jester costumes
Wishing: I could fast forward myself three weeks hence
Enjoying: learning how to edit audio-visuals
Waiting: for my quinces to be ready
Liking: my early morning mindfulness meditation
Wondering: what the future will bring (not very mindful I know)
School holidays are rapidly drawing to a close and usually, by this stage, I've secretly started to look forward to an orderly return to the school/work schedule. These holidays, however, have been different. I've been meditating every morning and there has been no holiday program for the kids just a mixture of work and days off for me and outings and days spent with friends for the kids. Time has had an elastic quality. Over the past two weeks we've managed to squeeze in visits to Luna Park, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Hollywood Costume exhibition at ACMI and I've watched in awe as colleagues raced to the finish line with the truly remarkable exhibition, The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush.
Another definite highlight was the wonderful day I spent in the city with Henry. I took him to Thomas', a very special fine music store in Melbourne, so he could spend a gift voucher his grandmother had given him. Henry's passion is classical music (especially early twentieth century French!) so of course the staff took a shine to him right away and we left with five CDs including one they gave him for free. He was in seventh heaven. To complete the top of Bourke Street tour I wanted to take him to Pellegrini's but, alas, it was too crowded so I got to try somewhere new too when we ended up at Self Preservation where we shared a delicious slice of Lemon Pound Cake with our coffee and blood orange juice. Of course we couldn't walk past The Paperback Bookshop or The Hill Of Content without some serious browsing and the acquisition of at least one book, Oliver Jeffers and Drew Daywalt's new children's title, The Day The Crayons Quit.
We then walked back to the car through the dappled sunshine of the Fitzroy Gardens, past Ola Cohn's intricately carved Fairy Tree and the model Tudor Village given to the City of Melbourne in appreciation of the food parcels sent to Britain during World War II. With time still on our hands we motored down to the National Gallery of Victoria where we sat before Celine Boursier-Mougenot's beautiful acoustic installation which chimed so nicely (both literally and figuratively) with my new meditation regime.
Time seemed so inconsequential that day. I could have sat there forever.
It's cold, cold, cold here at the moment. Winter Solstice is upon us, the mornings are dark and it's almost impossible to get the washing dry. These little biscuits are my attempt to inject a little sunshine into our light deprived lives.
125 grams butter, softened
2 teaspoons of finely grated lemon zest
2/3 cup (110g) icing sugar, sifted
1/3 cup (55g) polenta
1 1/3 cups (200g) plain flour, sifted
1 cup icing sugar, sifted
juice of 1/2 lemon (add a few drops of water if necessary)
1. Preheat oven to 180C/ 375F and lined two trays with baking paper 2. Cream butter, icing sugar and zest then stir in polenta and flour. 3. Roll dough out between two sheets of baking paper until it measures about 1-2cm. 4. Use cutter (or just roll into balls and flatten) and place each biscuit on tray. 5. Bake for 10 -15 mins or until lightly golden and slightly firm to the touch. 6. Leave to cool before icing.
It's been a long time since I've indulged in some link love. Each week I see so many amazing things I'd like to share with you but somehow the time flies and the moment is lost. Not this week. Here are a few things that have been tickling my fancy over the pass little while.
:: Dave Walker at The Library Time Machine continues to delight with stories drawn from the libraries of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. I particularly enjoyed this one about 1930s interior design and his recent one which takes us inside the Imperial Institute in 1893. If you enjoy these two do take a look around the site. There are some fascinating stories lurking within.
:: How clever is Leeyong? Never have Explorer socks looked so good.
This week beyondblue released a new Get To Know Anxiety campaign to raise national awareness about the symptoms of anxiety, and to help sufferers get the help they need to manage it. Having lived with anxiety for over 20 years now this is a subject close to my heart. Although an estimated 2.44 million Australians reportedly experienced an anxiety condition last year, awareness surrounding its various manifestations remains low.
Genuine anxiety can not be dealt with by just 'sucking it up' or wishing and hoping that it will go away. It's not the result of an acute reaction to a very stressful situation (although sometimes it can start this way), it's a chronic condition that can have a massive impact on your quality of life. So if you or someone you know thinks they might be experiencing some of the warning signs don't wait to get help, the sooner the better. Yes, it's confronting having to admit that you are not coping with seemingly everyday situations but the sooner you learn the triggers and get some professional advice on how to manage your anxiety the better. I put in some hard yards when I was first diagnosed but I must say that since I've had children I've really let things slide and if I'm really honest with myself I've built my life around my (perceived) limitations. This campaign has been a wake up call for me. I let my last management plan slip past its use-by date but I rang my doctor today and I'm getting back on track. You can too.
Spending a lazy day at home with my family, enjoying the cooler weather and baking these sweet little biscuits for Easter. They are inspired by this Fluffy Bunny Biscuit recipe only a much simpler version topped with orange icing and sprinkled with coconut.
So, it's official. After a very long four month settlement period we finally made the move leaving our sweet little weatherboard (above) for a larger, more modern abode just around the corner. On one of the many sweltering days we're endured over the hottest summer on record we sweated and swore until every last box and pot-plant was accounted for and transported to its new home.
See what I mean. Much more modern, open plan. Quite neutral with not much personality yet but that will come.
Unfortunately this little fella which belonged to my Nana didn't make it. I'm pleased to report though that he was the only casualty.
As you may remember it's not that long ago that I renovated my old kitchen so that it was just the way I wanted it so the new one has much to live up to. Never having lived in an open plan environment before Henry still can't quite understand why you would build a 'kitchen in your living room' but it certainly does give new meaning to the kitchen being the heart of the home. For me the kitchen more than any other room represents family and friends so I like to have things out on the benchtops that remind me of them like this pottery jar that my Mum made during a brief pottery phase in the 70s and this lovely oil flask handpainted by Melbourne artist, Daniella Germain which I received as a Christmas present from Tom's sister...
...who also gave me these quaint little measuring spoons (1 tablespoon of kindness) which sit in front of my much utilised babushka measuring cups, a gift from my sister Angela.
I love this bowl which Henry painted when he was just three and of course every room in the house must have at least one reference to books. Let's face it, we've got a lot of them but that's a story for another day...