Friday, March 30, 2007

Easter Crown Recipe - One year On

A year ago today, I wrote this as my first ever blog post. Re-reading it now brings on a case of severe deja vu. The baking heat I described has blasted in again, after a cool period when we thought autumn was here for sure. End of term festivities have just been concluded and I have even braved the kitchen heat to bake another Easter Crown, just as I did a year ago.

This year, in celebration of my first ever blogiversary, I'm taking the time to pass on my recipe for the Easter Crown. I recently discovered a food blogging challenge called WTSIM (Waiter there's something in my..) and the theme this month is Easter specialities, so I'm submitting this post to join the merry throng. Last month they had some amazing pie recipes that I can't wait to try when our weather turns wintery.

Easter treats in our house revolve around baking. The Simnel cake in one tradition I've carried on from my childhood, fruit cake with marzipan just has to have a second airing in the year besides Christmas. This Easter crown has been a recent innovation, since I started baking bread. It is made with an egg-enriched bread dough, with a filling of dried fruit and spice and I love the clever twist that turns the simple combination of ingredients into an impressive centrepiece for an Easter brunch or tea. I usually make it for Easter Day itself and sometimes for any school Easter celebrations too.

I have just realised why baking is so important at Easter time - my daughter has just decided to start blowing eggs to paint for her Easter tree decorations, so I have to bake to use them up or else be condemned to scrambled eggs for supper for a whole week.

Rich Yeast Bread Recipe for Easter Crown
4fl oz/ 125 ml milk
2oz/60g unsalted butter
1 tablespoon dry yeast or 10g instant yeast
2 fl oz/60 ml lukewarm water
14oz/375g flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 oz/ 45g sugar
1 egg

For the filling
2oz/60g currants
2oz/ 60g sultanas
2 tablespoons chopped mixed peel
1 1/2 oz/45g brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
grated zest of one lemon

Warm the milk and butter until the butter has melted, then allow to cool to lukewarm. Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water.
Sift the flour, sugar and salt together. Add the yeast mixture, milk and the beaten egg. Mix together with your hands or a knife until it forms a dough, then knead well for about 10 minutes as with any other bread.
Leave to rise for about 1 hour.
Knock down, pressing out the air, then roll dough out into a rectangle roughly 9x16 inches/23x40cm.
Mix together the filling ingredients, then sprinkle them over the dough, leaving a 3/4 inch/2cm border. Press the filling lightly into the dough with a rolling pin.
Roll the longest side of the rectangle in and keep rolling to make a long cylinder. Press on the edges to seal it together. Bring the two ends together into a circle, overlapping and pressing them together.

Put the circle onto a greased tray. Make a series of deep cuts into the the circle with a sharp knife, leaving them joined together at the centre. On this one I cut it into 16 sections for a wider, shallower crown, but I think it is better to do 12 sections and end up with a slightly more compact, deep crown.

Pull the slices gently apart and twist them so that they lie flat, making the spiral design here. A little bit of prodding into shape is often needed, but the dough is quite accommodating.

Leave to rise for another 1/2 to 3/4 hour. Bake at 400F/200C for 25-35 minutes until golden brown. As soon as it comes out of the oven brush the top with a glaze of 2oz/60g icing sugar mixed with 2-3 tablespoons of water. Cool on a rack, then eat sliced with butter or just tearing off a whole spiral and eating as it is.

This beats shop hot cross buns for tea, I haven't yet tried making my own of those. I'm hoping for a great recipe to show up in the WTSIM easter basket round-up.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Gourmet Guzzling

I’ve been catapulted into a gourmet heaven this week.

Brie with green figs and fresh ciabatta, blue cheese with a preserve of figs in balsamic syrup drizzled over, smoked kudu, smoked snoek pate, my home-made rye bread, salad, grapes and lemon meringue tarts to finish. This was the picnic I put together for my clients on their walking holiday last Friday.

I set up a folding table in a grassy spot at the edge of the beach in the Cape Point Nature reserve, views of the ocean and mountains all round. A grand tent with tables and chairs has been erected further along the beach, expecting a group of cyclists for lunch. They have taken ‘our’ spot, right by the sheltered sea pool. Here in South Africa we reckon the beach is crowded if there is anyone else there at all. The morning was cloudy with a sprinkling of rain so I’m on tenterhooks until it is obviously clearing, the sun comes out and then I’m wishing for some shade for the food table.

I keep most of the food in the back of the car to stay cool until the last minute, then when the walkers come into sight I quickly magic the lavish array of local specialities onto the table and whip off the covers.

