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1. I am ill. At first I thought it was going to be kind of nice – a chance to slob around in pyjamas for a few days, watching girly movies and eating comfort food. Then I spent a sleepless night leaking from the face and aching in the teeth, plaintively asking Helpdesk Man for the wheatie bag, only to have him say “Mm” and go back to sleep; while Miles, sleepily aware that I might not be around for long, decided to top up on milks every ten minutes, just in case.
Then Helpdesk Man, instead of saying “Oh, wife of my manly bosom, allow me to make you soup and spirit away your children to the nearest park so that you may sleep amid rose petals and dream of unicorns”, decided to get one of his tension headaches; so we spent the day limply passing the baby back and forth, saying “You have to take him, I think I’m going to fall down” and “Hold this, I have to excise a polyp”, etc.
We are currently still conscious, but I make no guarantees. If I die, use my ashes to make a fine roux.
2.Regarding vegetarianism, I have only this to say: you don’t see food companies struggling to make their meat taste more like tofu. “Natural Tofu Flavour”, they don’t say. “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Nuttolene” is conspicuously absent from the butchery aisle. “Artificial TVP” isn’t even a thing. That should tell you something.
It reminds me of the time an acquaintance flirted with vegetarianism for no good reason. No, really. It wasn’t anything to do with ethics or carbon footprints or health concerns, or even a dislike of meat. He’d moved to London, and in his own words, “it’s so easy there’s no reason not to be” – a frankly staggering claim. I mean,London has a population of ninety billion; it’s probably easy enough to be a gluten-free, tree-nut-free one-legged author of if-Harry-Potter-were-set-in-Haiti fanfiction, if you want to. There’d be funding and everything. That doesn’t mean you should hunt out the chainsaw and start looking up the Haitian word for “Quidditch”.
So anyway, we all considered this a harmless quirk until we had a dinner at our place, and the perpetrator – I’ll call him Waggles the Sheep-Dog – having heard me rant about the evils of tofu, was all “No, if it’s done right tofu is really nice. Tell you what, I’ll bring along a tofu cheesecake.”
Now, cheesecake is the worst possible thing in the world to tofufy. The entire point of a cheesecake is that it is made with cream cheese: rich, creamy, fatty and delicious. Tofu is none of those things. I don’t know who thought it would make an acceptable substitute. It is, I suppose, a vaguely similar colour. That’s not much to go on. You could make a similar case for putty, toothpaste, mayonnaise, etc, and all of those would taste about as good.
But being well-brought-up and meek in the face, I said “K”, sadly sadly.
If he had merely brought along the offending dish, it would have been OK – I could have tactfully avoided it. But what did Waggles the Sheep-Dog do but turn up with two – a lemon one and a chocolate one. And with a big, beaming just-you-wait-and-see grin, he said “One of these has got tofu in it, and I bet you can’t guess which.”
Intriguing, I thought; a bold claim; and turned back to my chocolate mousse. And then he put a slice of each in my bowl and watched triumphantly while I tasted them.
The first one tasted, as tofu is wont to do, like dank cardboard. The second one tasted like slightly cocoaier dank cardboard. He was right; I couldn’t tell which one was worse. But I am, as previously mentioned, well-brought-up; so “Dude, what misbegotten old hag gave you the yak milk to make Cheesecake Number Two?” didn’t seem like the appropriate response. Reluctantly, I admitted that I could not tell the difference.
At which point, Waggles the Sheep-Dog grinned smugly and said “They were BOTH tofu!” And that was the moment I fully embraced the doctrine of total depravity.
3. Today I went to a training session for a part-time, menial, oh-well-it’s-money-although-not-a-lot-of-it job at the Academic Dress Hire place. Due to my brain oozing out my sinuses I accidentally turned up forty-five minutes early, so I went for a drive to the Chinese fruit and veggie/grocer and spent a pleasant half-hour perusing its comestibles.
Asian packaged food intrigues me. It seems to revel in its fakeness. Not that Western junk food exactly conjures up earthworms and mulch*, but Asian junk food gives the impression of having been constructed entirely in a factory – one lot of plastic goop becoming the containers, another the contents. And where a Kiwi company would call the resulting product Mrs Betty’s Grainy Goodness-Bites. Asian companies tell it like it is: Vegetable-Flavoured Wheat Snack, or Fried Gluten Ball. I like it; it’s respectful. It’s as if they say “Consumer, we may be charging you a 400% markup on a morsel of puffed, genetically modified grain smothered in MSG, but at least we have the conscience to make you face the issue. This is a rubbish source of dietary fibre, no picturesque barnyards were involved in the making of it, and you’re going to die an early death by frustrated colon. Here’s a prepubescent girl grinning at a cartoon kitten.”
