Thursday, 23 February 2017

Scrapbooking and Cake

As a teacher, I want to motivate and inspire my students.  As a human being, I recognise that the best way to do that is often through the regular and copious application of cake.  In fact, my students quite regularly request to bring cake to our lessons, and with some classes, a cake rota has been established so that once a week, one of us bakes something delicious and brings it along to help lubricate the learning process.  I blogged about the story behind these particular ice cream cupcakes here, and while I cannot claim to have baked such impressively pretty confectionary, I really enjoyed eating them.  And taking hope a couple of spares to photograph.
And eat.
This seemed like prime scrapbook material and is a nice way to get a little something about my life as a teacher into my albums.

I kept the design pretty simple, basing the structure around three blocks of equal size: one for a photo, one for the title, and one for journaling.  I then added layers to each block to soften the design and make it less graphic.  I picked out colours that complemented the photo in a range of shades, from pinks to beige, soft browns and woodgrains to creams and touches of grey. This is the kind of layering that my scraps are just made for!

I sketched out a title box and cut it out with a craft knife, and added my journaling onto graph paper.  All the key elements of my page were in position and the next step was to add some detail.

I sketched out a pattern of interlocking clouds to be a big design feature of the page.  I cut out my sketch to use as a template, traced round it onto patterned paper and set to with a craft knife.  I enjoy making papercuts as I like that I end up with a unique embellishment to go on my pages. There's something enjoyable about taking the time to craft something that's so detailed.

I cut out the clouds in a paper that I hoped would read as a neutral in the design.  I find that busy patterns can be distracting if you're trying to cut them into intricate shapes, and so solids usually work better.  I had initially thought I would use white but decided to go with a pale beige stripe in the end, shot through with occasional tones of pink, teal and yellow.  I quite like the match, and it was interesting to move away from doing a papercut out of my usual white cardstock.

I cut out some individual clouds to scatter around the page and create a sense of flow.  As I was using my craft knife to cut out the middles, I ended up with solid, smaller cloud shapes which I thought were quite pretty and really showed the pattern on the paper.  I decided to incorporate these into the layout too, just one or two, to showcase the pattern and add another texture. I added a little details around their edges with a pen to make them pop.

There's not a lot of fancy embellishment here; mainly shapes punched from leftover bits and bobs and little icons cut from patterned paper such as tiny cameras or flowers. The finishing touch was to add wood veneer hearts scattered among the clouds; I like the way woodgrain fit so well with the colours.
I loved making this page, it flowed together quite naturally. As I was assembling the layered blocks, I tried different arrangements that I would like to try out.  I'm looking forward to making more pages like this!
Kisses xxx
P.S. Please let it be the weekend soon. Please let there be some scrapbooking time.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Funyaks in Queenstown, a New Zealand Adventure

