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:
My Tiny Panna Cotta
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Today the pigs and I were chillin’, and Tiny Miles let out a belch to wake the dead. The pig had been jumping about, not paying attention, but stopped and said “What was that, a growl?”
“It was a huge boip,” I said.
The pig started jumping again and said with satisfaction, “It was MIRACULOUS huge!”
So anyhoo, yup, that was awesome. Also, it is now 2012, an uncannily futuristic date. And this year I shall be 26. Soon I shall be dead, And Tiny Miles will be one, which is just absurd.
I celebrated New Year’s Eve with a shindig, at which I served ice cream sandwiches and won a game of poker. My method for success is to sit out most of the hands in order to milks Miles to sleep, thus preventing myself from frittering away chips; and then to come back and go all in on a straight. I recommend it. Sadly, everybody left the party at 11:30, and the pig woke up at midnight having flashbacks to ‘Nam from the fireworks, so it wasn’t a terribly auspicious beginning to January.
Nevertheless, I am full of new-yearly vim and resolution. I started piecing an Irish chain quilt of the pig’s, the fabric for which I bought two years ago. I made resolutions in a nifty list. I bought a diary (after the New Year, for the discount, though it pained my soul to wait) and filled it with reminders about church lunch, birthdays and the need to pull weeds out of the garden. I joined a challenge online to complete 52 crafting projects. I bought a new dress, in order to swish through 2012 chicly instead of slobbing around in an ex-maternity tunic that doesn’t allow me to breastfeed in public. (On second thoughts, I should probably have bought two dresses. I am extremely short on clothes.) I chose a colour scheme for our new interior walls in two seconds flat with Helpdesk Man, although I am now having second thoughts. Colour is not my strong point.
Also: we watched Green Lantern. My word. It was awful. Usually halfway through a terrible movie I can relax into a resigned torpor and just go with it, but not this time. Even five minutes from the end, I was casting longing glances at my sewing machine. It was almost as boring as this one time Helpdesk Man bought cable ties.
Also, I have discovered a new principle of life: there is no foodstuff which cannot be used as a term of endearment for one’s baby. Helpdesk Man and I have been testing it out, and it’s utterly true. Miles is my wee pumpkin muffin, my tikka masala, my little pierogi, my wee scrap of biltong, my fat wee haggis, my little can of beetroop, my schmear of cream cheese upon a bagel, my little stack of hotcakes, my fat moussaka, my wee chipolata sausage, my tiny crock of kraut, my suet duff, my little dob of wasabi, my boysenberry, my snickerdoodle, my little TV dinner, my hybrid tomato, my little garlic naan… I could go on. I defy any of you to come up with a foodstuff that doesn’t work. Venison pasties? Pan-fried dumplings? Carpaccio? Sashimi? See? It just cannot be done. Gape with awe.
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1. How can teddy bears still be “unawares” when they get attacked by bananas in pyjamas every freaking Tuesday? Isn’t that the sort of incident that might stick in one’s mind? Don’t you think after the fifth or sixth horrifying incident, one of them might say as he contemplated his own fluffy viscera, “Y’know, old sport, I’m beginning to think these attacks aren’t random”?
2. This is a portion of my small sister Ruth, along with some biscuits I made her. The photo was taken by my larger sister Betty Scandretti, because she knows how.
I’ll be interested to learn if she remembers us taking this photo. She wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders at the time. Mostly just lay there, seeping. I don’t mean to criticise, but a true hostess would have made us a cup of something.
3. By popular demand, by which I mean, Trish asked me: here is a photo of the cake I made for the fiftieth wedding anniversary of the parents-in-law of a friend.
It has a slightly angsty history.
See, I had done a cake or so for the friend in question before, and as a result, she rashly trusted my judgment on the decoration front. “Whatever you like; I’m sure it will be lovely”, quoth she, and I, in a fit of sentiment, responded with “Was there a particular Bible verse or something they had at their wedding which I could pipe on the cake?”
Friend – Mrs K, I’ll call her, because she is, sort of – said “Ooh, that’ll be lovely” and went to find out. Apparently fifty years of marriage had destroyed both the orders of service and the memories of the bride and groom, so we never did learn which verse they had: but Mrs K still liked the idea, so decided to go with a bit from (brace yourselves) 1 Corinthians 13.
