Monday, July 28, 2014

Give us this day our daily (delicious) bread

I go through phases of bread-making. There's something satisfying about making your own, and in the last place we lived in I did quite a bit of it.

However, like most hobbies I tend to try and take things further. You know what it's like. You buy a cheap guitar or bicycle and decide it's rubbish and start to upgrade after a few months when you've got the hang of it.

So it is with my bread making, which I am just getting back into again.

I was quite happy messing around with a mix of spelt and white flour, wholemeal and white flour, but then I bought the baker's Bible. A fantastic book on bread baking, Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman. I considered carefully before I bought it; reviews were mixed as some of the methods are quite complicated and aimed at professional bakers. The initial blurb said that recipes were cut down for home bakers, which made me press the Buy button. They are… but you have to convert from American imperial to metric. Oy vey!

I haven't made many of Hamelman's breads yet simply because more than half are sourdough (I didn't realise that when I bought it!) and I don't have a sourdough starter. The starter would be easy enough to obtain or make, but with only two of us in the house we don't go through enough bread to make keeping a starter alive (as the fifth pet in the household) a logical option.

With all the faffing around I've done with various flours over the last few years, trying my hand at ciabatta bread, olive bread, baguettes, I've come to the conclusion that the right flour is key. You can't make a really good, authentic-tasting and -looking baguette with the 'strong flour' you buy at the supermarket. Same goes for ciabatta and any sort of rustic loaf. You don't get the crunchy crust or the beautiful open crumb.

So I did more research on bread baking forums and went in search of T65 French Flour, and found it online in Brisbane. Yes, my flour has air miles. It is genuinely from France and performs quite differently to flours I've tried locally. I have almost 5 kilos of it in my cupboard. I did have 5 kilos but I've been baking.

After a week in Paris with sublime baguettes, what passes for those delectable long loaves here doesn't cut the mustard unless you hunt out a French bakery which also imports T65. And that means your baguettes will be expensive; it's cheaper to buy the flour and make them, even allowing for the postage from Brisbane (which costs more than the flour!).

Last week, I made my first baguettes with my T65. The recipe I used was one I'd downloaded a few years ago and is a 7 hour process. You use very little yeast and so it rises slowly. The slow rise is the key to getting bread with a luscious open crumb. Also being gentle with it after it's risen keeps the crumb in good shape.

I had bought some baker's linen a few years back and the baguettes, on the second rise, took their shape in the canvas.

I then put a pizza stone in the oven, whacked the heat up, and steamed the oven the instant before the baguettes went in on a baking tray on top of the pizza stone. I spritzed the inside of the oven with water too at that point. This is the key thing to that fab crunchy crust. After ten minutes enough crust had formed so I could slide the little lovelies directly onto the pizza stone for another 20 minutes' cooking.

They were superb. The flavour and texture could have been from a baguette made in Paris. G and I wolfed down one for dinner with cheese and pate and wine, and the other for breakfast the next day. Baguettes only have a 24 hour life span before they go stale - it's no hardship to gobble them up!

Inspired by the baguette success, I then made a Country Loaf out of Hamelman's book. This time the process was a little different. I made half the dough the day before and let it prove overnight - up to 17 hours, Hamelman says, and I was a bit worried as the room temperature was a little lower than recommended. That poor bloody pre-ferment dough with a tiny bit of yeast had its work cut out for it. After 18 hours (!) I added it to the rest of the mix and it had to rise for another 2 1/2 hours, with me folding it gently twice during that time. The dough was a bastard - very sticky. I had my real doubts about this one. Anyway, it was finally time for the last rise in the baker's linen again, and the dough looked a bit better.

Once again I steamed the oven before I put the loaves on their tray on top of the pizza stone, and then again once I'd put them in, following Hamelman's directions. Hamelman didn't say to take them off the tray after ten minutes, but I did, figuring they would do better straight on the pizza stone.

I was overjoyed with the results. Two lovely brown-crusted loaves with a perfect open crumb, lots of holes for butter to drip through. The texture was a little like a ciabatta when we started eating it, and I suspect the initial room temperature had something to do with that.

But I am hooked on bread baking again. Hamelman has a baguette recipe which takes 24 hours from go to whoa, with a pre-ferment dough, and I'm trying that next.