At any rate, wandering up and down the aisles gave me great joy. I found chrysanthemum-flavoured soft drinks, Candied Wild Jujube, nude pretzel sticks and Yolk Flavoured Pudding Powder. One bag of herby-smelling stuff had minimal English labelling – nothing so gauche as the contents, but a brand – “Old Herbalist Doctor” – and the assurance that it was “Produced Meticulous”. I hesitated over the Pork Floss, refrained from buying a tray of dumplings when I learned they contained Chicken Essence, and considered buying the Maple Syrup Pies, which promised me “boundless merriment” as well as a percentage of real maple syrup; but then, they also claimed to be pies, when the picture on the box clearly showed biscuits, so I didn’t feel they could be trusted. I ended up wimping out and merely buying an apple soda (“No Chemical Ingredients”). It tasted vile, but interestingly so, at least.
Then I went back to the Dress Hire place and learned that the long point of a trencher goes at the back, and international students cannot be trusted. So it was kind of a mixed day, cultural-awareness-wise.
*Speaking of that, today at lunch the snortlepig looked at her chip and asked me “Mummy, what are chips of?” I didn’t quite get what she meant, until she said impatiently “You know, like ducks or rhinos – what are they from?” I said “Oh… potatoes”, and explained the process; but I mean, whaaa? “Ducks or rhinos”? Why not “chickens or cows”? Our diet isn’t that eclectic.
Snow White and the Cake
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Doing an arty photoshoot with a snortlepig is difficult. The pig is very proud of her new dress – she wore it to church on Sunday and got lots of “Awww, Cinderella!” comments, which was unfortunate – and today she wore it to the supermarket to general acclaim, so much so that after passing one employee who was stacking shelves and gave us a jaded glance, the pig said in a shocked voice “That lady didn’t talk about my dress!”
Nevertheless, getting her to eat an apple and play dead wasn’t an easy task. This is the best I got…
And by request of several of my most frothing fans, here is The Cake in all its blurry glory. It looked better in real life. I think.
Banana cake with cream cheese frosting and green coconut; the pebbles were tiny sugar cookies coated in pink sugar; caramel fudge for the wishing well and to shore up the inside of the castle, which was lemon sugar cookies, as was the wishing well roof. The round towers were a funny, meringuey biscuit recipe wrapped around the handle of a whisk; topped with coloured white chocolate cones. The flags, pennants, mushrooms, flowers, wishing well birdie and ducks were fondant – I made fondant lily pads too, but I put them on the jelly pond the day before the party and they dissolved and had to be blotted off the surface of the pond with a paper towel, which was nerve-wracking. I should have left them, really; it made pretty realistic-looking pondscum.The whole edifice weighed about as much as a pygmy hippo and took up two-thirds of the fridge.
I’m pretty sure the pig liked it better than this photo implies.
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It is 10:30 on Sunday night, eight and a half hours since the commencement of the snortlepig’s birthday party, and I feel like I have been lightly beaten with a ham and left to steep in an outhouse. That’s not me being poetic – it’s a strangely specific sensation.
The good news is, the party went off successfully, causing Helpdesk Man and myself to feel like we have Won at Life. There were no tantrums (excepting a brief moment when I was icing the cake and Miles was under the table having flashbacks to ‘Nam, but Helpdesk Man cotted him and he was fine); only one kitchen disaster (me leaving a perfectly cromulent batch of pizza muffins in the oven to heat up for an hour and a half); none of the guests showed up early, a fact which always inspires devout thanks in a Smokey; and most importantly, they liked the cake. The pig, who has had Manners drilled into her head all week, said “thank you” nicely regarding her presents and did not suggest opening them before the arrival of the later guests more than half a dozen times. Tiny Miles kindly refrained from indulging either of his two favourite pastimes, weeping and Death By Chunky Bit, and played cutely with balloons instead.
The bad news is that I have been living a frantic, fervid, twitchy list-making life for the past week, and it has done a number on my already precarious sanity. Even now that the party is over and done, my eyes keep jumping back to the fridge door, and I have to stop myself leaping out of my chair to make meringue mushrooms. Consuming a hundredweight of cream cheese icing this morning probably didn’t help. In the interests of therapy, here are the lessons I have learned:
-Never throw out a cookbook you only kept all those years for its one decent recipe, without checking to make sure you didn’t previously cull said recipe from your handwritten recipe book to avoid double-ups.
(Fortunately, the internet is a wonderful thing.)
-Do not spend several hours the night before the party hand-sewing ribbons to homemade scrapbooking paper party hats; no-one will wear them.
-Those flourless peanut butter cookies everyone makes are pretty good, considering.
-Boysenberry puree colours and flavours Swiss meringue buttercream less than you might think.
-Fondant water-lilies should not be placed on a jelly pond in the fridge the night before. They will melt and go all ooey. Fortunately, the resulting oo can be blotted up carefully with a paper towel, and disguised with fondant ducks, placed there at the last minute.
-A triple recipe of a 9-by-13-inch banana cake is more than ample, even for 25 people. More than ample. Helpdesk Man could barely lift it.
-Cutting drinking straws down to a cuter length and putting them in a jar with scrapbooking-paper flowers is a sweet idea, until they blow all over the yard for the fortieth time.
