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All posts for the month December, 2014

December Cat Appreciation Day

Published December 21, 2014 by Storm

Cat on a box.

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Cat(s) in a box.

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Cats in their tower.

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Cake to keep and cake to eat

Published December 7, 2014 by Storm

Cake to keep (for two or three weeks)

For at least the last 10 years I’ve been using the same Christmas cake recipe, with the only variation being whether I soak the dried mango and pineapple in spiced rum or spiced mead. It’s a nice cake, but this year I felt like a change. We’d enjoyed the Simnel cake recipe I’d baked from Vegetarian Cooking Through The Year so last week I decided to give the Christmas cake recipe from the same volume a try.

My first challenge was finding dried pears; I couldn’t get them anywhere within walking distance of home! I thought about the rest of the fruit in the cake, currants, sultanas, raisins and apricots, then looked at what we had on the shelf at work and decided that dried sweet cherries would do nicely.

The next challenge was to find a vegetarian sherry. I eventually found an amontillado (how suitably Poe), a nip of which will also make a nice companion to cooking Christmas dinner. At this time of year my drinks cupboard gets a bit scary; sherry for the cake, brandy for the mincemeat, rum for stollen, and possibly some kirsch still to add for a dessert I want to make for Christmas Eve or New Year… I might be making up some jars of boozy fruit in readiness for next Christmas.

Making the cake was nice and simple. It smelt lovely getting home the day I’d left the fruit and chopped almonds infusing in the sherry, ready to bake in the evening. Cheating a bit, as usual, I mixed the flour, spices, ground nuts, fat and eggs, in the food processor then stirred the mix through the fruit by hand. It all looked right going into the tin and tasted right when I cleaned the bowl out before washing it; I’m afraid when it comes to cake mix I do take my chance with raw egg. Two hours into the baking time, when I went to check on the progress of the cake, I realised I’d missed an ingredient or two; there on the side was the still sealed jar of molasses with the honey alongside it, too late to do anything about it I shrugged my shoulders and concluded that since the mix had seemed right, and the cake smelt and looked good, the lack couldn’t be too serious.

Now of course it’s waiting time.  The cake is wrapped in baking parchment, securely in it’s tub, being unwrapped to be fed a tablespoon of sherry about every 4 days; the recipe doesn’t actually mention feeding the cake but it’s a Christmas cake, of course it needs feeding! In two weeks time I’ll add marzipan and icing. I’m looking forward to seeing if it tastes as good as it smells.

4.5 out of 5 for well written instructions and ease of baking 

I can’t really grade the tastiness just yet!

And a cake to eat (now)

Having made a cake which wasn’t for immediate consumption I thought perhaps I should make another cake this week. I’d been given a glut of ripe bananas so a banana cake of some description was the obvious choice.  I picked up the Cook’s Encyclopedia of Bread Machine Baking and thumbed my way to the chapter on teabreads and cakes. Banana and Pecan Teabread looked nicely tempting.

I had most of the ingredients in the cupboards but I did need to buy shelled pecans. Again, using the food processor to mix everything, this was a doddle to make. When I’m mixing a fruity cake in the food processor I mix everything except the fruit, then use the pulse option to mix the dried fruit in so as to keep as much of the fruit whole as possible. The only thing I would disagree completely with the recipe about is the cooking time; the recipe suggested an hour’s baking for the size I was making, with perhaps a few minutes more; I ended up giving my cake an extra half hour, which to me is more than a few minutes. Minor grumble aside, the cake is moist, tasty, and moreish; I’m likely to bake it again.

4 out of 5 for ease of baking and well written instructions

4.5 out of 5 for tastiness

All aboard adventure

Published December 2, 2014 by Storm

I recently got roped into an adventure, and it was an adventure which spoke to my very soul. I was invited on a narrow boat trip with my sister-in-law (D) and niece, helping bring their boat down the river Severn to their home mooring. I once joined my brother and D, along with two friends, for one night of their fortnight on the canals but actually helping crew a boat was completely new to me; of course I said yes.