Bugger the carbs!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The quarterly hell of BAS

I run my own business (ha! "Business" is giving it more gravitas than it merits right now) and have to report quarterly to the Australian Taxation Office, lodging a Business Activity Statement (BAS). I dread the 28th day of each quarter as BAS lodgement cutoff looms.

I am not great at keeping the Excel spreadsheet I use to run my very basic accounting system up to date, so BAS prep is a flurry of going through three months of bank statements and matching items to bills or payments, and chasing up things that I can't think for the life of me what they may be.

Excel likes to crash on my Mac, too, so it means saving after every single entry as I HATE having to retype items. I don't like using Excel as I get confused with writing formulas. I'm thick as two short planks when it comes to algebra. I am rather innumerate in general.

I also hate typing numerals; as a touch-typist I am crap and freely admit it.

I was rash enough to get a second-hand car on hire purchase 3 years ago as it's a good tax break, and the calculations required to run a car do my head in.

I could use a bookkeeper but can't afford to pay one, and I would still have to go through all the shite of printing invoices out, writing stuff on the bank statements etc etc so the bookkeeper could make sense of it. Then answer questions anyway, so I may as well just do all the stressy stuff in one afternoon myself.

To cap it all, my Mac has a java issue which means it can't talk to the ATO's tax portal, and my choices are to completely reformat the thing and lose a day or two while I hunt up licences for some programs, or buy a new one and lose a day or two etc etc. I don't have the time for either or the money for the latter. Thankfully my accountant has been lodging the BAS figures for me at no charge since the java issue popped up.

So I took out my annoyance after doing this quarter's BAS this afternoon and did a rather badly-drawn cartoon about my feelings. I have stopped swearing now; I think I will have a cup of tea.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Welcome to my workday

I'm not the diligent worker I used to be. Part of that is not being in the corporate world any more. Another part is realising that even if I work six or seven days a week I'm not going to double my income… maybe earn 1/5 more and it's not just worth it.

So I seem to have developed a pattern that is ever-so-slightly ambivalent when it comes to work tasks, especially if I'm trying to write a business proposal for one of my clients, as I am at the moment, and finding it hard going. The temptation to goof off is irresistible - so I do.

Today, therefore,  has been somewhat like this:

8.50am. Have a fag.
9.00am. Open up the laptop and head to Facebook while the emails are loading.
9.05am. Good. Nothing urgent in the emails. Back to Facebook. Share some posts for major client.
9.15am. Better check that Forum I'm a moderator of. It's not work-related.
9.40am. Is that the time? Gosh. Better check the emails again. Will have a fag first though.
9.45am. Real work. There's an email I have to respond to which means a website update for major client, plus social media sharing etc etc. And a MailChimp email to go out.
10.10am Check if the items I'm selling on eBay have any more watchers.
10.11am. Bugger, they don't. Back to Facebook. But first, a fag.
10.20am Major client phone call; take notes
10.30am Check emails for fellow contractor for major client who's on holidays this week.
10.35am Gosh there are some interesting links off the Facebook feed this morning. If not interesting, then trashy enough to get my attention.
10.45am Check email. Ooh, look, there's one from the people who sell great baking products. French flour, the special stuff used to make baguettes, is on sale this week. I try to buy a 5kg bag but my login won't work. I phone the company and they say they've redone their website since I last bought anything from them so I have to set up a new account. I do and I order the flour and speculate happily for a few minutes about bread baking.
11.00am Fag
11.05am Sigh, I get onto that proposal. I feel as if I can't write bum on a wall today. It's a hard slog.
12.00pm. Fag. Then back in to Facebook. I get diverted by Simon's Cat videos.
12.20pm Lunch. I heat up some Asian chicken and rice leftovers from the meal I made on Monday night and enjoy a pleasant 40 minutes reading 1,000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke.
1.00pm. Fag break. Then I decide it would be nice to light a candle as the scent will inspire me.
1.10pm. Feeling inspired somewhat. Time to get off Facebook and back to writing.
1.30pm  Muse, where the **** are you? Wonder if there's anything interesting on Facebook at the moment? I'll just check. Oh look, some silly cow spent £18,000 getting plastic surgery to make herself look like Kim Kardashian. And now she's broke. Hell, she could always hire herself out to open shopping centres or something as a would-be Kim.
1.45pm  Any more movement on eBay?
1.50pm  Back to writing that proposal. Word. By. Word.
2.00pm Oh look, there's an email from The Fabric Store. There's a 40% off sale this week only for VIP customers like me. It's been months since I made any outfits. Worth a look on Friday then as I have to be over that way anyway. I spend a happy five minutes browsing the website to see if it's worth my while heading into the physical shop.
2.05pm The candle smells great. I'll put a post on Facebook about it. And then I'll have a fag.
2.15pm  The words are coming a little easier now. Must be the candle.
2.45pm  Nope. Words have dried up. I take the compost container down to the compost bin and inspect my veggies. Something's got at the purple cauliflower.
3.00pm Anything new on Facebook?
3.05pm. Fag break. Then back to the proposal.
3.15pm  I give up on the proposal and decide to write this blog post instead. After this I'm going to spend a bit of quality time on Pinterest, another great time waster, where I am currently enthralled by mid-century modern furniture. I'll give the proposal one more bash before I stop for good today.

