Thursday, June 28, 2012

Our Winter Festival 2012

After the bonfire building, attention turns to the lanterns. For our first ever festival, the lanterns were simple, just red crepe paper tied around a jam jar with raffia. But since then creativity has exploded and the lanterns become artworks in themselves, each one individual and personal.

Reading over last year's festival post, I was surprised to find that we'd had 45 people here. The post ends with a note to self to make more mulled wine, more lentil soup, more of everything. Fortunately, since I'd completely forgotten about the notes I'd made, we only had a small gathering this year, about eleven kids and a similar number of adults. So one big pot of lentil soup was enough, along with the butternut soup and spinach and pea soup brought by friends, two bottles of wine mulled, alongside a large thermos of hot chocolate.

Now the kids are older, they were able to do a lot of the hard work together without us, building the bonfire, carrying the tables and so on. I'm looking forward to a few years time, when they can do the cooking as well!

The girls had rehearsed some winter songs to play on their recorders, so we had more music in the circle this time, as well as our blessings, even getting everyone to join in a two part round of Rise Up Oh Flame, which was surprisingly tuneful - either that or everything sounds better in the open under a deep blue sky with stars peering through a hazy mist and only a light breath of breeze.

The flames rose up cooperatively and the fire blazed high, sending sparks high, and as usual drawing a crowd of fire gazers, grouped around, faces turned to the warmth and light. Except for Amy, the Jack Russell, her back to the fire as she had espied a good opportunity. Her patience was eventually rewarded with a dropped end of roll, possibly flavoured with boerewors!

There's no age limit for sparklers. Even the fourteen year old boys kept coming back for more.

Until eventually, the sparklers ran out, the fire burned low and it was time to go inside and discover that the puddings are the same as last year, and the year before and the one before that: guava fool, chocolate pudding and stripey sun jelly.

Unusually we had no-one sleeping over. Our son was going with his friend back to Cape Town to visit, and I had the Food Bloggers Indaba to get up early for the next morning, so the evening drew to an early-ish close with a warm glow lighting us all up from the inside, after a wonderful celebration of light, family and friends.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Building a Bonfire

A base of straw bale and dry pine cones
 A bonfire is the central focus of our winter festival. A nice big fire, sending sparks flying up in to the sky – there’s something magical about it that hypnotises you into staring into the flames for hours.

As a child I remember hating bonfire building. For several weeks before Guy Fawkes Night at school, we used to spend one afternoon games period a week scouring the woods for fallen branches, lugging them out along the path to the bonfire site and returning for another load. I don’t know why I hated it so, surely it was better than running around a field kicking a ball, but it was all worth it eventually  when the fire was lit and burned for hours, while we drank hot chocolate, ate parkin and watched the fireworks go up.

Our kids weren’t much more enthusiastic than I used to be about dragging logs and sticks to the fire site on Saturday afternoon, but with all of them hard at work we had a good sized bonfire in no time.

Here is the building process in pictures:

 A fine job done by the team!

The fire burning fiercely, sparks flying into the night to meet the stars.

More winter festival posts and pictures going back through the years... 2011 festival, 2010 winter holiday, 2009 festival, 2008 festival, 2007 festival, 2006 festival  for a nostalgic look at how the kids have grown and how the sparklers and lanterns stay the same!: I'll post this year's sparkler pictures in my next post.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Food Bloggers Indaba 2012

Charity auction for Lavender in Lavender Hill
I admit to suffering from severe brain overload yesterday in the aftermath of the Food Bloggers Indaba. So much useful information, so many great speakers, bad jokes, tasty snacks, lovely people and crammed goody bags, packed into over 10 hours of a rainy winter Sunday.

As a six-year-old blogger some of the stuff I knew already but still gained new ideas and perspectives. Other stuff was new, new, new, to me at least, and I’m left weighing up the pros of leaping into the greater social media scene with both feet (increased traffic to my blog, building it as a brand to monetise it, being part of a larger community, making friends and of course having fun, against the cons (more distractions competing for my time and attention, when I’m already far too prone to procrastination and Facebook attention splatter).