The Saturday morning saw us leaving home in darkness in order to reach the boat as soon after dawn as possible. Mum was acting as taxi service, to get us to and from the boat, with my brother coming along to see us off on the start of our adventure. Some help from my brother and Mum saw us safely from canal to river, then they waved goodbye and we were on our way down the Severn. I think D and I were both struck by how big the river seemed after the cosy limits of the canal; the first picture below was taken from our starting point on the canal, the second is just after joining the Severn.

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The only signs of life around us, as we set off down the river, were the various water birds we saw; the tranquillity and beauty of our surroundings more than making up for lack of sleep. I’ve always loved the rich colours of Autumn and the sandstone cliffs, like the one studded with caves in the next photograph, were probably more strikingly set off by russets and golds than they would have been concealed behind the greens of summer.

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Around half past ten we approached our first river lock. This is when you really feel tiny, in a lock which could fit your boat in several times over and where the walls tower above your head even before the water level has been lowered. It was also my first opportunity to feel genuinely useful, I took the bow rope while D took the stern one to hold the boat steady against the side of the lock. Leaving the lock we were greeted with an unexpected visual treat, mist clinging to the river giving the vista an almost otherworldly feel.

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Sadly the mist patches, which my niece dubbed ghosts, gradually gave way to drizzle and the drizzle gave way in turn to more definite rain. By the time the rain reached us, or we reached the rain, the stove was good and hot so we were able to keep our various pairs of gloves dry and ourselves warm with coffee and soup. We may have been damp but our spirits certainly weren’t and it wasn’t long until the rain left us with the gift of a rainbow.

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The wide, empty river gave me opportunity to take the tiller and get the feel for the boat without worrying that I might run us aground or crash into another craft, not that we saw many other travellers for most of our journey.

Once it dried up my niece wanted to sit outside, she’d mostly been playing inside while the weather was damp, so I joined her at the front to watch the world go by. We were accompanied for some distance by a kingfisher, one of several we saw over the course of the day, but it was always moving too fast or surrounded by too much greenery to have any chance of photographing it. Eventually cold toes drove me to suggest we return to the warmer end of the boat where I could stand with my feet above the engine.

Approaching Worcester the river suddenly became rather busy, with lots of one and two man rowing boats travelling both up and downstream at a fair speed. I have to admit I was quite happy to relinquish the tiller to D through the crowded stretch of water; by this stage I wasn’t worried that I might steer into someone else but rowers move at a fair pace without much looking over their shoulder and I was a little concerned one might hit us.

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Despite having been a little later than planned starting out on the river we’d more than made up time so decided that instead of mooring for the night at Upton, as originally planned, we would make a refuelling stop there and continue further. D made the necessary calls to arrange for our new plan to happen and, after about an hour’s stop in Upton, we continued downstream under fabulous skies. We certainly made full use of the daylight, mooring up as the light began to fade.

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My brother and Mum arrived just as we finished mooring, to whisk us back to my brother and D’s for a very welcome curry; then it was home for a soak in the bath and a good sleep in readiness for day two’s adventuring.

Having made such good distance on the Saturday, Sunday started with a relative lie in. Our little crew got slightly bigger as The Railway Modeller was able to join us, we also gained a canine companion as D and my niece brought their dog along. Here’s the most attractive member of our crew in his life-jacket…

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Sunday’s weather was kinder, in that it didn’t rain, but also drabber, with little of the sunshine we’d enjoyed on Saturday afternoon. The Railway Modeller seemed hooked from the start, leaving me with fairly light crew duties. In fact if I hadn’t taken over the galley and kept my companions plied with hot drinks I’d have had little to do but enjoy the scenery!

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After a morning’s travel Gloucester came into view, photograph above, and the river leg of our journey was almost at an end; with the docks just the other side of a lock. Entering the docks was a strange experience; many times I’ve been part of the audience watching a boat through a lock, now we were the spectacle with strangers waving and even one or two cheers as we entered the docks.

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After a brief stop, for the dog to stretch his legs, we rejoined the canal network. This time there was less of a shift in scale as the Gloucester to Sharpness, once the world’s widest, is impressive in it’s scale. The biggest change was the sudden busyness of the waterway, the river had been deserted but there were boats moving almost in convoy on the canal. We joined a queue at each swing bridge, with three or four boats ahead of us and more behind.

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It didn’t seem long before we reached our destination and our welcome party. Our weekend’s adventure had drawn to a close.

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