Some days work. Some just don't. And that applies to me personally too.

How about you?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Embracing my mid-century modern heart

In my twenties, I rebelled.

Not in the usual way - the sex, drugs, rock'n'roll way. Nope. I rebelled against the house and furnishings I'd grown up with. Mum's house was firmly held in a late 50s/early 60s time warp. Atomic furniture with little legs that diminished in diameter until they were almost pins at floor levels. Tangerine dining chairs. French polish everywhere. Colourful walls when the world was heading to white. And the bar in the living room - black glass top with yellow vinyl sides - oh no, how horrible! How …. embarrassing!!!

My taste vacillated between the modern - and we're talking 1980s, yikes! - and the more distant past as I hit my 30s. In the 80s I bought some questionable storage furniture from Freedom Furniture which, sadly, I still have as we need the storage facility. By my mid-30s I was into 1920s, Edwardian and art deco, even a jaunt here and there into repro Georgian, which didn't quite fit into this very 1959 property. I tried my best, buying two beautiful Edwardian chairs and a recliner that could have been designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh but I don't think it was. I swapped my bed for one with a gorgeous iron frame. I bought a 1920s maple wardrobe. I created my own little 1920s hideaway downstairs. When I moved out I took the 1920s with me and created a cosy cottage which mixed a bit of Danish with earlier pieces and repro.

Having inherited Mum's house, with its original wall paint, original kitchen, mostly original bathroom and laundry, I have seen my childhood home with new eyes. It rocks.

I love the big stone fireplace in the living room. I love the yellow bar. I love the 1950s pulldown light over the dining table. I love most of the wall colours. I find myself tending the French polished doors and trying to get scratches out of them, and cursing Mum for touching up one of them with varnish that looks bloody shocking in daylight.

Slowly I am trying to refurnish the living room to period furniture - or at least get rid of most of the 80s stuff Mum bought when she was feeling a bit flush and some of my own contributions. You can see by my previous post I have a new dining suite. On the other side of the room there is a hodgepodge of 80s sideboard and repro Queen Anne hi fi cabinet (yes, of course Queen Anne loved a good CD or vinyl) which is going to go when I've saved up enough to buy a period sideboard from the late 50s.

This house isn't the best example of Mid-Century Modern, but it has good bones. Mum was about five years too old to really embrace the Atomic look or go for a mad coloured mural on the wall such as that at Rose Seidler House. Being a child of the Depression, she was thrifty. She may have lashed out on tangerine chairs and a green lounge suite that were the height of fashion in 1960, but the mirrors in this place are early 50s or 1940s, for example. There's a mix of decor which basically ended in 1960.

With the research I've done this year on mid-century modern furniture and decor, I have fallen in love with the simplicity and elegance of it. I think it has been creeping up on me. I used to drool over IKEA catalogues at our old house, loving the simple Scandinavian design with its nod towards the great designers of the 50s and 60s. Now I'm hooked. I get on Pinterest and drool for hours over chairs, sideboards, tables, paint colours and architecture.

I think I've found my life's work: making this house what it should be. A paean to the mid-century modern era.

Now I just need to win the lottery - do you know how much some of this stuff COSTS!!!???

Monday, July 14, 2014

What would my aunt Betty have said?

My aunt Betty could be a bitch. She was a master at the backhanded compliment, or occasionally simply rude and abusive. In particular, her bitchy side came across if my mother (her sister) or my grandparents bought anything new. It could be an item of clothing, or a piece of furniture. Her middle name wasn't 'Jealous', but it should have been.