-I really need to hem my beastie cloth. I’ve had it for what, six years now?
-Helpdesk Man has never heard of fairy bread. He is a successful entrepreneur, pushing thirty and author of more than one self-published book. How can he not have heard of fairy bread?
Can’t sleep. Cupcakes will get me.
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Yesterday morning was quite exciting. Tiny Miles is accustomed to being plopped on a beanbag in the bathroom each morning while Helpdesk Man and I shower; recently, he has taken to sitting on the floor instead, playing with the snortlepig’s Noah’s Ark. It keeps him happy.
Sadly, for the last few days Miles’ usually benevolent personality has been switched with that of a manic demon hellspawn who thinks the floor is lava. So yesterday, as we washed, he howled. (Interjection: I think there’s a rat in the ceiling. I can hear it oosing about. Should I have a more constructive response to this than going “Huh, there’s a rat in the ceiling?”) And suddenly, the shower curtain heaved and the front two-thirds of Miles plopped, wailing bitterly, into the shower – which, due to a drainage/water pressure imbalance, was as usual three inches deep in water.
I rescued him from a soggy grave – though not, regrettably, before panicking and screaming “AAAHHH, HE’S IN THE SHOWER!” in the manner of a horror movie ditz. Then I decided I was clean enough, and joggled him on the bathmat for some time, kissing his wet head, until he became tranquil once more. Then we changed his onesie, and decided that from now on, he can bally well have a nap while we wash.
So that was fun. (I think there are a passel of rats up there. Or one practicing the Virginia Reel.)
Also, it’s the pig’s fourth birthday in a few weeks. It will be quite the event. Until now, I have cunningly avoided the horror that is children’s parties by inviting our families and mostly adult friends to a picnic in the public gardens. But this year, in a fit of Pinterest-fuelled domesticity, I decided it would be fun to do the real thing. Small children, cupcakes, games in the orchard, balloons by the gate.
I am now regretting it, and we haven’t even sent the invites yet. But on the bright side, after a whole year of pondering, I have decided what I’m going to do for the birthday cake.
It will be a large, flat, rectangular cake, covered in green coconut to look like grass, with a hill at one end. On the flat bit I will make a lake, with jelly, and some ducks if I can figure out how to wangle them (fondant, I guess?). There will also be meringue mushrooms and possibly cupcake shrubs; I haven’t worked out the details yet. Then there will be a path, made maybe of praline or caramel popcorn, or chopped nuts, although that’s probably not such a good idea for little kids, is it? – a path, anyway, leading to the top of the hill, on which I will have made a gingerbread castle. Or maybe a sugar cookie one, if they hold up – I’ll have to experiment. I’ve only ever made one gingerbread house, when I was about thirteen, and it collapsed, so I have some research to do.
Anyway; could be fun, no? I thought the castle could somehow incorporate those wafer stick things with the chocolate and vanilla stripes, like barber’s poles. Perhaps. Or not. And I can pipe pink around the windows and things. I’m tempted to go all out with a hedge-maze and a cutout bit at the back of the hill showing dwarves delving, and possibly some dungeons; but one should not get carried away. I have the rest of the party to plan. (Fairy bread! One of the best foods ever.)
So does anyone know any games suitable for 2-5-year-olds? Nothing too competitive; I don’t want to deal with the angst. I thought an egg and spoon race might be kind of fun, but I can see it ending badly… maybe a treasure hunt in the orchard? (By which I mean, “Kids, there are lollies hidden between here and here; don’t lick the electric fence”, not a hunt with actual clues. Given the snortlepig’s recent attempts at I Spy with colours, I think that might be beyond her.)
Also, I will be spending from now until the 17th making presents. We got a bookshelf off Freecycle I need to sand and paint; she went into raptures recently over a Snow White costume a girl in the supermarket wore, and my mother-in-law lent me a pattern to sew one; the summer quilt top is inching towards completion; and I have her bedroom curtains, fabric-covered pinboard and ruffly tablecloth in various stages of doneness, as well as vague plans to make her a proper nightlight. Ack.
(Rats seem to have gone. OK. Whatever.)
In Which Smokey Fails to Secure a Book Deal or Even a Spot on the Cooking Channel, But It Is OK
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Well, the sad, melancholy news is that I am not the Best Home Cook in the Waikato.
The consolatory news is that, despite my lemon dipping sauce going totally off its rocker, forgetting to put the thyme in said sauce and running out of time to use the arty skewers I bought for $6.49… I am the Runner-Up.
I have a large, framed certificate to prove it. I’m not sure what to do with it. Either I’ll chuck it in the bin or keep it enshrined on the wall of the throom with mood lighting and laser security. I also have a $200 gift card for Farro, which is much less problematic.