On my Contiki trip to New Zealand in August, we spent 4 nights in Queenstown on the South Island. I wish I could have spent more time there, actually.  It's such a beautiful town with so much to do, and I really had the wrong impression.  I had anticipated it being all about partying (I'm not really a party girl) and bungee (I am 100% not a bungee girl), but instead I found incredible scenery and exhilarating adventures, wrapped up in a package of lakeside cafes and friendly locals.
On one of the days, we had booked to spend a day Funyaking: kayaking up the Dart River and exploring the area by boat, and a nice active way to take in the fabulous scenery. We had an early start and were up first thing to discover our lovely clear sky from the night before had disappeared beneath a cloudy blanket of fog. And rain. Constant rain.
This is the view we wanted.  It just wasn't what we got.
Undeterred the Funyak guys picked us up and took us along the edge of lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, the Funyak base. Given the rain and the cold, they offered us the chance to cancel or rebook another day. A few people opted to do this but we pressed on undaunted. Or at least only a little bit daunted; we had pluck enough between us.
We were kitted up pretty thoroughly with wetsuit, 2 fleeces, waterproof, lifejacket, wetsuit socks and boots and gloves. Also 2 buffs apiece round our necks, yanked up to go over our noses and mouths, and a woolly hat. Plus they gave us an extra, long waterproof for the first leg of our adventure: jet boating.
Jet boating was chilly but still good fun. We did 360 turns and zipped up the Dart River. It's very shallow in lots of places and splits into tons of different channels as it makes its way down the flat floor of the valley. Huge mountains rise on either side. Each time it rains, the river changes course as the route is unstable and the water level seems to change regularly depending on how much snow melt there is. As we were visiting in a cold snap, there was fresh snow up on the mountains and it was freezing rather than running down the mountains. Therefore low river!
Everyone jumped off the jet boat at the kayaks. They were bright red and inflatable, with three inflatable seats spaced at intervals to perch on top of. We had a quick paddling lesson and then then the six of us from Contiki formed a group under the guidance of a kiwi by the name of Phil. Other, more sedate tourists formed sensible groups with other guides and we began our paddling adventure up the Dart River.
I shared with Matt (my brother, and travel buddy on this trip) and Amy from Canada. I was put in the back and in charge of steering. While the other two paddled on the left and were the engine of the boat, I had to sit sideways and paddle on the right, being the rudder. When we were going forwards I would paddle as normal. If we wanted to steer, I moved my oar in sweeping motions behind the boat to get us to turn.
That was hard work!
We were warned to follow our guides closely to avoid getting accidentally sucked into the wrong channels of the river.
Our first move involved both Contiki boats immediately getting sucked into the wrong channel of the river, spinning around to make our paddling totally useless and Phil jumping out of his boat into the icy water to grab hold of both our kayaks and manually haul us out of the river and back on course.
That aside we were pretty good! At least, out boat was. Ish. The others didn't suck so much as experiment with paddling the boat backwards, or sidewards or into the bank. We mocked them in an encouraging way.
Each time we set off to paddle a new section of the river, the Contiki boats started off at the front of the whole group and finished last each time. It wasn't poor technique or ineffectual paddling, it was simply that we were trying to maximise our time on the water. Clue's in the name: FUNyaks.
And the funyaking was fun - perching up on the inflatable boats and paddling in a three, avoiding slip streams and riding other currents to bowl us along, and occasionally spinning and grounding to a halt in shallow water. Until Matt clambered out and pulled us back in.

The rain continued steadily for the morning, but it leant an air of gothic mystery to the views. Mountains loomed on each side of the river, hunkered down to wait out the weather, huddled into misty cloaks. I think they were watching us, silently judging, their expressions formidable and wreathed in clouds.

Eventually, we abandoned our course upriver, hauled our funyaks out of the water and walked a little way through the surrounding forest. There we found more funyaks in a narrow gorge, climbed in and paddled out way along through much stiller, deeper waters. It was stunning, and as we slid the boat up a fissure in two rock faces, I couldn't help but peer into the water; very clear and blue, but so deep we couldn't see the bottom. It made a stark contrast to the shallows of the Dart. The chasm we explored had ferns growing out the top, and. trees and mountains were just visible way up overhead. In the moody weather, things were still and quiet, and it seemed that everything was taking shelter and holding its breath, keeping out the rain.

Floating back down the gorge, we made it back to a little hut for lunch: soup (so good, so hot, so desperately needed) and bread, tea, fruit, cake, including NZ lolly cake (condensed milk, crushed biscuits and marshmallows) and brownies and banana bread.

Yum. Actually, having used so much energy funyaking, I hoovered my way through piles of everything.

After lunch, we funyaked back down the Dart again. The rain finally trickled to a stop, the sun emerged and the brooding grey if hunched up peaks transformed into glorious mountains. Phil told us about his idea for new form of wellbeing: canoga (canoe yoga). He could genuinely do a headstand on the inflatable seat of his floating Funyak. Awesome. I attempted a tree-style pose from the one yoga class I had taken ever, and quickly found that balance is all but impossible and gave up. We recommended that Phil charge extortionate fees for retreats and have a low budget TV ad where if you sign up for the premium canoga package you get an inflatable canoe to use at home.

Eventually tootling back to base, we hauled the funyaks from the river, deflated them and drove back to Glenorchy. Phil pointed out locations from Lord of the Rings enroute and also mentioned that the mountains in these parts were used in Swiss chocolate advert. Apparently New Zealand looks more like Switzerland than Switzerland.

We peeled off our our gear. Sweet. And got a ride back to the hotel where I had a shower. Even more sweet.

In the evening, I rolled into Queenstown with Amy and hit Fat Badgers for pizza. It was delicious and I scarfed down my whole pizza very quickly and wished for more;  Amy couldn't finish hers. I'm definitely a glutton.