Betty hated people 'getting ahead' if she wasn't. Her rage at Mum's new car in 1979 was spectacular. Mum's previous car had lasted since 1963 and at that point I took it over and kept it in the family. Mum had been putting money aside for years to buy a new car and was so proud to be able to show it to her sister; she thought Betty would be pleased for her. Betty, of course, was anything but and accused Mum of stealing money from their recently-dead mother's estate to buy the car. Betty's car at that time was early 70s and huge, a big old V8 that gobbled up the miles and the petrol in equal quantities. Until Mum bought her new little hatchback, Betty was fond of jibing in a very superior manner at Mum's '63 Beetle, joking nastily about the size of the engine and little Herbie's hill-climbing abilities, and how much better her big Falcon was.

When I bought my first horse at 16, a heavyset but stunning white grey galloway, Betty was quick to sneer that she was going to buy her daughter "a horse of greater quality".  (It turned out to be an undistinguished bay and in all the photos she sent I never once saw it going properly on the bit.)

In the 1980s interest rates went skywards which was crap if you had a mortgage (Mum didn't) and great if you were trying to save. Mum's term deposits were doing well enough for her to spend a couple of grand on a new lounge suite and dining setting in 1985.  By that time, Betty had been dead nearly four years; her raging bitterness had morphed into an aggressive cancer which saw her in the ground only six weeks from diagnosis. Mum and I were not invited to the funeral.

I thought at the time Betty would have put a hole in the ceiling if she'd seen the lounge suite and new table and chairs. She was probably watching from above (or below!) gibbering with rage.

This week, nearly thirty years later, I have replaced the dining setting with an early 1960s setting which better suits this mid-century house. I bought the table and chairs from two different eBay sellers but thankfully the wood colour is a good match. I have the 1980s one for sale on eBay and Gumtree and nobody seems to want it (bugger).

G and I moved it in yesterday and stood back admiring it. The table is teak and by Parker; it extends to 215 cm.  The chairs are also teak, and the seats and spade-shaped backs are teal vinyl and in great condition; still padded after all these years. As I set them under the table for the first time Betty came to mind. She'd find fault with it or sneer that I bought a 'second-hand' dining suite.

We invited the Whingies to dinner. I told them we had bought some new furniture but wouldn't say what so I would have them intrigued. Mr Whingy, who came earlier in the afternoon to fix a couple of power points for us and install groovy new lights in the hallway, admired the table and said his mother had had one very similar. He loved the quality of the wood.

Whingy herself, however, was rather dismissive. "Oh, what was wrong with the old one?"

"It was out of place in this room," I answered. "This new one is very similar to the original one Mum bought in 1959. It suits the room better."

I was struck (not for the first time) at how very like aunt Betty Whingy is. I didn't need to wonder what Betty would say - Whingy said it! Like Betty, she never seems to be happy if someone ELSE gets something new - but you hear all about it in bold cap type if Whingy does.

Whingy, predictably, hated the chairs. "Oh, they're not as padded as your other chairs. They're very hard on my bottom. What's wrong with the other chairs? Why get rid of them?"

"I found the other chairs hard on my back, as they were very straight-backed. These chairs have a nice curved back," I responded politely, thinking, get some meat on your scrawny arse, you cow, and you won't find the chairs uncomfortable. "And I love the colour of these ones."

"I like the other setting." Whingy pointedly went and sat on the sofa while I dished out dinner, only returning to the 'hard' chairs to eat. I kept filling her wine glass. I find that helps. She's never as sour after a couple of wines.

Two hours later her grumpiness had faded to a grudging cheeriness but I was still marvelling at how like aunt Betty she is. I 'spoke to Mum' as I was cooking pudding - that is, I talked quietly out loud as I believe Mum still hangs around - and shared my thoughts on Betty and Whingy. Mum never really warmed to Whingy and thought she was rather like Betty, but I'd never seen the Bettiness so much in action as last night.

Anyway, I like my new dining setting. It's comfortable. It's beautifully designed and elegant. It makes the room look bigger and makes Mum's early-70s glass fronted teak display cabinet look like it belongs in the room too. I am not a fan of the display cabinet, but now I think I can live with it and it perhaps isn't as hideous as I think it is.