Am I going to launch into Pinterest? Am I finally going to surrender to Twitter? Still not decided. What about you? Are you already devoted to Pinterest...or Twitter? Good idea? or desperate distraction?!

Food Demo by food writer Sarah Graham

Props for the Food Styling workshop
Afternoon workshops on Writing and publishing a cookbook and then Food Styling and Props were both very interesting and got me thinking and re-thinking vague ideas of one day writing a food book myself.

And then the finale an auction in aid of Lavender in Lavender Hill, and then a lucky draw giveaway. All I can say is that the sponsors were amazingly generous, and the three goody bags weighed a ton overflowing with good stuff.

Goody bag from Food Bloggers Indaba

My girls had a ball helping me unpack them back home and have designated themselves official product tasters.

All in all it was a fantastic day. Congratulations are more than due to Colleen Grove for a wonderful job organising the whole event. and thanks to all the generous sponsors too.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Coffee, Rooibos and Chicory

Coffee pot and milk jug from Siena
Coffee is one of those addictions that I almost wish I hadn’t kicked. It smells so good brewing, it looks so rich and it goes so well with dark chocolate, my one ongoing bona fide addiction. Way back when we lived in our London photographic studio, we’d stagger down the ladder from the mezzanine to the kitchen and make a pot of real coffee first thing, to wake us up. Without that coffee I wasn’t fit to speak to. It was an essential morning ritual.

Working in Italy, the  morning coffee was more than a ritual, more like a religion. We’d bypass the watered down coffee served at some of the hotel breakfasts and sneak a real cappuccino directly from the bar. And the coffee and brioches in a certain bar on a cobblestone crossroads in Siena were the highlight of our trip in breakfast terms, greed frequently demanding a second cappuccino and a third brioche, perhaps the one with chocolate or the one with raisins and orange zest, later to be worked into the trip accounts as a legitimate expense. To be fair to the hotels, I’m sure they served the coffee watered down in the best interests of the foreign guests, who were often in the habit of downing several long draughts of hot liquid coffee over breakfast and would have had heart palpitations if the coffee had been of traditional Italian strength – these were the days before Starbucks brought the espresso to the masses of the English speaking world! Anyway back then my body could take several fierce espressos in the course of a day’s work without any ill effects.

It took having a baby to knock the caffeine out of my system for good. Once he was born and I was no longer breastfeeding I tried to go back to my bad old ways. The first time I drank a mug of coffee made in strong jug fashion at a friend’s house, I thought I was having a heart attack, so strong were the palpitations. I was more cautious after that, but to my dismay I found that coffee no longer tasted so good. My taste-buds must have shifted or something. It still smelt wonderful, but the flavour never quite matched up. So I gradually switched my allegiance to rooibos tea, which I can happily knock back black and unsweetened at a rate of several mugs a day. And it’s guilt free too, healthily full of anti-oxidants, even produced fairly locally to where we are now in South Africa.

Unfortunately for my husband he hasn’t had the easy switchover from coffee to something else that my pregnancy hormones did for me. He’s been going through a particularly difficult cycle of giving in to the coffee craving for a few weeks, then getting terrible nauseous headaches whenever he stops drinking it. He’ll stay off it for a while and then the temptation when we have friends to lunch is too strong and he’ll start all over again. So he’s been looking for an alternative, something that he can enjoy drinking instead of coffee or regular tea. Rooibos tea gives him wind (sorry for sharing that!) and there are only so many cups of fresh herb teas that you can cope with a day. Decaffeinated coffee  seems to have more health drawbacks than regular coffee so that’s not a long-term option either. So he sent me out to look for a chicory substitute to try.

I came back with Chikree – a South African chicory drink, that contains chicory, corn syrup, caramel and quinine. It passed his flavour requirements, not tasting just like coffee but having enough of that type of taste to be satisfying. I wasn’t sure how healthy the corn syrup and caramel are, but chicory is naturally bitter so you do have to have some sugar to balance that out.