Which was all very well, except I couldn’t think of a way to decorate the cake, and now I’d locked myself in to covering much of it with a piped verse, which rather limited my options. So I masked the cake, and then sat and stared at it for a few hours. Eventually I hit on the idea of using more fondant to create a textured tone-on-tone picture of a little wee church-house on a hill, with a spreading tree and a path and a demure little bride and groom standing at the bottom, and then I could write the verse around the edge.
So I tried that, before remembering that I am too autistic to create credible representations of the human form. Every bride and groom I created looked like American Gothic crossed with Tim Burton’s idea of a Waldorf doll. It was unnerving. I toyed with the idea of merely suggesting the bridal pair with a dress and long gloves, and a suit and top hat, hovering in the air, and had actually gotten as far as cutting out the dress before I reluctantly acknowledged the idea was a bit too Picnic at Hanging Rock for a wedding anniversary. (It was rather late at night by this time, you understand.)
So in the end I thought: stow it all, I’ll just leave the bride and groom out altogether. Just have the church-house and hill and tree, and write the verse in the empty space on the sky and grass.
And thus I did. And it was pretty nice, I thought. But then, at about six minutes to midnight, as I stared tiredly down at the finished product, my fondant-addled brain went “One sec”. And I realised that sans bride and groom, the white church-house on its white hill with its white tree looked rather… well, stark. And “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” was suddenly seeming a tad more poignant than I intended.
In short, I had accidentally created in glorious ivory fondant a picture which tastefully suggested to the loving couple, “One of you has DIED”.
I tried to fix it. I got up early next morning and put some tiny hearts around the church – the kitsch factor was regrettable, but I hoped it might indicate that Joyful Events were Happening Within. It could have just indicated extreme religious fervour, though. And then I thought a couple of birdies might indicate spring and fertility and general canoodling, so I made one, and it turned out looking like a raven. I nearly decided to just go with it and make some vultures and a little fondant graveyard, but rallied and eventually produced two slightly less sinister birds. Then I waited with some trepidation for Mrs K.
Fortunately, she liked it. And apparently, so did her parents-in-law. I don’t know if they were all just being polite, or if the symbolism of the thing simply did not occur to them; but it was a great relief. Personally, I’m still not sure. But here is a (somewhat rubbish) photo, so you can decide for yourselves.
Fame, or not
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It is 16:51. At 17:00 a representative from Nosh will either ring to inform me I have won one of the categories of the pavlova competition… or not.
There’s a lot riding on this. I accidentally left the baking paper and red food colouring up in Auckland (we were icing cookies at the hospital), so I had to buy more this morning, as well as raspberries and some yoghurt to replace the stuff Helpdesk Man callously used up in a smoothie. Once you factor in three blocks of chocolate, seventeen eggs (’cause of the practice pavlovas) and a $10 thingy of vanilla paste, I’ll need at least a runner-up prize to break even.
Worse yet, we dropped off the pavlova today at the exact moment some reporters from Hamilton Press were having a slow news day. So the lady took a bunch of photos of me holding my pavlova aloft and beaming at a point beyond her shoulder (for the light – I know, seemed odd to me too); and the chap, who didn’t seem to be much of a culinary whiz, stared dubiously at the pavlova and said “So, did you use, like, a recipe?” and “How did you do those swirly things?”
Which is all very well. Fame comes naturally to me – I once served a chap at Rialto who I later heard was an All Black, and Harry Sinclair himself once gave me a dirty look. If I win, this will just be another gilded paving stone on my road to immortality. If I win.
If I don’t, they’ll probably select the most manic-looking photo of me and publish it with “LOSER” written underneath in 72-point type. And I’m not sure I could bear the shame.
17:01. Silence. Hmph.
17:05. Oh, come on. Seriously, people? There were raspberries stuffed with yoghurt and melted chocolate on that thing. I invented that. (Quite nice, in case you were wondering.)
17:09. Maybe the judges are still in paroxysms of delight over the beauteousness of my pavlova.
17:13. You know what? Nosh has an underwhelming selection of sharp cheese anyway. That’s right, I said it.
18:24. Well, I took the pigs and went to view the contestants, and it turns out I won runner-up for Best-Dressed Pavlova. A somewhat hollow victory, but I did get a nice basket of smeg out of it, containing (among other things) some rather nice olives and a fancy-looking bottle of olive oil, which pleases me. In the interests of Class I shall refrain from muttering about my competitors. Nosh really does need to get more tasty cheese in, though.