And here are the groovy new lights in the hallway. Whingy didn't find much fault with them; but by then she'd had a few. So I'll never know what Aunt Betty may have thought of them!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

On a slow boat to …Sydney

Once upon a very long time ago I used to take the ferry to and from high school (aka St Trinian's… although it wasn't nearly as much fun) every weekday. Or, rather, those days when I wasn't suffering too much from 'nerves' to go to school. Gosh, I had quite an impressive absentee record when I look back.

But I digress.

This post is about Sydney's ferries. Here's what a modern Sydney ferry looks like:

Nice enough, but rather soulless compared to the lovely old ferries I used to use as a teenager. The 'Lady' and 'K' series were built in the early 1900s through the Edwardian era, and featured padded and reversible seats downstairs, painted wooden seats upstairs which curved nicely around your bum, and, excitingly, a view down the stairs to the smelly, noisy and quite glorious diesel engine. You'd hear the bell the captain rang telling the engineer to give it some welly, put it in neutral, or in reverse.

This is the lovely old Karrabee, which was the ferry I usually rode home on:
She's painted in the colours I remember too, and went off the run in the 1980s as the oldest ferries made way for the current batch. The Karrabee memorably sank in the Australia Day Ferryboat Race in 1984 but managed to make it back to Circular Quay. Refloated, and fixed up, she was sold and became a static floating restaurant up at the Central Coast. Sadly she wasn't well-maintained at her new home and gradually deteriorated into the mud she rested on, and was broken up nearly ten years ago.  Find out more about her here.

These old ladies had dual controls - the captain could change ends, so that when he berthed at Circular Quay he could stroll the top deck and use the wheel at the other end, simply sailing out from the wharf rather than having to reverse and turn as the modern ferries do.

Riding the ferries was a big thrill when I was a little girl, before my high school years. A trip on the ferry was a trip to town in the school holidays, to see a movie or meet with friends and family. Ferries meant a treat, with the journey as big an excitement as the movie or friends. And 'town' was much nicer then, with only a handful of high-rise towers and most buildings on a human scale.

Because I rarely use the ferries - I'm not a huge fan of the Sydney CBD and only venture in there when I have to for client stuff, or a few times a year to visit the Art Gallery of NSW, see a show or other activity only available in town - going for a trip on the ferry still has some of that childish thrill for me.

Is there a nicer way to travel to the city? I doubt it. When the sun's shining, even on a winter's day it's a lovely journey. You simply HAVE to slow down. You're not in a car cursing the other drivers and wondering if the parking station will be full. You're not on a bus with a fat man redolent of body odour plonked beside you and oozing flesh over your legs and arms. It's probably sad for the ferries on my run that they AREN'T crowded. Even in peak hour, you rarely reach 'standing room only'.

Today I had to head into town for a client meeting and caught a ferry soon after 10am. I was one of about 15 people on it. Likewise on the return journey at nearly 2pm. And this is during school holidays, so about 1/3 of those travelling were kids with parents.

There was a chill breeze this morning so I sat inside on my trip to town, relishing the sun sparkling on the water, eyeballing the lovely waterfront houses at Birchgrove, enjoying the choppy water under the Harbour Bridge which boaties call The Washing Machine and missing our grumpy old boat Bootle (which we sold earlier this year).

The sun had hit full capacity on the way home, so I sat out the back with the breeze on my face, enjoying my surroundings. Sydney's main attractions always look nicer from the water. As the ferry left tourist-infested Circular Quay behind it my spirits lifted.

I could have taken this photo without the ferry's superstructure, but I chose not to. Likewise this:
Through The Washing Machine and over some nice bouncy wake from another ferry, around the corner heading away from Balmain's Thames St Wharf I saw these buildings, which have received a very jolly coat of paint since I last saw them - which must have been months and months ago:

I like this photo - you can only really see Sydney Tower in the background; just a hint of the Horrible Highrise that is our CBD these days.

Even though I was using the ferry for work, the trip on the water made me feel as if I were playing truant from my business, which was a superb and uplifting feeling.

If I didn't hate the soulless, cement-ridden modern Sydney city centre so much, I'd find excuses to ride on the ferries more often. I look back at my time at St Trinian's and realise the ferry rides were the best part of those four hated years and I was privileged to use such a pleasant mode of public transport. There are times when it really is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.