Life Lived Hectically

Months of bloggy silence.  Virtual tranquility.  The reality? Chaos.

The year of parental leave following Ursula’s arrival gave me time to reflect on work-life balance.  It was an internal conversation, brought into sharp focus by the tragic, self-inflicted death of a friend whose career success was the standard by which I measured my own inadequacy.

I took stock.  My approach to work would change. No more long hours and late nights.  It wasn’t effective in the long run. The balanced, rested me could clear through more and better in five hours than a worn, stressed me could in twelve. There would be time for children, family, friends, exercise, music, gardening, cooking, writing, photography, art, literature … and we would paint the house during the Christmas holidays.

Then I went back to work. That was last August.

All I will say about the work situation is that the house is still flaking, my cello lies under dust of archeological significance, my mother had to repossess a beautiful violin because it does an instrument no good to lie around un-played, and cookbooks from my birthday and Christmas lie unread. I believe I still have relatives. It is theoretically possible I still have friends. Draw your own conclusions.

Impending insanity has forced improvements.  I’ve started walking some of my commute (finally).  An extra stop a day soon clocks up and these days I get about 5km and some thinking time each day.

Now if someone could develop the technology to let me write while I walk.  Something that doesn’t make me look like a dorky, middle-aged woman in business clothes and running shoes walking the city streets talking to herself.  I come across enough of those already.


Here We Go Again: On Letting Go and Sugar Cookies

At work

No, it’s not the earthquakes.  And certainly nothing to do with ABBA.

It’s birthday time in the Fagan household. Again. And, in fact, from now through until some time in September.

Francesca has just turned 9.  I am left wandering and wondering.  Where did my little baby go? Will the next 9 years go just as quickly?  Will she still need me then?

But no time for existential crises, because the birthday party is on Saturday.

(Or could it be that the purpose of children’s birthday parties is really to distract mothers from the grief of watching their children progress along the inexorable journey to independence and their own impending redundancy?  OK, maybe not, but I’m glad of it just the same.)

Francesca would like a garden fairy party just like the one her 5 year old sister had.

If you find this at all odd, let me tell you, right here and right now, how glad I am that my little girl still wants to be a little girl, and how vast my relief that the influence of all the tweenie garbage we try hard but still fail to avoid has been negligible.  Ditto the influence of some of her more worldly friends.  Let me tell you how good it feels when she still likes to climb up on my knee for a cuddle, or gives me her hand to hold as we walk along the road together, both literally and figuratively.

So go the fairies.  Long may they last.

If you’ve been with me from the beginning (not quite two months ago), you may remember my 24 hour crisis before Lydia’s birthday. For a reminder, please read here for the crisis, or here for the aftermath.

This time I have a full three days to go.  Left to my own devices, I would almost certainly find a way to fall behind into the exact same 24 hour crisis. I always do. But, Gentle Reader, with you as my conscience, I might just manage the sensible approach this time around.

So I started this afternoon with the item I always mean to make, but seldom get around to: cut sugar cookies.

When I was a toddler my great grandmother used to make these all the time.  She would bring out her green-rimmed enamel bowl (which I still have) and a wooden spoon.  She sat in the corner of her kitchen on a stool made out of an old fruit crate with a neatly sewn cloth cover (move over Eames, we call it refugee chic).  With the bowl on her lap she would get to work creaming the butter and sugar.

My babushka’s lap was the perfect height for me.  I loved watching that mixture grow fluffier just beneath my nose.  She would even let me taste a little. Then came my favourite part, watching the eggs going in, one at a time:  the crack of the shell, the egg slopping around the bowl, separating the butter and sugar into ever increasing layers, until at last the orange of the yolk was assimilated and the two became one.

When Francesca was very small I made a batch of little doggie cookies for her party. They were white with black spots and a red collar, just like our own Brutus, the world’s friendliest dog.


The next time I went to make them, Brutus had lost a leg after trying to make friends with a car in a 70km zone.  In addition to the fiddly icing job, there was really no choice but to go around and snap the hind legs off all the little mini-Bruti. It was a matter of solidarity. I think my husband got the off-cuts. One trusts similar arrangement did not apply at the vets.

