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.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Allotment update (Lynne!)

The rest of the seeds I have to plant are supposed to go directly into the soil outside, so I went down to the allotment today to clear some of the weeds away.  When I was there, I found out why only one half of the row of hyacinths was flowering: the other half was actually tulips.  Which are now flowering!  Why are all our flowers so short though?!

When I was clearing the weeds, I discovered our beetroot seedlings, which are meant to be thinned out.  Actually, I think they should have been planted much more sparingly, but you live and learn.  I pulled out as many as possible with the roots intact and have replanted them in rows.

This is the beetroot, below - two rows under the string.

I might have killed some of the seedlings(!)  I used the same technique as with the leeks - making a hole, putting the seedling in the top, then watering generously.  Unfortunately, in almost half the cases, the seedling disappeared into the depths of the hole (curses!).  Hopefully, they will come up again.

And, something seems to have moved into the compost heap next door(!)

Last week...

Good morning!  It's been a very fattening week!  I've been sharing some of my food photos on Instagram, and since I don't have anything much to share on the bear-making front, I thought I'd share the food photos here too.  This first one is 'American-style' pancakes.

 As part of my job at the pub, I'm supposed to do the breakfast prep for the next day, including making pancake batter.  I was getting in a flap about it because it's a very different recipe from anything I've seen, and I don't know where anything is kept, or which bowls/spoons/whisks/whatever to use for what.  And I'm always in a flaming rush because there's usually so much washing up to do.  I wasn't getting anywhere asking people, so I ended up taking a covert phone photo of the recipe and bringing it home to practice (not sure I should be admitting that online).  It went alright - although I shall have forearms like Popeye after a couple of weeks of whisking egg whites by hand.  

The pancakes were good!  The blueberries didn't really work unfortunately.  I did try actually putting them in the batter, but because they're about twice the height of the pancake itself, when I turned the pancakes over, it sat on 'blueberry legs' as it were, and the base didn't brown as it should do.  Hmmm. Perhaps crush the blueberries first?  

Croissants are another recipe I've been struggling with - but I did get it right in the end.  My biggest mistake was starting from a recipe I found in a random old cook book, entitled Best Kept Secrets of the Women's Institute.  It turned out the recipes found therein really would have been better kept secret, because the croissant recipe didn't work at all!  After two attempts with that, I found a Paul Hollywood recipe via Google, and that does work, thankfully.

I also made florentines from Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book.  The recipe worked well, but I think I mucked it up again.  I used cooking chocolate, which wasn't very sweet, and the walnuts were slightly bitter (too old maybe?), so they weren't much of a 'sweet treat', as it were.  They did have chopped cherries and mixed peel in them too, but I didn't really notice them.  Next time maybe more fruit, a better choice of nuts, and slightly sweeter chocolate.

I tried making crisps - like they do at work.  I was convinced that they baked them, but I've found out subsequently that they deep fry them.  Anyway, when you bake them, it turns out they can either be pale and slightly chewy (which is quite nice when they're hot, but rather sad when they're cold), or crisp and much darker in colour (i.e. burnt).  I'm not sure either really works.  I might have another attempt, but I'm not sure it's really practical without a deep fat fryer.

It's difficult to know how to stay healthy, with all this baking.  I actually lost a bit of weight when I started my washing-up job - which was kind of nice - but it's all gone back on again now, and then some.  I have been jogging every so often, but its not always so easy when I've been working and my feet hurt.  I might dig my bicycle out again and try some cycling - a nice, British, sitting-down sport!

Anyway, I have been trying to compensate for all the baked goods, so I've eaten lots of these...

And finally, the sole result of my sewing efforts last week - the beginning of a new design.  I put this picture on Instagram, with what I hoped was an encouraging 'any guesses?' kind of comment, trying to get people to engage.  I got one response, from someone who told me it looked like a cat's arse. 

Note to self: never try to get people to engage on Instagram!