The panna cotta chap won, as could be expected – he made a very fancy fish dish with lemon fondant potatoes (why are they called that? I’m gonna try them, anyway, though not with preserved lemon). Many people liked Tiny Miles. I educated the viewing public on the harvesting methods of saffron, which is more interesting than I probably made it sound. I bought a disappointing milkshake and some incredibly nommy spiced nuts. Helpdesk Man bought fudge, cider, a mango mocktail and two pizzas. (Helpdesk Man 1, Diet 0.) An old lady in the audience heckled one of the other contestants, but left (thankfully) before I went up. Another contestant borrowed my chef’s knife. A man demonstrating cheese-making borrowed my frying pan. The Indian guy gave me his spare plate of curry and couscous. The MC read out bits of my application email, which was embarrassing. Half a bulb of fennel fell on the floor while I was setting up, but I didn’t need it. A lady in the front row was nervily arguing with a contestant over whether her chicken would be undercooked. The pig heard my name being called out and said excitedly “Ooh, Mummy, what are you going to make?”, proving she has been absent in spirit for the last seven days. Miles emitted a rank, sulfurous stench just as the MC was saying “Some wonderful smells are coming from the stove right now”. One guy simply called his dish “Lamb Fusion”, which sounded a heck of a lot artier than my “Well, um, I’m making chicken tender thingies with a lemon dipping sauce and bits of stuff, oh, and cream cheese balls”. I should have flung glitter into the air and said “I present to you… ZELDA!”, or summat. Also, I had to wear a headset. And I accidentally made a joke about Martha Stewart being a felon, but I don’t think anyone noticed,
But on to weightier matters. You know Patch Adams? Well, the film was based on the life of a real chap, Hunter “Patch” Adams, who was indeed a doctor and believed in the power of ‘aving a larf, but was not Robin Williams (three points to him, really). I read his book once. In it he described the model hospital (or “healing centre”, or something vaguely hippieish, I forget) he would have built if he had ever had enough money, but he did not (and his wife left him – it’s not as cheery a read as you might expect).
It sounds like a pretty neat theoretical facility – he planned the whole grounds in the shape of a clown, so as to terrify pilots, and he had pottery sheds and vegetable gardens and counselors and basketweaving stations and things, so if someone was suffering from the blight he could just toddle down the well-raked gravel path and throw a pot, and feel much better. Holistic, innit. But one rather questionable innovation was the Death Room.
Patch Adams wanted death to be a joyful experience, you see, and he thought that the dying – in much the same way that pregnant women choose candles and essential oil and Enya CDs for giving birth – could choose the ambience surrounding their death. So he planned out this room with a dome-shaped ceiling, on which you could project images of stars or childhood photos or whatever you wanted; and the idea was you could choose a fragrance and have your family around and eat cookies and generally go out in style.
It’s not hard to see the flaws in this plan.
“Are you almost done in there? Mrs Jenkins in Ward 17’s going a bit blue.”
“Wait a minute, the Death Star’s almost reached the Rebel base!”
“Weren’t you in here last week? This isn’t IMAX, you know.”
“I was dying.”
“You were watching Avatar.”
“That’s a very significant film for me!”
“Well, do you think you could pop off before the end of the credits? I have to hastily Photoshop a picture of Mrs Jenkins riding on a unicorn with Leonard Nimoy.”
“She’ll surprise ya. Now look, that’s my pager; are you coming or going? She’s got a three-page deathplan, she’ll be furious if she misses out.”
Meanwhile Mrs Jenkins, being wheeled down the corridor by an orderly:
“Where are we going?”
“I just thought we’d take a little stroll. Get some fresh air.”
“This isn’t the way to the gardens – wait a second. You’re taking me to the Death Room, aren’t you?!”
“What? Of course not. Maybe just a little trial run. Your Aunty Edna’s flown in, and your high school drama teacher.”
“They flew in for a trial run?”
“Of course they did, sweetie. Everybody cares about you.”
“I’m not dying! I feel fine!”
“And you look lovely. How about we pop your old wedding dress on over your shoulders, now?”
“The doctor said I was going to be out of here by Tuesday!”
“Dr Adams? Oh, he’s a lovely man, isn’t he. Likes his little jokes. Now, look at that, Chef’s made your favourite dessert. Aren’t you in luck!”
“Is that my grandmother’s perfume I smell?”
“Probably just the angels, sweetie. Now oop, here we go, onto the couch. You just lie there and look at Mr Spock on the horsie. We’ll be back in the morning to pick up the – I mean, you have fun. Make the most of this.”
I mean, dude. I’d totally do it, though. I’d have a big flashing countdown, just to see what would happen. Can you psychosomatically induce death by expectation? Probably.
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1. We have had another fatality. While inspecting the veggie garden for ripe tomatoes (negative), the pig squeaked and pointed out a stiff, stark rat lying on a pile of mulch. Helpdesk Man picked it up by the tail and threw it over the fence, because he is Manly. The pig was intrigued by the cause of death – “Maybe it ate a bit of smulch?” – but I was more worried about whether or not it was Howard Harley. For the sake of naming simplicity we decided it was merely one of Howard Harley’s friends-and-relations, but it must be said we have not seen him since. Dennis the Quail-Bird is becoming more friendly, though, since I left a piece of bread in the front yard.