I just managed a batch for Lydia’s party, but ran out of time to ice them. It made for a great impromptu party activity, so much so that this time cookie icing is a planned activity.  I’ve stocked up on all kinds of sprinkles and writing icing, and a big polka dot oil cloth for the kitchen table.  I’m even looking forward to it myself.

In life there are recipes you come across and then keep going back to.  Like the stereotypical adulterer, you stray once in a while, but at the end of the day, you always go home.

By the time I became a young wife, my great grandmother’s recipe was long gone, but a random honeymoon purchase while visiting my husband’s family in the US provided a very serviceable replacement.  Same smell, same taste, same texture. The dough is well behaved, you won’t need to roll out between sheets of baking paper. I still like them best slightly burnt at the edges.  And I still haven’t found a recipe to beat it.

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This book is out of print.  New copies are advertised on Amazon at ridiculous prices, but a reasonably priced second hand copy would make a worthwhile addition to the collection of a baker with an interest in Americana.

As these cookies are both very popular and keep very well, I have doubled it. My version follows. If you have a stand mixer, this is a good time to use it.

Sugar Cookies Just Like Babushka’s

A recipe with notes for the uninitiated.

  • 225g (2 sticks) butter
  • 2c sugar regular, or for a more refined result, castor
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2-3 tsp vanilla extract or essence
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 1/2 c plain flour

1. Warm the butter until it is well softened but not melted.  Beat until light in colour, then add the sugar and continue beating until the mixture is light and fluffy.

2. Add the eggs one at at time, beating after each egg until it is completely assimilated.  Add the salt and vanilla and beat them in.

3. Beat in the flour and work until you have a soft homogeneous dough.

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4. You have likely observed that this dough is so soft that it is unworkable.  Don’t worry, 1/2 an hour in the fridge is about to fix that.  First tip the dough out onto a board, divide into four even sections.  Flatten each section, wrap in glad wrap and pop in the fridge for anywhere between 30 minutes and two days.

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I emphasis this flattening part.  It is important because:

  • Your dough chills more quickly and more evenly.
  • Anyone who has ever gone up against a cold ball of dough armed only with a stubborn nature and a rolling pin can tell you this will make the rolling a whole lot easier.
  • Finally, if you are going to leave the dough in the fridge for longer than 30 minutes, you may need to let it warm up a little bit before you try to roll it (you want the dough firm, not rock hard).  This also goes more quickly and more evenly if you’ve made a disc.

5. When you are ready to roll, preheat your oven to 160 C or about 320 F.  Unless you have completely lost your mind, line your cookie sheets with non-stick baking paper.

6. Roll the dough.  You want to do this using the bare minimum of flour you need to stop the dough from sticking.  This is because the extra flour works its way into the dough and will dull the flavour and texture. Since you are working from nice flat discs, this will be easy. Dust your rolling surface lightly.  It should look something like this:

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You can add more as you go along if necessary. Rub a little flour over the rolling pin too.

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Roll in gentle increments.  Rotate dough 90 deg every few strokes, sprinkling a little more flour if it looks like it’s thinking of sticking.  Stop when it’s about 5mm or 3/16th” thick.  And yes, of course you can roll between layers of baking paper or cling wrap if you really want to, you just don’t have to.

7. Time to cut out.  This goes much more easily if the dough doesn’t stick to the cutter. Shapes with very tight angles or narrow sections are the enemy.  But regardless the shape of your cutter, dipping it in flour regularly will help.

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The other thing you can do in the war against adding too much flour is to reduce the number of times you re roll your dough scraps. Some people just throw them out, but I can’t countenance the waste.

Take care how you position each cut and you can cut down the amount of scrap and re-rolling a lot. Some shapes also make it easier.  Hearts and Christmas trees are good shapes for cutting efficiency.  Stars and shapes which are irregular or have a protruding outline, not so much.  I can see that this shoe cutter shaped cutter is going to be another good one – there’s not going to be much waste except for the gap between sole and heel and for the border around the edge of the dough..

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8.  Lay the shapes out on your baking tray well spaced in an even pattern.  This is not just because of my disturbing love of order.  It does actually help them to bake more evenly.  If you can, bake just one shape per tray. If you can’t, at least try to keep to cookies of similar size and shape.  Smaller cookies tend to brown more quickly than the big ones (yes, even when the dough is all the same thickness).  Likewise little bits around edges (things like bunny tails) will brown more quickly than plain shapes like circles.  Keeping like with like will save you a lot of uneven baking.