Chicory alternatives to coffee

Another option that a friend directed me to is Romi by Health Food Connection, which describes itself as a cereal beverage – it is again flavoured with chicory but also has rye and barley as ingredients which give it a more creamy flavour, which my husband likes, and is sweetened by beet sugar. It is imported from Poland, so not at all local and that is reflected in the higher price – 100g of Romi costs the same as 250g of Chikree. Isn’t that always the way that the preferred option is the more expensive one! As far as the health benefits of chicory go, it is supposed to help with liver function and cleanse the blood, it is a natural anti-inflammatory, contains vitamin C and prevents constipation.

I did surreptitiously taste the Romi – I still have to get over my instinctive rejection of chicory as anything but an ersatz wartime poverty coffee – don’t know why that’s my kneejerk reaction. It tasted to me not very different from an ordinary instant coffee. A far cry from real mocha java but still not unpleasant. I’m perfectly happy in my rooibos bubble though, so am not going to be joining my husband on this one!

What about you – is coffee essential to your survival? Or do you have another alternative for us to try?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Rusks Revisited

South African rusks recipe has to be the single biggest search term that brings new visitors to my blog. It seems that there are an awful lot of ex-pat South Africans desperate for a good rusk to dip in their rooibos tea, stranded in foreign lands where the only option is to bake your own. And not only ex-pats: my sister-in-law turned to Google when looking for a new rusk recipe and found the recipe she picked from the search results rather familiar – she’d ended up on my blog with the same recipe I’ve already shared with her the old-fashioned paper and pen way!

I discovered this recipe many years ago in an old South African cookbook, back when our son was a baby and we were living over here for four months. We went back to London for another two years before moving out to SA for good and this rusk recipe kept us connected with that fine old tradition of dunking rusks in tea and getting crumbs all over the sofa.

Occasionally I have lapses in concentration and the rusk tin stays empty for a while, but mostly I keep it filled. However I have played with the recipe over the years, using different combinations of flours. One thing I have never adjusted, but perhaps should, is its requirement for two teaspoons each of baking powder, bicarb (baking soda) and cream of tartar. One commenter pointed out that baking powder is essentially a mixture of cream of tartar and bicarb... so maybe the original recipe writer was just hedging her bets?!

My latest experiment has been to substitute half of the vegetable oil with coconut oil. Reading up about healthy and unhealthy fats, omega 3s versus omega 6s, has made me less happy with the regular sunflower oil that I used to use without question, so I’m trying to find alternatives from among the unprocessed ‘good’ fats: coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, butter(!). Mind you the whole field of dietary fats is so controversial at the moment that everyone just has to make their own decisions... and luckily these rusks work just as well either way. I didn’t notice any difference in flavour or consistency from the coconut oil, except perhaps they have stayed crunchy for longer, but that could be my imagination!

So here is the latest incarnation of my favourite rusk recipe, or go back to my original version if you prefer.

South African Buttermilk Rusks - The Revised Recipe

1.240kg / 2lb12oz flour (800g wholewheat, 200g rye, and 240g plain white flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
2 teaspoons salt
250g / 9oz butter
½ cup raisins (optional)
½ cup seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame) and/or nuts
2 eggs
250g / 9oz dark soft brown sugar (molasses sugar)
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup oil (sunflower, or coconut oil warmed to liquid state, or half and  half)
(1 cup=250ml)

Preheat the oven to 190C/380F

Grease three loaf tins of base measurement 20cmx10cm / 8”x 4” approx or any combination of deep baking dish that adds up to about the same.

In a large mixing bowl sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar and salt. Cut the butter into small cubes and rub into the flour. Add the raisins if you are using them. You can experiment with various nuts and seeds as well, though the rusks are equally good plain.

In another bowl mix together the buttermilk, sugar, eggs and oil and beat until well combined. Stir liquid into dry ingredients and mix well. Knead to a firm but soft dough.

Form the dough into balls about the size of a ping-pong/golf ball and pack them tightly in one layer into the loaf tins. I usually get six rows of three into each of my tins. Bake for 45 minutes until well risen and firm.

Turn the loaves of rusks out onto a rack and leave to cool for 30 minutes before breaking up into individual rusks along the joins of the balls. Watch out for family members pinching the soft rusks. My kids and husband like them at this stage too!

Dry in a very low oven for 5 hours or more until the centre of each rusk is completely dry. I usually break one of the larger ones open to see - it's no hardship eating up the broken pieces, even if it isn't quite done! These can be kept for ages in an airtight container.