Swinging back to the hotel, our group  of new Contiki buddies eventually wound up in my room and we had tea and gossiped about the people on the trip, reminisced on our adventure  so far and looked forward to the next phase!

Kisses xxx

P.S. I would happily go back to Queenstown.  Maybe one day!

Thursday, 16 February 2017

A Little Bit of Stitching

When I came across these tiny miniature embroidery hoops, I wanted them immediately.  Because as we all know, when stuff comes in miniature, it's usually much more adorable.  A bit of internet research revealed that these hoops are in fact made and sold by Sonia Lyne of Dandelyne, an Australia based indie business specialising in all things tiny and stitchy.

I was eager to try my hand at a little bit of embroidery on such a dinky scale, and so I ordered a few hoops in different sizes. They came in good time, the hoops wrapped up with everything I needed to assemble them, and I picked up a few threads ready to start.

I sketched out a couple of designs I liked, keeping it simple as I wasn't sure how much clarity I would be able to achieve in a small space.  I needn't have worried.  I cut up a cloth bag into little squares, traced my design onto the material and set about stitching.  

It turned out to be a lot of fun!  I don't know about you but I don't normally manage to achieve a whole embroidery project of an evening.  It's a little bit addictive actually and I made one or two for Christmas presents, mounting little hoops onto keyrings.

I stitched a larger one for myself, turning it into a necklace; it was easy as all the components to put the necklace together were included in the kit, all I had to do was pick my design.  I opted for a camera, because, y'know, cameras, and I embroidered my little heart out. Hurrah! I've worn my new necklace quite a bit; the students at school have passed comment, and I like that it's something a little bit unusual, handcrafted and unique that I can wear.

I have a couple of hoops left for other projects, and while I don't have anything in mind at the moment, whenever inspiration strikes, or I fancy a speedy round of embroidery of an evening, I know that they are there, ready and waiting.


Kisses xxx

P.S. I haven't done any embroidery in a long time and these little projects have inspired me to embark on a larger project. I LOVE to make things.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Contiki and the Light Fantastic

Matt and I had booked onto a Contiki tour for New Zealand.  It was a company I had never travelled with before, and we met our group in Christchurch the evening before we were due to set off. It seemed like a HUGE bunch, over 40 of us, and I was initially a little apprehensive.
However, in for a penny, in for a pound. Jeff the motel guy had recommended going to see the Botanic Gardens while we were in Christchurch, as there was a big light trail on that you could follow in the dark.  Matt and I wanted to go and so we invited some of the group along to explore.
Which turned out to be a great move!

We all strolled towards the park and had a lovely time, getting to know each other a bit, and it was nice to be able to match a few faces and names. The light trail was wonderful (and made it feel even more like Christmas).

Wandering along through the dark, tree-lined avenues, it was romantic and twinkly. The cold turned our breath into cloud, lights jumped in myriad reflections in still lakes, changing colours. The dark, watery mirrors were may favourite, producing spectacular effects.

The trees were dripping ribbons of fairy lights, looped, tangled and entwined in welcoming branches. I got lost in the beauty of it all, just me and my camera in the crowd, drinking it in.

Then, awkwardly, I did get lost in the dark, realising suddenly that I couldn’t spot any of the people I’d arrived with. Fortunately I was able to text Matt who was still with the group and they all waited for me to unlose myself, which was very thoughtful.

Once we’d had our fill of the lights, and the cold was starting to nip at our fingers and toes, we all piled into a bar and had dinner together. It was good fun, and we eventually turned in feeling very happy to be starting the tour with such a lovely crowd.

Kisses xxx
P.S. As get stuck into half term, I'm looking forward to some more adventures; travelling to Finland this week!

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Adventure of the Pastry Sleepover


This is the story of an epic baking adventure; a pastry endeavour  of monumental proportions. Proceed, gentle reader, to hear the tale of the Pastry Sleepover.
One of the goals to accomplish on my list of life ambitions is to make Danish pastries. This ambition came about from watching the Great British Bake Off and thinking that making Danishes seemed like awfully good fun as long as you don't have to do it in three hours in a warm tent.

Friend of the blog Liz pinged me shortly after I published the list to suggest we join forces and attempt to climb pastry mountain together and so one chilly weekend in January found me tripping merrily over to her flat to take over the big table and to get our patisserie on.