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9. Was a time I used to throw the first tray into the oven as soon as I could and let it get started as I frantically rolled out the next one.  And I still do if I’m in my usual last minute flap.  Be warned.  These cookies have a high sugar content.  They will look raw for so long, all of a sudden they are ready and then a moment later they are burned.  So take the pressure off yourself and get as many trays as you can ready first so that you won’t be distracted.

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10.  At this point I would like to mention my cookie sheets.  A few years ago I needed a couple of extras, and bought a couple of these Chicago Metallic trays from Moore Wilson. Since then I only use the old ones in emergency (don’t ask).

A set of 5 works well (three in the oven and two at hand), particularly when I’m doing a lot of yeast baking (it needs to rise on the sheet), or when there’s a lot of cookie baking going on.

They are relatively heavy making for more even cooking.  The rim means that baking around the edge of the sheets doesn’t catch as quickly as it otherwise might.  You can use them for jobs like roasting vegetables for big family dinners or salads. The other bonus is that you can stack them up on top of each other when bench space is at a premium.  See above.

When I’m not looking, the Sainted Husband has been known to use them to cook bacon. This has not improved the non-stick properties of the trays.  Luckily for all concerned I use the non-stick parchment anyway.  (The Sainted Husband points out that he has seen the error of his ways and no longer subjects my cookie sheets to these horrors.)

11. Bake for about 10 minutes or as long as it takes to get a pale golden cookie.  You may need to rotate your trays part way through. If your oven has hot spots you are about to find out exactly where they are.

I usually put in three trays at once. Once the top one is done, I move the lower two trays up, turning them as I go, and pop a fresh tray in the bottom rack.  Works as well as anything.  If they come out a bit over done, try and get them off the tray and on to a cooling rack as soon as you can.  They do keep cooking on the trays.

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I don’t think I turned this tray.  Cookie front right is pallid, cookie left back is overdone. Cookies in columns 2 to 4 of rows 4 and five, and in columns 1 and 2 of rows 2 to 4 look about right (columns counted left to right, rows front to back).

12.  I used to re-roll as I went,taking the scraps from my current lot and adding them to the next lot of fresh dough.  Not surprisingly my first couple of lots would be the best and by the time I got to the end, it wasn’t looking so good.  Now I put aside all the scraps as I go and re roll them together once all the first time dough has been used. I think the dough holds up much better this way.

13.  When the cookies first come out of the oven they might be quite soft.  Give them a few minutes to set, then transfer to a cooling rack.  When they are quite cool, put them into an airtight container until you are ready to eat or ice.  I like them better without any icing, but three people in my household say otherwise.

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I think these matriyoshka shapes could make good mummies come Halloween. And if I ever see more of these high rise cooling racks I’ll buy them.  Another bench space saver during baking seasons.

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Explaining the mystery of the unicorn: this is what happens when you get called away to something else.  They taste really good, but the guests won’t be seeing any.  Should we start a petition to stop the slaughter now?

14. According to the original, this recipe should make about 8 dozen cookies.  Clearly it depends on the size of the cookie.  I find it easier to think that each quarter portion should about fill a tray, and to count on about 1 1/2 trays worth out of the re-rolled scraps.

This time around the recipe yielded:

  • 16 crowns
  • 9 unicorns
  • 16 shoes
  • 12 flowers  (to form bottom half of sandwiched biscuit)
  • 12 flowers with holes cut out (to form top half of sandwich)
  • 13 small mushrooms
  • 4 teapots
  • 7 cupcakes
  • 5 medium sized matriyoshka (babushka) dolls
  • 8 little matriyoshkas

102 or 8.5 dozen cookies – one of the few recipes ever known to stipulate anything resembling an accurate yield.  Respect.

Hopefully this should be enough to keep a dozen kiddies and assorted adults out of trouble for a while.

This One Goes Out to the One I Love…

Veronica’s Sister’s Lemon Curd Cake

Just a quick post this time.

It’s a long time since I posted an actual recipe, and my old friend Jennifer Duval-Smith would like this one, so here goes.  The photos will have to come later.