Everyone had plenty of time to sample different combinations of flavours and enjoy a leisurely lunch, before the baboons showed up on the dot of one o’clock, rather annoyed with us for having started without them. This was the signal for us to clear away the lunch rapidly. Bags were piled together and a protective cordon formed around me as I put away the rest of the food. Even so a lightning raider managed to whisk off with the rubbish bag as I put things into the back of the car. Every so often a curious head peeked out from the bushes to assess his chances, but the bigger ones came right up to the cars to try their luck. They are part of everyday life if you live close to the mountains here. Friends in Simonstown tell of going upstairs in their house, to meet two baboons on their way down.

The leftover Cape figs in balsamic syrup came home with me to add to the taste sensations of our weekend lunches. Our every day lunch table now groans under its load of delicacies, as we also made a foray to Riebeeck Kasteel as promised to taste wines and olive products, returning with a fine selection to last me the rest of the year.

The sun-dried olive paste is stunning with avocado on bread, my children unfortunately also like the green olives in lime infused brine so we are rationing them to two at any one meal!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Alternative Reality

Last week just as I was in the middle of baking a batch of fairy cakes for yet another class cake sale, two eager helpers at the buttons of the Magimix (yes I cheat, but this method is condoned, nay recommended, by the divine Nigella) the phone inevitably rang and catapulted me into a frenzy of activity that resulted in rather well tanned fairy cakes.

The company that I used to work for before I had children, taking people on holidays in Italy, had tracked me down through my mother. They had a new trip about to start here in South Africa, their Tour Leader who was already out here preparing for the trip had had to fly home as her father was dying, and could I help.

So it was that I found myself, after a flurry of phone calls, driving to the airport in my scruffy car to meet the local guide, who was now taking the leader’s place, and welcome the group, trying to access the remnants of my once ultra efficient Tour Manager personality and quell the pre-trip butterflies in my stomach. They’re like stage fright and I always used to suffer from them, even when I was seamlessly running trips all summer. Meeting a new group of people... that important first impression, what will they be like?

It all did go smoothly. We drove to the stunning hotel – Cape Dutch wine estate with a backdrop of mountains and had a wonderful lunch, a grown-up lunch with conversation and wine, that I hadn’t cooked myself, in beautiful surroundings. After lunch I went with my new colleague, who is staying with the group, to her room to go over our plans. Relaxed on pristine bedspread in a tidy room with no clutter, a sparkling bathroom, giving on to a private terrace, on a lawn beyond which a helicopter reposed. Imagined staying with the group, going from nice hotel to nicer hotel, eating in good restaurants, sampling different wines, returning to my pre-children days of two parallel realities.

Then I waved goodbye, got back in my scruffy car and drove out of the bubble which faded to unreality as I neared home and popped completely as I walked into our weekend messy house, where my son was groaning on a sofa, having had an allergic reaction to a bee sting, supper needed cooking as we expected a guest and I felt at home.

Then it came upon me that working for a holiday company, a good one at least, is all about creating bubbles – beautiful, bright, seamless bubbles, for your clients to dwell in, buffered from the demands of life and decision making. A little bit of human magic. You just have to make sure you don’t get dazzled by your own spell-making and spend too long inside the bubble yourself, for real life is outside the bubble in the imperfections and gritty bits, in the silver linings of unlooked for clouds, wax crayons crunching underfoot and senile dogs barking, but also children smiling, presenting you with obscure presents constructed of glue and paper, people who belong to you for life, not just until the bubble bursts at the airport’s end.

I’ll be spending some time from home helping keep the bubble intact, then have another couple of forays into the world of gourmet restaurants and five star hotels to make sure everyone is happy, but I’ll be sleeping at home and that's how I like it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

More on the SA Blog Awards

Loathe as I am to oust a classy shot of opulant chocolate from the top of my blog with this piece of blatant and tasteless self promotion, I just can't stop myself. Here at last is my widget for the SA Blog Awards!

Vote for me

If you haven't already voted for me and would like to, you can click on it - then all you need to do is supply your email address and submit. You'll get a confirmation email with code that you'll need to paste into your browser address bar to confirm your vote and make it valid.

I promised to share some of the other blogs I've enjoyed reading among the finalists.

Max Kaizen who plays with the cool kids of SA Blogdom and enjoys words as much as I do, frequently utilising polysyllabic epithets in appropriate contexts with great aplomb.

Trash Media whose deadpan humour is well written enough to be intelligible even to forty something mommybloggers like me.