2. Tomorrow is the cooking competition. This morning I panicked and redesigned my dish, which is either the moment of inspiration that causes the scrappy underdog to rise to the top, or the sign of a wavering and feeble mind. Incidentally, fennel is vile. I have been cooking variations of it all week – steamed in chicken stock, roasted in duck fat, pureed with garlic – and the only way I can stomach it at all is raw and finely minced. Well, and roasted and pureed with six cloves of garlic, but only because that just tasted of pureed roasted garlic.
So anyway, the idea is: chicken tenders in a preserved lemon and honey dipping sauce (preserved lemon is growing on me, kinda – I won’t buy it again, but it’s OK), with flat green beans ever-so-briefly roasted with a honey glaze, and olives with rosemary, garlic and caramelised balsamic vinegar garnishing it all. Then cream cheese balls made with chopped raw fennel, saffron (had to stick it in somewhere – probably not the most nuanced use of the spice ever, but again, I really don’t like the taste) and cracked pepper; three balls a plate, two rolled in toasted pinenuts and one in chopped fennel fronds, perched in a corner on a couple of basil leaves.
Helpdesk Man assisted with the arrangement – I called him for dinner and he came over, stared at the plate and said “Needs more whitespace”, before moving ramekins around and poking beans for a good ten minutes. I had never realised web design translated so well to chicken tenders, but he was right.
So anyway, I’m supposed to be writing an article about milk donation right now, but I’m mostly running through lists of ingredients in my head. The potential for things going horribly wrong is enormous – we have to bring all our own ingredients, all our utensils – pots, pans, crockery for plating up – everything but a chopping board, which for some reason they provide (but I’m bringing a glass one anyway, for chicken-pounding purposes). And we only get 45 minutes to make the dish from go to whoa, which is cutting it pretty fine, especially because we have to plate up two servings (one for photographing, one for the judges. I don’t know why they couldn’t just hold off a tick before hoeing in, but whatever).
Incidentally, I found out about the mysterious fourth contestant. She was told the wrong time and/or place for the semi-finals, and it was All Their Fault, so they felt the only pukka thing to do was to let her through to the Finals. To which I say, hmph.
3. The pig is a clever child; she thinks about things. Recently some of our resident sheep were shorn, or “furred off” as the pig calls it; and we were discussing the whys and wherefores in the car, when she said “But goats have lots of fur, and they don’t get furred off”. And I was like, that is true. (Although sometimes it isn’t – angoras, for instance. But still.) And when we saw a cute little yellow Beetle-type convertible the other day, she stopped raving about its beauty long enough to ponder, “But what happens when the rain comes in?” I don’t think I would have been as practical at that age. Nor would I have known nearly as much about the makes of cars, how babies come out of their mummies’ tummies, or (possibly because the parenting gene skipped a generation) zombies. Or superheroes, actually. Someone held up a copy of the Captain America DVD to the pig at Christmas and said “Do you know who this is?”, and she said “The star-spangled man!”. I have never been so proud. She was using one of my new dresses as a Superman cape the other day and I reflected I could make her one, but then Helpdesk Man put a spanner in the works by saying “You couldn’t be Superman though pig, you’d have to be Supergirl”, and while I was saying “Bosh, she can be Superman if she wants to” the pig said reflectively “No, I think I’ll be Wonder Woman. Can you make me the clothes, with the panties and the top and the boots?” And we hastily changed the subject.
Plus, she does schoolwork. We do worksheets together – I make them up, because it reminds me of playing school as a kidling – and she fills them in with great officiousness and a sunny spirit. If things go awry, she will say cheerfully “That was not my best R ever. Oh well, never mind!” She does tend to go a little off-track – when I ask her to draw, say, a line of Ts, she will usually end up drawing a Mummy T and a Daddy T and a whole row of little baby Ts – and if unsure of a letter, she treats P as a kind of wildcard, which does not work; but still. She drew a rat the other day that was breathtaking; it had ten legs.
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Well, the bad news is, I might start charging a pay-per-post for this blog. It is not often that common mortals get to read words thunk up by a Finalist in the Farro Home Cook Competition, after all.
The other bad news is, in the excitement of the competition I knocked my beaters off the bench, and now they don’t sing no more. Killing beaters is becoming kind of a Thing with me. Next it’ll be stand mixers, then cement mixers, and then I’ll end up in a padded cell while a sadistic nurse amuses herself by dangling a whisk in front of my frothing mouth.
Anyhoo, it was an exciting evening. There were only five contestants – would have been six, but one didn’t show up, probably because Wintec doesn’t exactly go out of its way to advertise itself. There were also a gaggle of judges and reporters – the owner/chef of Palate, a writer for Nourish magazine, and a reporter and photographer from the local paper. The latter was somewhat bored, I think, and ended up taking about seventy pictures of me doing arty things with toffee. She was nice – she took some of my extra ginger cakes home for her fiance.