When last together, Jennifer and I were Law students, and thus by definition living in a state of continual stress, REM were in their heyday and everyone was wearing Ray Bans.

Facebook and blogging have brought us together again. It’s almost as though we’ve been growing older together all this time. If nothing else ever comes out of this blog, it will have been worth it.

So Jennifer, this recipe is for you.  Enough goo, down to business.

The proportions below are for a double batch and work perfectly in a 25 or 26cm (10″) springform.  The cake is very quick to bake.  The curd is a bit fiddlier and you can spend a while stirring.  In emergency I have been known to fall back on a jar of Barker’s Lemon Curd.  Their passionfruit curd is also good with meringues and cream for a quick but impressive high tea plate.

The Cake

  • 175g or 6oz butter
  • 225g or 8oz sugar
  • 2 tbsp hot milk
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 2c flour
  • 1tsp baking powder
  • sugar, to sprinkle
  • sliced almonds

1. Grease the springform and set your oven to preheat to 150 C (300 F).

2. Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, beat in the hot milk and then the eggs, one at at time.

3. Sift in the flour and baking powder and fold in to form a uniform batter.

4. Spoon the batter into the pan and smooth out the top.  Sprinkle with sugar and nuts and bake for about 45 minutes until the cake is golden brown and a pick comes out clean.  Stop as you go to savour the smell of the nuts and sugar. Mmmmm.

5. Let it cool in the tin for 5 or 10 minutes, then pop the sides of the springform, free the cake and let it cool off on a rack.

6. When the cake has cooled, cut it in half using a bread knife.  Spread generously with lemon curd (see recipe below) and sandwich back together.

Good to go.  Keeps well in an airtight tin. Looks good on a footed plate.  Yummy.

Lemon Curd

This recipe will yield enough curd for two or three 26cm (10″) cakes.  Just as well, because I usually have to bake two at once anyway.  Left overs are great with fresh sconces and cream.

  • 50g or 2oz butter
  • 3/4c sugar
  • 1c lemon juice
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp lemon zest

1. Put a bowl over a pan of boiling water (over but not touching the water). Add the butter and melt.  Stir in the sugar and lemon juice and stir until the sugar has dissolved.  Remove from heat.

2. Beat in the eggs and lemon zest.  Return to the heat.  Keep stirring until the mixture starts to thicken.

3. Pour into sterilised jars (about 2 cups or 1/2 a litres worth).  Refrigerate.

Wellington Safe Once More

Chow, Restaurant 88, Tequila Joe’s, Duke Carvell’s Emporium

Just got home from a night out with the girls, or suppose I should say women: my sister-in-law Kathryn, mutual friend and fellow Food Night devotee Stacey, and the baby of the group, my 32 year old sister Victoria.

The hex seems to have passed. No earthquakes, no fire alarms and no storms.  Roofs, roads and infrastructure unharmed.  We weren’t asked to leave anywhere, though not everyone was letting us in, claiming, as they did, to be closing or out of tables.

Stacey had suggested we start with cocktails and so, like the innocent little fluffy white lambs we are, our tails waggling behind us, we arranged to meet her at Chow for two for one cocktails.

To those many who are enamoured with Chow’s famous Rosebuds, I have but two words: Hazelnut Sours. And another two: Seriously good.

For those who don’t do nuts, my sympathies and the last two words: Pomegranate Cosmopolitans.  

I wish I had taken pictures for you, but sorry, too busy drinking.

Next stop was popular Vietnamese Restaurant 88.  The surroundings were stylish, the service was polite and friendly, if lacking somewhat in confidence.

We started with a range of appetisers: sugar cane prawns, beautifully light pork & prawn dumplings, the ubiquitous fresh spring rolls, coconut battered calamari and, finally, sticky rice fritters with “Saucy Lemongrass Chicken”.  I found the texture of the rice fritters appealing, but the chicken neither particularly lemongrassy nor particularly saucy, in all a bit of a disappointment.

There was an odd confusion surrounding our intention to share, the fact that we had five starters for four of us, and, finally, a question as to whether the five plates would fit on the table (which they did without difficulty, and would have done even if two of our dishes had not been served on the same platter).

When the starters eventually arrived, they were tasty enough, but my overall impression was that the food was perhaps dulled down for western tastes.