Never ones to do things by halves, or any other fraction for that matter, we decided to make not only Danish pastries but also croissants. So that was two batches of fiddly, buttery, laminated pastry without Mel and Sue to help us. But we had all day and all night as Liz had invited me to stay over. So we were more than ready to scale the lofty heights of peak pastry (and recline on the plump pillows of team #sleepover - hashtag or it didn't happen).

Liz is a pretty experienced baker and it was she that found the recipes we used. We were keen to have a good old whack of flavour in the little Danishes, and for the croissants, we wanted something traditional and properly French-tasting. Omnomnom. With whatsapps dinging backwards and forwards during the week regarding flavour, and general buttery excitement, we settled on the following two recipes, linked here:

Apple and Cinnamon Danish Pastries

Paul Hollywood's Croissants

We began before lunch, clearing an epic space and carefully rolling the rug to safety to avoid the inevitable dusting of flour and treading of dough into the weave. The windows drenched the room with that lovely golden winter sunlight that comes out at this time of year, making everything cheerful but reminding you that it’s nice to be indoors out of the cold.  It was a day full of promise.

And butter.

Both recipes had multiple stages, and both required the concoction of a dough enriched with yeast and sugar, and even eggs. We used Liz's kitchen gadget with attachable dough hook to complete the initial kneading stage (fancy!) and then popped our creation into the fridge to rest for an hour. Croissants we're underway.

We decided to divide and conquer to get the danishes underway. Liz was feeling in the mood for dough; she's a keen bread baker and has lots of experience in that arena. So she took on the Danish pastry and I set about creating the creme patissiere. (Patisserie? Patissiere?) I'm not really sure how to pronounce this, let alone make it, so I opted for the over-familiar confidence of the expression "creme pat" and read the instructions carefully three times. This convinced me that the inevitable product of my labours was sure to be scrambled eggs curdled unpleasantly with cream.

I eschewed throwing caution to the winds in exchange for holding on to caution very tightly with both hands and set about gently heating the milk and cream with oodles of vanilla.

And it worked. Introducing the egg yolks produced no scrambled malice. Heating the creme pat very slowly over a low heat produced no lumps, and I caught it at just the right moment, whisking frantically as it thickened into a custardy dream.

Ladies and gentleman: I CAN MAKE CREME PAT!

I felt like I could achieve anything. I could even learn how to say it.

It was pure bake-off wish fulfilment.

With the creme pat cooling and two doughs chilling, it was time to pound some butter into submission. Liz took on the butter for the danishes, and I faced off with the butter for the croissants. We flattened the life out of them and by the time chilling was over, we were both in possession of smooth buttery sheets.

Convincing the dough to roll out was an entirely different matter. The croissant dough in particular proved elastic, and disinclined to stretch into a rectangle 60cm long and 20 cm wide. Liz suggested letting it rest between bouts of wrestling however, and this seemed to do the trick. Plus the end stuck to the table a little bit.

Finally, we were able to lay our buttery sheets into our dough, fold it into three layers and begin the lamination.

Each dough needed repeatedly rolling out and folding up to exponentially increase the layers of butter. Apparently this is called a turn. The croissants called for an hour's chilling between each turn, whereas the danishes, being a tad more practical and interested in progress, were happy with 15 minutes in the freezer. This time it was the Danish dough that made a nuisance of itself, resisting being rolled out, but Liz put it in its place and it was forced to submit.

We knocked together the apple and cinnamon filling for the danishes, and soaked sultanas in orange juice and zest for the topping and everything was on track. The danishes had had all their turns and the dough was in the fridge doing a final, longer prove. The croissants had had one turn with two more to go, at hourly intervals. It was late afternoon and all there was to do was make like the pastry and chill.

This is where patisserie comes into its own. Those golden hours of winter afternoon where pale sunlight streams into the kitchen and everything is flour dusted; hands are clutched excitedly around tea and we talked and laughed  and talked and thought. We caught up of life, goals, aims, our triumphs and disasters and made more tea.

As the chilling progressed and the croissants had another turn, the light faded, and we settled on the sofa to watch Gilmore Girls, an old favourite from university days and still as comforting now.

If you ever want to spend really quality time with a close friend, I recommend a weekend of making pastry.

Eventually, it was time.

The danishes needed to be shaped. We doubled teamed them, Liz cutting out squares with a ruler and revealing the myriad layers encased in the pastry. Check out the lamination on those bad boys! It was exciting! We had to work quickly as even the warmth of our hands made the butter slick and pliable, and we hadn't invested all that effort getting the butter in there to have it all melt out again.