I still haven't worked my way down the whole list but there only seems to be one other blogging mother, that is the internationally well-known Tertia, who has made infertility her special subject and written a book on her experiences. She is now blessed with twins and has the fun of double toddler antics to cope with. To see the full list of finalists look here, voting closes at midnight on Friday.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Organic Chocolate

Green & Black’s Organic Maya Gold chocolate. I hadn’t tasted this in years. It used to be one of the weekly temptations lurking in the organic aisle of Sainsbury’ s or Waitrose, when we lived in London, a luxury but available for the occasional splashing out for a chocolate orgy. Since we came to South Africa, and rural South Africa without all the city delis at our disposal, anything organic has been a rare find. One of the things I missed at first was being able to shop for organic flour, pasta and the rest, at fractionally above normal prices, as part of the weekly grocery shop. Here we have to ‘source’ organic products or grow our own.

It is starting to improve now as awareness grows and farmers start to realise that there is money to be made from converting to organic. There are now several organic farmer’s markets around Cape Town and organic products are starting to have a presence in the city, but the market here is proportinally smaller than in Europe, trade standards not as evolved and the distance from other producer countries means that imported goods are expensive. Here are a couple of Capetonian blogs that can tell you far more than me about the state of organic living in our city: MotherCityLiving who is also a finalist in the SA Blog Awards - (don't forget to vote for us!) - and Urban Sprout.

When my husband arrived home one evening, having been requested to pick up some milk at the petrol station, not only did he bring the milk but he also triumphantly brandished a precious bar of Green & Black chocolate. Now this is a small service station beside the N7 out of Cape Town with a KFC and a grocery shop attached, busy catering to holiday makers off to the West Coast, but not a deli, nor a gourmet organic store by any means. Dangerous to have such an addictive substance available so close by!

If you are a chocolate lover and haven’t yet tried this chocolate, you must. Maya Gold is a dark chocolate with the addition of a hint of orange and spice. Unlike all other forms of chocolates in our house, which have a tendency to diminish rapidly once opened, this one has lasted a whole week, with a small taste of its intense flavour every evening enough to satisfy the senses. Seconds are possible, any more would be overkill. Think the book Chocolat where she mixes up exactly the right combination of chocolate for every customer, some with rare spices and exotic ingredients. Chocolate with mystique, a chocolate bar that lasts a whole week is a miracle indeed.

Autumn Avo Feast

I know Autumn is on its way, when the avocados in the shops are suddenly affordable again. All through summer I’ve been turning my nose up at the over-priced facsimiles of avos that have probably been traumatised by cold storage to keep them going out of season. Yesterday the price had finally plummeted to its winter level, at last they are in season again. Now for licensed avo over-indulgence. Bread and cheeses lunches are transformed by generous quantities of creamy pale green ripe avo splurged onto fresh bread, maybe with the last summer tomatoes from our veggie garden sliced on top and the merest sprinkle of salt to bring out the flavour.

When winter is truly here and the tomatoes lose their flavour, an explosive taste combination can be had by spreading a thin layer of tangy black olive paste on the bread first before enveloping it in a mountain of avocado. One special jar from Kloovenberg, a wine estate, that does wonderful things with olives, lasted an entire winter by judicious application and jealous hoarding but now it is gone.
This tapenade for me is streets ahead of caviar, which just doesn't do it for me. A visit to Riebeeck Kasteel is on the cards for when my mother visits soon! There are also the most exquisite green olives in a lime infused brine, from the Olive Boutique in Riebeeck Kasteel.

Another sign that summer is waning, is the sudden swan-song burst of heat theat often grabs us in March. It’s as if the unusually cool February we’ve just had, has frustrated the sun into a last outpouring of heat, just to keep us on our toes:

‘No relaxing into leaving windows open all day, going without suncream, leaving off the mozzie nets, thinking you don’t need to regas the car aircon, I’m still high in the sky calling the shots, we’re not at the autumn equinox yet.’

So we switch the ceiling fans on once more, put the fleeces and blankets away again, forget our ideas of getting back into cooking stews, pies and casseroles for a few weeks longer. Braais and salads are still on the menu for a while longer.

Friday, March 09, 2007

SA Blog Awards

This is a Vote for Me post. I made the finalists in the SA Blog Awards for Best New Blog! Yippee, much excitement masquerading as sang-froid in this house! So thanks Charlotte for nominating me.

When I get the code for a pretty Voting button I’ll put it on here but in the meantime:

Please vote for me now by going HERE, ticking my blog name and any blogs in other categories you fancy. Then submit your vote. They will send you a confimation email, which has a button or link you have to click on or paste into your brower address bar to make the vote valid, don’t forget that bit. I’m just trying to rack my brains to remember if I did that with my nomination vote as none of the blogs I nominated showed up in the finalists and Charlotte's Web should have been there..darn it, I think I did but how can I be sure.... Closing day for votes is the 16th.