Note: If your family is divided as to the merits of nuts and raisins in their rusks, it is possible to keep both camps happy: just leave one half of the dough plain, and then knead the nuts, seeds and raisins of your choice into the second half before rolling them all into balls.

If you are looking for more South African recipes to try, here is a post from the days of the World Cup, where I collected together  my top South African baking recipes.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Horses in May

With two daughters who both loooove horses, every month has a fair amount of horse madness involved. But May seemed to be even more horse-themed than usual.

Montana by Rachel Dubber
I started off the month with a visit to the studio of equine artist, Rachel Dubber. She paints gorgeous portraits of ponies and horses, some in motion, some close up studies, but all showing oodles of character and life. It was wonderful to get an insight into how she works and the amount of time and intense focus that goes into each canvas. Her studio walls are edge to edge with paintings and drawings, some complete, others in progress, the real life originals of the images on her website (which we’ve been working on for her) and so much more alive than any photographic image can convey.

I saw this painting of Montana in its early stages and have been following its progress ever since on Rachel’s Facebook page – love how it turned out now it’s finished. I was thrilled to come home with a gorgeous oil study called Connemara Princess, and the girls were just as thrilled , so thank you again for that Rachel!

Youngest on Violet   Middle Daughter on Flink

Youngest with trophy from last pony show
The next big event on the equine calendar was the pony show at the stables where the girls ride. These are practise shows, not as formal as the official round of shows, lots of fun but still with  proper dressage and equitation events. It was a beautiful day for this one, so no fear of standing holding ponies in the rain, as happened at a couple of previous ones. Youngest had graduated to a bigger pony for most of the events but was still down to ride the characterful Peanuts in the jumping at the end.

He has a will of his own usually matched by the determination of Youngest; in the last show she won one of the floating trophies for her persistence and determination in the face of his insistence on departing from the prescribed dressage programme. Violet, her new love, is far more biddable, though still no pushover, and Youngest picked up a rosette or two, as did Middle Daughter on the reliable and gentlemanly Flink.

I meanwhile am left holding Peanuts who has a wide gap in his schedule. All my video footage of the girls’ events is interspersed with sudden jerks as he drags me off to find a fresher clump of grass. By the time the jumping class is about to start his nose is thoroughly out of joint at having had to watch all the events from the sidelines. When Youngest mounts to give him a warm up ride in the side arena, he declines and trots off determinedly in the opposite direction at a fast pace, hauling Youngest right into the middle of the equitation prize giving. There is no persuading him after this. Usually Youngest can get some measure of co-operation out of him, but she hasn’t ridden him for a few lessons now and he is making her pay for her disloyalty. He kicks up his heels like a nursery rocking horse on amphetamines and heads out of the arena repeatedly as she tries to get him over the jumps. In the end her teacher puts him on the lead rein and runs him round the course. Youngest takes all this with remarkable composure, though I am exhausted! They are all pleased with their day and it was a great show altogether.

The girls have been building up a herd of Schleich horses for the last few years and these horses are the raw materials of endless games and ongoing stories and dramas. Each time they go to their friends’ house the horses are all carefully packed up, wrapped so as not to get scratched. The friends’ herd returns the visit. Sometimes individual horses stay for sleepovers with the other herd, but always everyone knows the name and owner of each individual.

There was much anticipation this month as the shop in Cape Town that stocks the Schleich range was rumoured to be getting in new stock. Between the two families the girls possess almost every previous model of horse (at least all the ones that they consider desirable), so this was exciting. Unfortunately their savings had been depleted by some acquisitions at the crystal shop, so they had to negotiate terms with their aunt. They set to work cleaning windows and booked in for further work. For the first time we permitted a credit arrangement, whereby they would work off the costs over the following two weeks, as they hadn’t saved enough by the time that the trip in to town was scheduled with their aunt. We had a long discussion about credit, credit cards and the fact that the bought goods could be repossessed by the creditor if the debt wasn’t paid in time! The girls came back triumphant with the horses they were wanting to add to their herd and now just have another two hours work still to do to own them in full!