With the pastries pinched and folded, we lined them up on trays for a final prove. Another hour or so. Time for life chat and tea.

Finally, finally, the pastry was ready. We plied them with creme pat, fanned out apple slices slathered in a buttery sauce of sharp lemon and warming cinnamon, painted on a glaze of sticky almond liqueur and scattered over the sultanas, which were plump, soaked with orange.

So far, I was happy to declare that I would do this again.  With a whole day laid aside and a friend to bake with, it was no problem to labour over fiddly steps.  It was enjoyable, there was no pressure, and it was fun to learn a new skill.  So I would bake either of these recipes once more… as long as they turn out well. If they didn’t…

They went in to bake

My goodness they were tasty.

The pastry was crisp and flavoursome, golden underneath and flaky, clearly marked with layer upon layer of buttery goodness. The fillings really made it though: the combination of flavours totally worked and I loved the tang of the orange against the apple, and the sticky sweetness of almond and cinnamon. Inside, the pastry was cooked through but had become almost bread-like. Softer. I think Liz was less taken with this as it's non-traditional for a Danish, but it worked for me. The only thing we agreed we'd change is the raisins: perched on the top of the danishes, as per the recipe, they had caught and charred in the oven, and were occasionally a little bitter. We think they would have been great under the creme pat though.

We made twelve in total, six each and I cannot wait to tuck into the rest of the batch! I've frozen some too, so I'm interested to see if they defrost well.

Menawhile, the croissants had another turn, and were ready for their final prove. Of 8 hours.

Up until this point, we had pretty meticulously followed the recipe. A recipe by one Mr P Hollywood, no less. However, right now, we felt like he was going a little too far. It does not take 8 hours for pastry to chill. Liz's hypothesis was that it would allow the flavour of the pastry to develop and the yeast to do its thing, slowly in the fridge. So we compromised and decided that two hours is basically the same as 8 (or it is if you ask a physicist. If you ask a mathematician it's definitely not the same). With a mere two hours on the clock to go, we left the pastry to its own devices and watched a Royal Night Out, an appropriately amusing film requiring little effort to watch and maximum enjoyment of toffs being a tad awfully squiffy and putting on a jolly good show.


Film over, and it was croissant rolling time. Hurrah! I rolled out the dough, measured it into careful squares and halved them to form triangles. We then stretched, rolled and curved then into the traditional shape. Classic croissant. It’s actually a bit fiddly to get a really tight twist on them, and we improved as we stretched them into submission, but it’s something to practise for next time.

With only two more hours of proving needed (how can there be two more hours?!!!) for the croissants to double in size (they categorically did not, maybe we didn't chill them long enough?) and a quick egg wash, they were. Finally. Ready. To bake.

After they’d been in about 5 minutes, we couldn’t resist doing a patented bake-off peak into the oven.  And peering cautiously through the glass, we were delighted to find that our little beauties had puffed up no end.  They really were going to be croissants!

Like, actual croissants!

Plus the scent of croissants baking is guaranteed to put a smile on the face of pretty much anyone.

Liz juggled the goods with a bit of shelf rotation magic and we really cooked those beauties.  One or two of them could perhaps have done with being whisked out a bit sooner, but overall, we had excellent croissant success.

However, the proof is in the omnomnom and so, weary and yet elated, excited and yet trepidatious, at eleven o’ clock at night some twelve hours after our epic baking adventure commenced… we cut into a croissant.


Glorious buttery steam billowed from the inside, revealing the pillowy softness that I think everyone longs for in a freshly baked croissant, straight from the oven.  The outside was a deep golden colour and crisp, flaking into little shards of goodness.  I could happily have eaten the whole batch right there and then.  So tasty!

We went to bed around midnight, happy. A day very well spent.

Once again, I have frozen some of our little treats for a rainy day and I look forward to pulling them out of the freezer when things seem a bit gloomy and reliving this lovely day, reminiscing about the effort and care and friendship that went into these little pastries, as pale winter sunshine streamed in the windows of a kitchen of the past.  I think that would cheer anyone up.

There was also initially an intention of making almond croissants too, but we never got round to it. So I’ll think about that another day.

Kisses xxx

P.S. Next time we're thinking #macaroonsleepover...