Of the two main course dishes that appealed to us, the pithily named “Saigon Banana Leaf Wrapped Grilled Chilli Spiced Fish” was out for the night, so we made for Havana Bar and the promise of tapas. 

On the way, we happened in on relative newcomer Tequila Joe’s.

Tequila Joe’s strength may turn out to be it’s size. It’s small. The kind of small that makes it easier to create atmosphere without losing authenticity.

If the bar is small, the kitchen spaces are tiny.  Think food-truck tiny.  But if our chips and dips where anything to go by, size is not getting in anyone’s way.

The chili con queso held its own. The chips were warm, fresh, crisp and delicious. The guacamole possibly the best I’ve ever had, though it pains me to say it, including my own.  Can’t wait to try the fish tacos.

There was more fun on the drinks front.  These may come to you in a jam jar, which I’m guessing is next best to a real mason jar, those being comparatively costly in these parts. It’s a cute little nod to Americana, although my I suspect our Pennsylvania-born Kate may have been wondering just a little where the rest of the trailer park fixings had gone.  What went into the jars and glasses was good too.  I would have had another Caipirinha had it not been for the earlier drinks of the evening and an abiding desire to get home on my own feet.

The music was well suited to our generation with Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, not all American, but contributing 70s grunt to the American atmosphere nevertheless.

It’s been a long time, I could have been in a little bar state-side, I’m just not sure which one. With it’s clean lines, part of the bar speaks of fresh American sophistication, the paintings hint at a more stylised Mexican influence, and the rest makes me want to park my hog (OK, I had a red tricycle once) out the front.

I’m not sure these three elements are quite speaking to each other yet.  Perhaps in time. Perhaps they don’t need to.  Perhaps this is the feel of the modern Californian bar. In any case, even with the a couple of licence plates on the wall, this is not another one of those Happy-Days-wanna-be, nostalgia-flogging American/Texan/Country themed bars.  And amen to that.

After the Tequila Joe’s experience, we wandered along to Havana, but the restaurant was closed and the bar was packed, Olive and El Matador were also shut and Ombra didn’t have table space for four.  This was our good luck as we eventually wound up with a cosy spot at Duke Carvell’s Emporium on Swan Lane.

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Cleverly decorated to give the impression of having been there forever, Duke Carvell’s is one of those places you can go and sit, talk, eat, drink, people watch, listen to music and even play a game of scrabble (not that you would necessarily want to, but the set is there if you do).

Warm focaccia filled any remaining gaps.  I’m glad I didn’t ask for my usual trim hot chocolate, because the creamy, chocolatey, but not too sweet chocolate they served me made for a perfect dessert with a neat frangelico on the side.

And so, gentle reader, off to bed.  Tomorrow is the last day of the school holidays, and I know two little girls who will want to make the most of it.

On Shaky Ground

It’s been nearly a fortnight since my last post.  

For the most part, the silence has been for good reasons. But the days of shake, rattle and roll leading up to and following Sunday’s M 6.5 quake, have left even this earthquake hardened Wellingtonian shaken and wondering if 80 litres of stored water will see us through if it gets really serious.

The last post marked the beginning of the school holidays. Since then:-

I’ve been asked to leave another restaurant, this time because of a fire alarm. I’m developing a complex.  One might have thought that the sight of all those firemen would have provided some compensation for the inconvenience, but sadly no.

We’ve had friends around for that civil German institution, Kaffee und Kuchen.

Encouraged by the success of the honey and goats cheese profiteroles we made at Food Night the other week, I’d decided to confront my nemesis, choux pastry, once again in the hope of producing a tray of light, crisp-cased, cream filled, Belgian chocolate-smothered eclairs.  Who doesn’t want to wolf one of those with a cup of coffee of a cold, bleak Sunday afternoon?

Until now, pate a choux and I have rubbed along OK, but the results were never quite right. Instead of persevering with tweaks to the recipe that has always got me 95% of the way, I made a last minute and deeply regrettable decision to try a different one, the recipe Francesca brought home from her afternoon at Le Cordon Bleu, no less.  

They rose promisingly at first.  Then half way through, they just stopped.  I was left with hard, thumb shaped stubbs of dough. Simply put, there was no Wind in my Windbeutel.