The other contestants included a sweet, mumsy lady who had been entered for the competition by She Knew Not Whom, and made a slightly underwhelming apple shortbread; an Indian chap who’s halfway through a three-month fast, but concocted a chicken curry with rice and lassi nevertheless; a young, sprightly woman I didn’t see much of, who made stuffed capsicums; and an older man who emitted a faintly aggressive, in-it-to-win-it vibe that made me nervy. In fact he was perfectly nice – lent me a whisk and everything – and certainly knew his way around a kitchen, but still. He made a coconut panna cotta which didn’t quite set up in the time allotted, but the judges sent him through to the finals anyway. It seemed inevitable.
The other finalists were myself and the Indian fasting guy. The Palate chef chap critiqued our dishes, and I was happy to hear that his only complaint about mine was that I plated it up with too much whipped cream. I would totally have eaten that much whipped cream, myself, but I didn’t wish to come across as gluttonous and argumentative, so I nodded sagely while he praised my Balance of Flavours and Really Nice Texture. The toffee nest on top turned out to be a good thing, too – it showed Technique. I was hoping it would. The marks sheet had five points allotted for Knife Skills, and I don’t know how I did there, as my dish didn’t really require any; but nevertheless, I got through. So that was pleasing.
Then we three finalists had more photos, standing in front of our dishes (which by now were mostly eaten and looked distinctly unphotogenic). We were supposed to grab spoons and taste things, but the Indian chap was fasting and the old chap simply refused to do it; so tomorrow’s Times will feature a photo of two men learnedly discussing food, while the woman in the corner stuffs her face. Oh well. The aggressive chap praised my dish, in a faintly challenging “I accept you as a worthy opponent, and come the day of battle I will CRUSH YOU LIKE A BUG” way; I responded by complimenting his panna cotta, which I didn’t much like. It was a bit odd.
Anyway, the Finals are next Saturday. In the meantime, we have a Farro gift card with which to buy three out of four ingredients to incorporate into our next dish. They are preserved lemon, chorizo, fennel and saffron. Not what I would have picked – I only have a nodding acquaintance with fennel, have never used saffron and don’t have a clue what to do with preserved lemons, other than buying them in large jars and displaying them in kitschy country cafes. Any ideas? I was thinking maybe a risotto with chorizo, fennel and saffron – maybe some caramelised fennel on top, or something. Or is that too obvious? Fennel’s good in soup, but it’s really not the weather for soup. I shall have to Google.
So, yus. We cleaned up under the stern eye of the Wintec hospitality course guy, who bawled out one of the contestants for putting dishes back wet and told me sternly that I should have worn trousers, because if I had spilled caramel on the two inches of bare leg between my boots and my skirt it would have been “very hot – it gets very hot, you know”. (Dude.) Then Helpdesk Man drove me and the pigs home. They had all been shopping while I was cooking, and he bought me a pita bread thing for dinner; sadly, it contained something extremely spicy he swore he hadn’t ordered, and I had to get a chocolate milk at the petrol station on the way home to keep from hurling it back up, but then he drove round a corner really fast and it sort of backfired, and I have spent the last two hours in a queasy fug, wondering vaguely if Panna Cotta Man poisoned his coconut cream in order to eliminate the competition; in which case, I guess Fasting Indian Guy really put a crimp in that plan, now didn’t he?
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1. The baby can crawl. This would be good news, except it has gone to his head; he has decided that sleeping is for chumps.
2. Helpdesk Man has begun a vigorous exercise regime, otherwise known as “jogging to the letterbox and running back”. It’s not quite as weedy as it sounds, our driveway being both long and filled with exciting potholes; but in truth, it’s almost as weedy as it sounds. Anyway, this morning he was jogging away diligently, and I was offering wifely support in the form of standing at the end of the driveway in mismatched pyjamas shouting “MUSH, MAGGOT!” when the landlord’s sister emerged unexpectedly from the trees, walking her dog. It was a difficult social situation to navigate.
3. I am risking my ego once more on a cooking competition. This one, thankfully, does not involve pavlovas. In two days’ time I have to slope up to the Wintec cooking school, with pre-measured ingredients in hand for the making of my favourite dish, and concoct it in front of judges in 60 minutes flat.Other hopefuls will be doing the same, and the three skilliest of us will end up facing off at the Food, Wine and Jazz festival in a week or so, making food out of a box of mystery ingredients.
It’s all terribly exciting, although I’m hampered somewhat by the 60-minute rule. Nothing can be pre-prepared, and it turns out most of my favourite dishes take some time to make – days, in many cases. Ice cream is out, as is panna cotta; I can’t do any cake that requires icing, because it wouldn’t cool in time, or anything that needs to cook for too long; chocolate mousse is no good, or butterscotch mousse, or pie, or steak, or roast chicken.