I have just discovered a great food blog by checking out some of the other finalists. Called Cook Sister, she is a South African living in London. Her latest post is a collection of 60 other bloggers’ pie recipes from all over the world. I was shamelessly drooling by the end, if only it wasn’t way too hot here today to even consider baking a pie. If ever you need inspiration for a pie recipe check it out – chicken pie to focaccia to venison to apple they’re all there. This is one for my blogroll.

Another great blog in the photo category is Thinking Picture. Just click on photo after photo to have an atmospheric tour of South Africa, from the comfort of your own computer...

I'll let you know any more discoveries as I work through the list

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Charlotte wrote a post about War recently, following on from a discussion that is going on about supporting the troops while being against the war itself. My initial reaction was as Charlotte says of herself to do an ostrich impression, avoid thinking about it and live my life, but then all these poorly expressed thoughts kept popping up in my head and I knew I would have to write something. The first thing that came to mind was Mother Theresa’s famous quote :

I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there.
Mother Teresa

She was wise beyond measure in that simple assertion. Try for yourself. Think about the word War, observe your body’s reactions. Do you feel a tightening of fists, clenching of teeth, anxiety, an element of fear starting to tie up your stomach? Now try the word Peace. Your body relaxes, facial muscles soften, a feeling of warmth pervades you. Imagine lots of people experiencing those feelings, waves of energy rippling from them into the world, spreading their feelings and attracting back a like energy and you can understand why she insisted on the words pro-peace.

So I find that I don't want to write about the war, I would rather philosophise about peace, read what people have said about peace and keep the harsh W word away from my blog and family. This doesn't mean that I wouldn't support the troops - they are all people doing their best according to their beliefs and deserve our moral and practical support. I do think though, that when there is nothing practical we can do about it, all we can do is try to meditate, pray or just use positive visualisation to focus on peace. If we could all do that and send out that positive energy to spread over the world, maybe, just maybe it could start to make things better.

Here is a site with loads of interesting peace quotes, where I found a couple more that resonate with me:

We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war but on the positive affirmation of peace. We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war. Somehow, we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race, which no one can win, to a positive contest to harness humanity's creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a peace race. If we have a will - and determination - to mount such a peace offensive, we will unlock hitherto tightly sealed doors of hope and transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

Maybe if every one in the US emailed this one to the White House, they would take notice!

I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969)

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Farewell to Nappies

It comes to us all, that bittersweet moment we’ve been looking forward to, when our last baby is finally out of nappies, not just in the day time but at night too. Hurray! you shout, no more horribly expensive, non-biodegradable, bulky packages cluttering up the shopping trolley. No more worrying about destroying the environment because you couldn’t quite bring yourselves to get into the washable nappy arena, no more smelly nappies to deal with. Just three children who mostly now look after their own toilet requirements. OK, a slightly above average amount of laundry still to do, as though youngest has moved out of nappies there is still the odd night time accident. This is the moment I looked ahead to on the distant horizon, not believing I would ever get there, back when all three of them were simultaneously in nappies, albeit the oldest only at night.

And now? Celebration, fireworks, a big roll of drums? Rather a slightly wistful backward glance as I realise that none of my babies are babies any longer, but are powering on down the road to independance at an alarming rate.

In case you are feeling at all envious of my sweet-smelling, nappy-free house, those of you still in the thick of nappidom, let me just add that our animals are compensating in a big way for our children’s completion of toilet training. Senile Dog, can’t remember why she went to the door, so trundles back through the house generously leaving balls of poo behind in imitation of a muck-spreader. Horror, whose legs are too weak to get out of the window at night has decided that the shower is the best place to relieve herself. Very thoughtful of her, as at least it is easy to scrub down, but now we have provided her with a litter tray I was hoping she would start to use that, so that as I stumble bleary eyed to the bathroom first thing in the morning to wake myself up gradually with a nice warm shower, I don’t have the rude awakening of waving of bottles of disinfectant liberally around the tiled surfaces to get rid of the cat poo.

Finally I just had to share this snippet that didn’t quite warrant a post of its own:

There are some far better product names out there. If only the marketing agencies had some four year-olds on the job:

Blu-tak (that here in SA is called Prestik and for those of you with different branding is the sticky stuff for fixing pictures and postcards to the walls that supposedly doesn’t pull the paint off when you remove it) should actually be known as Glue-Attack. I don’t know why they didn’t already think of it – youngest says Blu-tak is quite wrong and sounds silly.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Horror’s Story

She was grandly named Horatia, after a determined character from a Georgette Heyer novel, with strongly marked eyebrows. This little black and white kitten quickly left grandness behind her and became known as Horry. Very soon though her antics landed her with the nickname Horror and that stuck.