Thankfully, long time friends Kristina and Jeremy are understanding folk.  My mother, whose mantra is “always make ahead” knew better than to say anything as we watched the scene unfold (or not) with horror.  My father gave me a hard time as always, but, just as predictably, seemed happy to do his share of damage to my newly re-fashioned cream and chocolate topped pastry fingers.  They still tasted OK, but you all know how little comfort that can be.

In the circumstances, I hope you will forgive the absence of photographic record. Admitting to one’s mistakes is one thing, being confronted by pictorial evidence quite another.

More on Kaffee und Kuchen another time, perhaps even with Kristina’s delicious Black Forest Cherry cake recipe.

I owe thanks to Vladimir Petkov for introducing me to Finnish band Apocalytpica. As a woman whose musical tastes often lean towards the young-angry-male end of the spectrum, I often hear a riff on the car radio and wonder how it would sound on my cello. Now I know.


Unlike Perttu Kivilaakso, I have no immediate plans to perform clad only in leather trousers, my hair thrashing wildly. Leather trou don’t come in my size, and if I play with my hair out, some almost always gets caught between fingers and fingerboard, making for very painful position shifts and unwanted distraction from the purity of artistic expression.

Frankly I don’t know how Pertuu and his mates do it, but I bet they wear pony tails when nobody’s looking.

Here is a link to some of their early material, a cover of Metallica’s, Nothing Else Matters. Avoid it if you take either your metal or your strings too seriously, but it put a smile on my face.  String players my also be amused by their master class satire Cello Lesson # 1.

Continuing on a Nordic theme, Small Acts’ Jennifer Duval-Smith, also shared this very enjoyable clip. Three Swedish fishermen sing Seal’s, Kiss from a Rose.  Perhaps not my favourite Seal number, this one still goes a long way to prove my theory that good things happening around kitchen tables.  If I’d had these boys when I was running the local Russian Orthodox choir, things would have been very, very different.

We had a couple of nights of sleepovers, then took off for a few days holiday with my parents.

We stayed here:


The Mountain House, Stratford, with the Summit of Mt Taranaki 

Visited places like this:

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Lighthouse, Cape Egmount

Did stuff like this:

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And of course, this:

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Last Saturday we got home relieved to find that nothing had moved in Friday’s earthquake. Since Sunday it’s been a different story.

We were on the road when the M6.5 hit and didn’t feel a thing, which was a mercy because our elder two girls, especially Francesca who was just old enough to understand what happened in Christchurch and Japan, were already anxious enough.

The trip home involved chucking together a shopping list for the emergency supplies we should have got around to laying in but never quite had, finding an open supermarket, avoiding both motorway and tunnels, checking in on my sister (there were power cuts in her neighbourhood), calming the children and preparing ourselves in case the glass in our conservatory kitchen had met the same fate as many windows downtown.

Well, we were pretty damn lucky.  Not much damage at all. But doesn’t perspective change quickly.

Getting rid of our old rusty barbecue in the Residents’ Association annual large rubbish collection (an excellent service for which our ever-loving City Council has naturally withdrawn support) had seemed like good housekeeping.  We were de-cluttering, I thought smugly.

Now I just think that if we lose the mains gas and electricity, we’ll have no alternative means of heating food or water.

There is an old plug in phone.  In the attic. Somewhere.  We think.  Along with a pile of old quilts and blankets.

I bought a torch-radio that runs on a dynamo after the second and calamitous Christchurch quake.  That was thought to be in the garden shed, along with spare loo paper, tarpaulins, spades and the firewood.  Said torch is now resident on the hall table. We are are possessed of multiple tins and packets, all of which I hope we will never need.

The choice of cinema for the obligatory school holiday movie trip became a matter of which building was most recently constructed and closer to home in an emergency.  In the end Tuesday’s three family outing was postponed to a time when I can go into a public building without wondering how close the nearest exit is and what is likely to fall on my children and my car on the way out.

There was, however, no reason for the children to miss their cookie baking and sausage making classes at Moore Wilson on Wednesday.  The diminishing severity of aftershocks boosted our confidence, besides it is unthinkable to me that anything really bad could happen to you at Moore Wilson.