Things That Are Happening
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1. At this very moment, as we speak, my large, smallish sister is being laid open on a gurney, having bits of her spine chipped off and packed back in and augmented with metal rods and whacked back into shape, in order to render her less wonky. She asked them to take photos. I want to be that awesome when I grow up.
2. The pig and I have made cinnamon salt dough cookies to go on the Christmas tree. We brushed some of them with gold powder, and iced the others with white icing.
3. I am in the throes of creative angst. This Friday I am entering a pavlova competition at Nosh, a gourmet food store which sells unpasteurised cheese and strawberry balsamic vinegar, and other items too classy to come within a mile of our fair city, until now. The prize is Nosh vouchers, and a fair chunk of them too: so I am determined to win.
There’s only one slight problem: while I can churn a mean batch of sorbet and poach an egg without breaking a blood vessel in my eye, I’m not much of a pavlovier. I made a nice one a while back, but I can’t remember how I did it. And with Nosh vouchers at stake, I can’t risk presenting the judges with a mere white-on-white, strawberries-and-passionfruit monstrosity like eveyone else. My pavlova has to speak. To sing. To dance, if you will. To fly, to swirl, to plummet, to skim the moon-limned clouds of glory and come back to rest feather-light like a dove on an unsuspecting beetle, &c.
So last night I started experimenting. Pavlova 1.0 – theoretically a mocha pavlova with coffee-infused cream and the potential for adding hazelnuts later – was something of a disaster. Too much cream of tartar, cornflour and vinegar, and not nearly tall enough. Plus, interesting fact? If you heat cream and infuse coffee into it, it won’t whip no more. I’ll turn it into panna cotta, so it’s no great loss, but still.
Nothing daunted, I am preparing Pavlova 2.0 for dessert tonight. This one will be pink (potential pitfall: browning in oven. Maybe I should omit the initial 10-minute high-temperature in favour of preheating it high and then cooking it for longer at a lower temperature); covered in chocolate curls and strawberries (raspberries for the real deal, but they’re expensive), and possibly dusted with gold. A girly pavlova. I need to find a big star-shaped nozzle for the cream, though. Would rosewater be a pleasing addition? No, possibly not. And I’ll need to put the dehumidifier on – this is the worst pavlova weather ever (although at least all the other contestants will face the same problem).
4. Today the pigs and I went to a hangi at Playcentre, except we were the only ones who showed up. I think it was an elaborate plot to scam me out of my contributory pumpkin – which was not cheap, let me add. $3.99 a kilo is very different to $3.99 a pumpkin, but I didn’t want to disappoint the nice grocer lady.
5. I am becoming quite the gardener. (Gardeness?) Our soon-to-be new landlord rototilled me two enormous patches of dirt for veggies, and there’s also a huge flower bed out the front of the cottage. So for the past few weeks I have been dragging Helpdesk Man and the piggies out to the new house to plant, water and mulch my tiny seedlings.
During this process I have learned a very important lesson: no matter how many dozens of pots you have on the deck, and how many trillions of seedlings you think you’ve planted, a really decent-sized plot of earth will take about four times the quantity you have.
So in an insignificant section of the flower bed I’ve planted nigella, sweet peas, echium, cornflowers, snapdragons and a few other punnets’-worth of flowers I can’t even name; and I have fifty pots on the deck containing seedlings for sunflowers, Canterbury bells, dianthus and poppies. But that still won’t be enough… which is super, actually, as it justifies my new impulse purchase habit. Seeds. $2.99 a pop and very fulfilling. I got clary sage, gypsophila and dwarf sweet peas last time I was at the supermarket, and I plan to sneak off to the Warehouse today to buy more. And for the first time in my gardening career, I’ve actually used up an entire packet of seeds at one go (partly because they’re stingy with sweet peas, but still). It feels marvellously profligate. I even borrowed some rooting hormone from a friend and am trying to grow geraniums and roses from cuttings.
1. Sister is out of surgery – apparently minus a good dollop of blood, but still in the land of the living.
3. Pavlova 2.0 refused to crisp up on the outside, but was pleasingly shmallowy and a tasteful shade of pink. With some minor modifications, it should be suitable.
5. White geraniums, dwarf lobelias and a perennial petunia. Or was it a primrose? Pink and bushy. Miles disgraced himself by ripping off half the plant when I wasn’t looking, and then beaming gummily. Probably my fault for letting him fight trees when he’s bored.