We already had one kitten in the family, acquired, so we told ourselves, to rid the studio of the mice by which we were plagued. This tabby kitten, from a secure South London terraced house has his story told here. He strongly disapproved of a younger sibling being introduced to keep him company and from his one month older position of strength used to leap on top of her from a chair and flatten her à la Garfield. Horry had no notion of cowering into a corner though. She stood her ground, this scrawny little black scrap with big bat ears. We put her upstairs to give her time to settle in, which was our bedroom accessed via a ladder and trapdoor. The next thing we knew she came flying through the trapdoor, splat onto the concrete studio floor. Slightly winded but none the worse she let us know she was tough enough for this and had no intention of being sidelined.

Later we found out that the address we had gone to, in answer to an advert in Loot (London’s free ads newspaper) for a black kitten, was in one of North London’s roughest housing estates. She had evidently inherited a determined survivor streak from her parents. Cats anyway are naturally aristocratic, secure in their knowledge of having been worshipped in Ancinet Egypt, they transcend background.

She grew into her ears and her rightful place as queen of the studio. Roaming the tin rooves at night, she would call in at our skylight demanding entrance at three in the morning, hang out at the local pub, catch all our mice and play with them in the yard. Furious after a visit to the vets she would freeze us out, not allowing a purr if we stroked her, denying us her brrp brrp of greeting, until a few days later we would be forgiven.

She flew to South Africa when we moved here, emerging from her box after a 24 hour journey tail-up, purring, learned to keep the boistrous border collies in order with a sweep of her paw and has reclaimed her tin roof wandering in a rural setting with a look-out post high on a roof amoung bourganvillea blossoms

I’m telling her story now, because it seems like she is on her way out. We’ve been to the vets twice this week, her back legs have got very weak and they were going to X-ray today, but already her front legs are getting weaker, which means it is not an injury or arthritis but something more systemic. There are various untreatable viruses and diseases they could test for, but we have decided just to bring her home to be comfortable for however long she still has. She is still eating and purring, her eyes are still bright, she just can’t jump any more and walking is getting to be an effort. If she seems to be in any pain we’ll take her on a final journey to the vet, but for now we’ll just remember to stroke her lots and tell her how much we’ve enjoyued having her in the family.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Just not Cricket

A South African summer is not complete without the chirrup of the crickets harmonising with frog song as the sun goes down. Outside there is a magical quality to this impromptu orchestra as the heat of the day fades and flowers release their perfumes into the cooler evening air.

When a cricket moves into your house however and serenades you up close, magic is ousted by irritation. A persistant cricket took up residence behind the backing board of our kitchen sink a few weeks ago. As he grew, his song calling for a mate got louder and louder, more and more insistant. Our supper time conversation was drowned out by his constant calling, we could still hear his cries from the bedroom at night. He liked the place he’d found, the board amplified his song with the equivalent of a bass booming woofer, he was sure to attract the most beautiful of mates if he just kept it up long enough – no thought of moving himself to search for a mate entered his head, the answer is in singing louder for longer.

Meanwhile our patience was wearing thin. I usually try to catch crickets and throw them back outside, they are harmless and only bother me when they sing too loud inside. This one however had forfeited his mercy card. It was war. Twice we spotted him emerge from his hideout to gain more freedom of expression for his yearnings, twice we thwacked at him with a dishcloth, twice he evaded us easily, went quiet for a minute and then chirruped triumphantly anew – ‘you can’t catch me, I’m the smartest cricket there is!’

We were starting to talk of borrowing a can of Doom..I don’t like insect sprays around the house poisoning our organic straw bale house and the air we breathe, but in emergencies and my husband's headache constituted one, then these chemical weapons must be considered. Before we had resorted to this desperate policy, I had another sighting of the monster. Smug and fat he sat on the top of the board, secure in his supremacy. Stealthily I possessed myself of the sandwich wrap box, took a step holds barred, it came down hard ....silence .... but no sign of a corpse. Drat! He must have slipped back under cover. The silence held. No triumphant crowing broke through the evening calm. Maybe he actually got a fright this time? An hour later, all still quiet in the kitchen, golden silence appreciated like a newly minted coin. Guilt for my crime is offset by relief that our ears are no longer constantly assaulted by a crescendo of cricket song. The outside crickets sing on, a beautiful background musical composition with the night air to absorb it.

PS If any of you in northern climes feel nostalgic for cricket song, this wonderful children's book by Eric Carle ironically named The Very Quiet Cricket, has an excellent authentic-sounding cricket electronically singing at the end of the book. The good news is that when you close the book again he is silent!