For years there’s been talk about Wellington, nestled as it is where the great Australian and Pacific plates meet, being overdue for The Big One.  Here, I thought, perhaps a silver lining?  Had we got it out of the way? A relatively big quake, with relatively little damage. Perhaps in the same way one might have hoped that the massively traumatic Christchurch earthquake would have been enough ruin for one generation to behold.

No, says the New Zealand Herald, because the quake wasn’t triggered by the Wellington fault line and when that one goes, we can expect an M8.5. Not much point keeping the china and lamps on the floor, because when that one comes there are going to be bigger things to worry about.

Well I’m not moving any time soon. Apparently the Wellington Fault last did it’s thing between 200 and 450 years ago.  It’s a 500 to 1000 year event. I’m 44 and I’ll take my chances.

And besides, the Herald is an Auckland paper.

Food Night: Because One Thing Always, Always Leads to Another

Natasha and Victoria

Let’s blame it on good friend and partner in crime Natasha.  She put me up to it.

I was organising our monthly craft night, when Natasha dropped one of her typical, quiet, by-the-by bombshells. “If you want to do something similar with food,” she said, “I would be keen”.

There are plenty who know of my fondness for food and cooking.  A quick look at my figure and a guinea pig could work it out. But fewer know about my mania for organisation. Natasha is one of them. So, if you think about it, it was downright irresponsible. Roughly the equivalent of telling a convicted arsonist that someone should build some bonfires for Guy Fawkes Night or taking a kleptomaniac shopping in a coat with deep pockets.  You didn’t make them do it, but you knew darn well what would happen.

Over the years, I’ve met others who share my obsessions.  Take my former lecturer and friend Margaret. (The black and white images and salsa picture are hers).  Margaret and I shared some adventures years ago when she was researching and I studying at the same German university.  I already had a cookbook problem, but Margaret made me feel it was OK.  She suggested new titles, pointed out the possibilities for posting books home cheaply via the Bundespostsack.  We cooked together.  We ate out.  She facilitated.  Or perhaps we were simply co-dependent.

I met Stacey when she started seeing an old university friend about 15 years ago. We hit it off immediately. Something about the way she followed me out to the kitchen where we talked about this and that and family.  I knew she was one of us when she showed up at the annual New Year’s Eve party with a great slab of Kikorangi blue and Falswater crackers.  Over the years there have been countless dinners, birthdays and  holiday celebrations, one helping the other with the cooking. Often my favourite part of the evening is in the kitchen with Stacey, working amiably side by side on the menu of the day.

My sister Victoria is 12 years my junior.  We’re very different people, but at the end of the day, fruit of the same tree.  She may not take it to the same lengths (yet), but she’s been bitten by the same bug.  How many people do you know who will walk from one end of the CBD to the other just to find the better sushi place for lunch?

As for Natasha, she and I bonded over countless lunches, morning teas, piroshki making sessions and other fundraisers for the local Russian Orthodox parish.  If you’re going to put on a ball with a 5 course supper for 110 in a hall with one domestic stove and an indifferent water heater, you want Natasha with you from the planning through to the bitter end. She is a voice of reason, yet where others will reach straight for the too hard basket, Natasha never discounts a concept until we’ve worked through the possibilities.  In a world full of naysayers, this is a rare quality in a friend, and a brilliant one in a fellow foodie.

These women form the hard core of Food Night.

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Top: Natasha and Victoria with the Paella,  Above: Later at the table Stacey and Victoria

It was not as easy to arrive at a formula for Food Night as it was for Craft Night. Craft Night cohesion comes simply from togetherness.  If you don’t feel like making anything you can just hang out for the conversation.  It really doesn’t matter.

Run your foodie group without more planning and you run the risk of it turning into one of those pot luck dinners where there are 7 pasta salads, 2 rice salads and a garlic bread. You might not starve, but without some co-ordination, you’re unlikely to come away with a transcendent experience.

For now we’re doing it this way:

  • We meet once a month at one of our houses to cook and eat a meal together.
  • We have a theme for each month.  This can be a particular cuisine, ingredient, course, festival – whatever you are all interested in.  This month our theme was tapas.  The last time it was Vietnamese food.
  • You agree a menu for the night –  say everyone picks a dish. The host buys the ingredients for the meal and we split the bill.  Then only one person needs to go shopping and you avoid ending up with 4 bunches of coriander and 3 bottles of fish sauce.
  • As an optional activity to provide some inspiration (OK, so it’s an excuse), we meet for a meal earlier in the month, sharing all the dishes and thus tasting as much as we can. Dinner didn’t work for us, but we have adapted remarkably well to being ladies who lunch.