So instead I’m doing a recipe I discovered quite recently, which isn’t really my favourite by any stretch of the imagination, but it is good – David Lebovitz’ fresh ginger cake. As of my second trial run tonight, I’m baking it in a friand tin (I splashed out for the purpose, which will no doubt rankle later on if I don’t recoup the cost in Farro vouchers), and serving it as a mini-cake in a puddle of caramel sauce dotted with white chocolate ganache, next to a pile of whipped cream and some grilled nectarines, and (time and humidity permitting) some kind of fancy toffee doo-hickey. I’m hoping it ticks several snobbish-food buttons – ganache, caramel, ginger, seasonal fruit etc – but after the Pavlova Incident, I am remaining cynical and dubious.
4. The snortlepig has changed her name to Rapunzel. We let her watch Tangled once too often.
5. In keeping with his Information Highwayman motif, Helpdesk Man has themed us. The snortlepig is his trusty sidekick, Dingo: “Come on Dingo, let’s ride”, he says, although recently I heard her saying to herself as she hopped on her motorbike, “Come on Flingo, let’s fly”, which is infinitely more awesome. I am Bandit, camp cook; and the baby is Outrider, Dingo’s loyal friend. So… yup.
6. Howard Harley is becoming quite social. We see him sneaking around the front deck a couple of times a day – and sometimes the back deck, which is worrying, as we don’t know if it’s Howard Harley himself or one of his friends-and-relations. Dennis the Quail-Bird, on the other hand, is pretty coy. We hear him a lot, but haven’t seen him for weeks. We do seem to have acquired some chickens, though. They escape regularly from next door and loiter around the garage, furtively trucking off as soon as we approach. There’s a very handsome rooster and one black chicken whose tail goes like that.
7. There is a cockroach on my computer screen at this very moment.
8. Aww man. It was too wily for Helpdesk Man, and skittered down the back of the desk. I think I will go to bed.
9. Wait, now it’s up on the wall. Assuming that’s the same one. We’re averaging about two a day. I’m becoming slightly numb to the horror of it – rather like blood tests during my pregnancy with Miles – but not numb enough to actually deal with them solo. Although I had to, the other day when Helpdesk Man was out. It was on the ceiling – I didn’t even know they could do that – and I sprayed it and it plopped sickeningly onto the floor, where I left its foam-covered corpse until Helpdesk Man returned home. I might have just let it slink away, but it was near my sewing machine, and ever since (some years ago) I found a cockroach leg in the inner workings of the machine, I have been wary.
Anyway, Helpdesk Man caught this one on the wall, if you were wondering. Squish. Bye.
The New House
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1. Tiny Miles has acquired a tooth. So begins Phase Two: Weaponisation.
2. We are Moved In. More or less. Blimey. Words cannot describe. Moving house seems to be more of a major production every time we do it. Helpdesk Man and I have solemnly agreed not to move again until we wax rich and we can build our dream homestead/castle/commune out in the country.
As it now stands, the kitchen, living room and pig’s bedroom, are all nearly painted, and the hallway is partly painted. Nothing is entirely painted, a state of affairs we must remedy soon, before we get used to it and leave it masking-taped and blotchy for the next ten years. Still, the house looks vastly better. One small section of skirting board in the living room is still its original green, and it catches the eye something fierce as soon as you walk in the door. A whole room of it would probably have made Helpdesk Man run amok in a matter of days.
Speaking of running amok, this is the ideal place for it. We went on a recon mish the other day and snooped round the orchard. Not only is it far bigger than I had imagined… it is awesome. We kept coming across odder and odder things – a decomposing shed with a decomposing dinghy and kayak inside, a stagnant lake with a hide, a delightfully eerie sawmill, steampunky rusted contraptions of unknown purpose, with valves and dials and levers, skulking under apple trees; a small flock of rosellas; a creek with waterfalls; an abandoned van that looks like it belonged to the Lone Gunmen; and a bright red telephone box, falling apart in the middle of a field. The whole place is just begging to be used as the location for a gritty Kiwi film about hillbillies, zombies, raptors or (ideally) all three. And there’s convolvulus.
3. The wildlife here is equally fascinating. In addition to the rosellas and the resident sheep, we have discovered a kingfisher, a bird of unusual design dubbed Dennis the Quail-Bird, a hedgehog called Hapless, a rat named Howard Harley (the pig named him – I dunno), a creature called Mighty Mandible Moth, which bit Helpdesk Man when he tried to evict it, and a large spider which builds beautiful orb webs on the porch every night. At least, she used to; her latest few efforts have been a bit patchy. I think she lost the will to create after we accidentally destroyed her web for the fourth time, walking through it.
There have also been two slugs, but we shall not speak of those – they give Helpdesk Man the heeby-jeebies. And looking out the window, I see there is a cockroach on the porch. One moment while I bellow for the man of the house.