It’s a real treat to have friends from different compartments of your life together at once. Being with people who share your interest is plain liberating, then there’s another kind of familiarity that comes with doing, rather than just talking together.

We’ve started to talk about other things we might do under the Food Night umbrella as time goes on, for example a weekend away or a dinner for our closest family and friends. Who knows where this adventure will take us.

Our last tapas inspired food night menu: above left, seafood paella – not a tapas dish, but we wanted to give it another go anyway; above centre, potato and baby spinach tortilla; above right, the salsa to go with our cerviche (not pictured); below left, choux puffs with a goats cheese filling and drizzled with honey; below right, garbanzo beans (chic peas) with choritzo.

On Friends, UFOs and Getting Crafty

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The day our third and youngest was born,  we didn’t contact many people.  Facebook could wait.  But I did send a text to one old and dear friend to let her know the baby had arrived safely.

Lisa didn’t have my new cell number, but at our age, friends don’t have babies every week. I hadn’t bothered adding my name.  The answer returned swiftly: “Congratulations, but I don’t think we know each other.”  

Once she knew it was me, her next text read  “How did that happen?”. Whilst Lisa had a genteel upbringing, the question was not about how the baby came to be, but how it could be that a whole pregnancy had passed unnoticed.

Life slips easily into a series of days made up of nothing more than the struggle to get to work, do the chores, feed the children and get some sleep. Days become weeks then months where nothing remarkable happens, there are no specific memories to look back on.  It is not that these days are unhappy, but they leave me with the feeling that life is just sliding by. I’m not making the most of our precious time together: life is not being lived lavishly.

This is not to say life is quiet and restful. There are the times you look at your diary only to find that your next completely free weekend is in two months time. (In our case, usually indicative of the state of our daughters’ social lives rather than our own).  There is a world of difference between having lots of things to do and living a rich and full life.

This year I’m on the look out for more opportunities to spend time with the people that matter.

Against that backdrop, I must also explain that in some far corner of my brain apparently untouched by feminism or rational thought of any kind, I nurture a deeply held belief that my happiness is dependent on my house meeting Martha Stewartesque standards of organisation.  Those of you familar with the clutter affecting many rooms of said house will no doubt be surprised.  The truth is, I am a failed neat freak.


Part of this clutter is directly attributable to numerous UFOs or unfinished objects: incomplete craft and sewing projects, half knitted sweaters, unfinished mending, baskets of leftover yarn and the like.  So when sister-in-law Kate and I talked about doing some more needlework classes, I had to admit that what I really needed was to get on top of work I already have on hand.

There’s not a lot you can’t teach yourself out of a good book.  Now with the internet, blog tutorials and, it’s that much easier to do.  But I have fond memories of going to my great aunt’s weaving circle in Wadowice, or my aunty’s quilting group in Waipawa: women sitting around together working companionably on their respective projects, gentle chatter going back and forth, some laughs, the pleasure of company without any particular pressure to converse.  This is what I have looked for in needlework classes, but they have never really delivered.

So this year Kate and I decided to do something different and organised a monthly get together cum craft night.  We could meet in our own homes, but we have enjoyed the added benefit of holding the evening in the studio section of Made on Marion. Long time friend and proprietrix Maryanne Cathro is on hand with ready advice and every conceivable piece of thread, paint, glue or haberdashery one could need.

We gather on a Friday evening after work, everyone brings a bottle or something to nibble, we sit, catch up on each others lives, and work on our respective projects until we go home, tired but relaxed to our families and the weekend. For a couple of friends, this has been a chance to try something new in a safe environment, for others, a spur to pick up something already familiar, perhaps reinvigorated by new ideas from others or the shelves of Maryanne and David’s store.

What with being unable to type and wield a hook or needle at the same time, my own progress has slowed since I started this blog.  I had imagined being a few projects up by now.  But the afghan throw I started earlier in the year is still going.  I’m hoping to finish my squares over the next month. It ought to be done and adorning the back of my sofa before the winter is out.