4. You should see the pig’s room. It is pretty neat. The pink and cream stripy wall pleases me more every time I look at it. I found an old round mirror I bought ages ago off TradeMe (only to have Helpdesk Man take one look at it and say “Ew… you bought that?”, whereupon I shoved it in the shed for two years) and covered the frame with cream ruffles. Then I covered a Styrofoam ball with folded circles of pink satiny fabric, to make a ruffly ball thing, and hung it above the pig’s bed on a ribbon. Sophisticated as hell. I’m going to do more of them, in cream satin and lace net, but the first one took a lot out of me – I had to cut out 116 pink circles, traced around a mug. The whole thing took two days. Still, it pleases me. And when I’ve covered the pig’s corkboard in green floral fabric, and made cream curtains with four layers of ruffles at the bottom, the second-bottom-most being pink, and found some vintage knobs to use as curtain tiebacks, and bought and distressed a desk and bookshelves, and made a teepee with thick dowelling, and finished the pig’s summer quilt, and put a cream ruffle around her mini-trampoline, and replaced the light shade, and made a nightlight… well, it will be the cutest wee room you ever did see. And then I shall take photos.
5. The garden is growing apace. We’ve been eating zucchini ever since we got here; we missed one, and it is now the size of Miles. I’m torn between leaving it, just to see how big it can go, or harvesting it before it gets too watery and making a bunch of zucchini loaf or soup or something. And I harvested a colander-full of basil the other day (the colander was lying around the back yard, being awesome) and made pesto. So there.
6. We have a wedding to go to on Saturday. Do I have anything to wear? No, I do not. Neither does Miles, but I’m making him a sweet Ottobre outfit – pants, a button-up shirt and a cute little short vest. We went shopping yesterday and I tried on five dresses, and fell into a deep depression for the rest of the afternoon.
7. Our internet, as the cunning among you will have surmised, is back up. This took some doing. Helpdesk Man threatened Xnet with litigation. Handy tip: it worked. Being without the internet, daily trips to my parents’ to check emails notwithstanding, was actually rather pleasant. I pulled weeds out of the front lawn and everything.
That said, I am now going to read a week’s worth of XKCD. Excuse me.
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Is everyone familiar with the Handmade Ryan Gosling meme? For some reason, I find it incredibly amoosing. I don’t even know he is – at least, I know he was in The Notebook, but I haven’t seen it. I read it, and I’m still picking schmaltz out of my ears. It was the same chap who wrote The Time Traveller’s Wife, I believe, only this one didn’t even have double-amputation to dilute the sappy.
Anyway, the Internet being the vasty and inscrutable place it is, some bod got it into her (certainly “her”) head to find photos of Mr Gosling and caption them… thusly. (Yes, I couldn’t resize the photos. I’m not… Wonder Woman. Scroll across, it’ll be fine.)
There’s a whole website of them. And they make me go “heh”; while at the same time, driving the point sadly home that Helpdesk Man (and indeed, surely all actual men) is unlikely to ever truly appreciate the difference between a store-bought duvet cover and a lovingly handcrafted one, or feel genuinely buoyed upon putting his mugs in a cupboard ModPodged with scrapbooking paper. This is OK. One can and, according to feminists, should do these things for one’s own satisfaction and fulfilment; but one should not endeavor to shoehorn them into the Good Wife category, any more than Helpdesk Man should claim that his proficiency at double-tapping virtual alien hordes makes him a Better Husband; because in fact, though I would like to feel crafting is vaguely morally superior, our hobbies are probably about equally as relevant to each other’s happiness (ie, neutral at best, and an irritating waste of time in less cheerful moments).
But he lets me do it, and does not complain when I spend ghastly sums on quilting cotton; and I watched the pigs for three days while he was at a LAN this week. So we tick along. And I have finished all 25 of the nine-patches for the snortlepig’s summer quilt. It was supposed to be 21, but by the time I got around to counting I’d already done 22, so I just decided to tack another row down the side and make it a square seven-by-seven, instead of a seven-by-six. The proportions are unlikely to correspond to any standard bed size, but the pig’s toddler bed isn’t standard anyway – it was handmade by someone’s grandfather, and we got it off TradeMe – and anyway, when she gets big enough for a real bed I can make her a new quilt, and this one can be a lap quilt.
The nine-patches were surprisingly successful. My usual method with quilting is to be careful and precise for the first ten minutes of every session, then go “Ach, she’ll be right” and fling needles and rotary cutters wildly about, with the result that my corners don’t match up and I spent the last half of the project wondering what I was thinking. I thought for many years that when I asked my mother (who is an excellent quiltress) the secret and she said “Oh, you have to be very accurate and careful” that she was holding out on me. It turns out, though, that when you actually do it it works. Who knew. I wouldn’t exactly call my nine-patches the apex of the craft, but I could show them in public without blushing, and that is a great improvement.
Heh. Heheh. (Look, it beats “Keep Calm and Carry On”, alright? Those are just getting ridiculous. People aren’t even trying. The Hermione “Keep Calm and Marry Ron” was kind of funny, but “Keep Calm and Have Coffee”, with the whole font? Please. Let it die.)
*Squafts is what the pig calls crafts. She also refers to skydiving as (the infinitely more awesome) “skyfighting”, and the Star-Spangled Man anthem from Captain America as the Speckled Man song. It is an awesome song, incidentally – Mother, you would like it. Here it is: