Sunday, 31 August 2014

Friday, 29 August 2014

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Travel Knitting

What's a good holiday without a good bit of knitting to go with it? Exactly! I've been wondering for a while quite how much I'll need to take with me to last the full three months, particularly since I knit more on holiday than I do at home. I don't have an answer but I do have a plan.

It involves this laceweight New Zealand wool:

A vacuum packer.

This pattern for an intricate shawl.

Three almost identical needles and a roll of pink thread for making lifelines - in case airline security should decide that needles are a hazard and can't be taken in hand luggage (they shouldn't, their own rules say knitting needles are allowed, but I'm paranoid).

And this swatch - just as a taster you understand.

Don't look too closely - there are multiple mistakes in there!

One nice big but light project. If I finish that, well, Joe says I might have to talk to him...
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Sunday, 24 August 2014

Kitchen Gadget 8. Thermometer

Being scientists at heart we love lots of gadgets that make cooking more predictable, and this is definitely one of them. The food thermometer. Again, a very simple piece of kit, we bought ours from ebay for the princely sum of £3 and it gets used several times a week, though often this is as an upgrade to the little finger method of testing our reheated dinner is hot enough. It's been called in to service for everything from sugar syrups and caramels to checking BBQ food is safe and meats are cooked to perfection.

As an aside; when we're on our own we tend to cook enough for four people and eat the same thing for two nights. An odd habit but we've found it tends to be a little cheaper and means we only cook from scratch every other day - we both work full time and as much as we love cooking we also like getting home and not having to cook. Popping something in the oven to warm up is therefore an everyday occurrence (no microwave - about the only gadget we don't own).

Back to the topic at hand; on occasion we use our thermometer for slightly more technical things than reheats. This week we had roast pork and did just that.

Roasting with a Thermometer

Temperature has a very predictable effect on meat, be it a joint, fillet, or whole bird and you can use this knowledge to aid you in your cooking. Knowing the temperature of the centre of your meat will tell you all you need to know about its current state and should mean that you can go through the whole cooking process without needing to cut it open and check the colour.

The same temperatures apply to all meats - though what is considered a safe temperature varies. There are many references to what each temperature means for the proteins in the meat you are cooking, and we won't attempt to match that level of detail here - instead, we've put together a quick guide to the temperatures we refer to most.

McGee on Food and Cooking by Harold McGee has plenty to say on the subject!

How well done is my red meat?
55C - Medium Rare
60C - Medium
70C - Well Done
90C - Falling apart
Don't forget that these are the maximum temperatures in the middle - a big roast will climb a few degrees whilst resting (up to 10 for a particularly large joint) so if you want your roast beef perfectly cooked pull it out a few degrees early.

What's safe for other meats?
60-70C will kill most bacteria depending on how long the meat is held at that temperature, but over 65 is a safe bet. You also need to make sure you are measuring the thickest part of the meat - the outer section will be much hotter but it is the minimum temperature in the meat that matters. 90C in the middle will have it falling to pieces so long as it is still moist - 90C and baked dry will be like leather!

What does the Food Standards Agency have to say about this?
If we have any doubt about the quality of the meat we always go for food standards agency levels. Sausages, regular burgers, reheating things that have been in the fridge too long etc all get this treatment. I'm sure many chefs would point out that the best ways of cooking things wouldn't always hit these guidelines though! They recommend achieving one of 60C for 45 mins, 65C for 10 mins, 70C for 2 mins, 75C for 30secs or 80C for 6s.

We work on the 80C and it's dead rule - gives a bit of leeway for error of temperature reading. It is also a great target for most BBQ foods - its surprising how paranoid we have become about burning our sausages and chicken to a crisp before declaring it cooked but a quick stabbing with the temperature probe can ensure the food comes off cooked but still juicy and tender.

Roast Pork

The joint was seasoned and sat in an oven at 180C. After around 45mins it registered 49C, not cooked yet.

40mins later it had reached 72C. This is now cooked and safe to eat but not quite what we were aiming for on this occasion.

Finally we reached 88C - plenty enough to clear 90C after resting. This joint could bake to falling apart temperature as it had a good layer of fat on it to keep it moist.  After being covered in foil for 15 mins it was ready for carving. Being only a small joint 15 minutes was plenty of resting time and allowed it to rise the last couple of degrees. We tend to leave big joints 20-30 minutes to rest.


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Friday, 22 August 2014

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Lessons from a Sock

I'm working on another pair of socks - Edwardian Boating Socks this time, so named for the little rowers that paddle up and down each leg. I'd like to say I've definitely got the hang of this sock knitting thing, but since I had to turn the heel on the first sock several times I'll think I'll hold off making such grand claims.

This is what I've done so far:

1. Follow the heel turn instructions "sl1, p to gap, p2tog, turn" etc. The purl two together stitch combines the first two stitches after the gap. This gives a nice semi-circular heel but 21 stitches, not the 11 they say you should have.

2. Undo the heel and follow the pattern again, this time combining one stitch from each side of the gap, therefore having 11 central stitches throughout the heel. Barely get halfway through this and decided that surely a square heel isn't right either (I think that move in itself was the fatal one).

3. Undo the heel turn again and set off as before. Turn the heel in a nice smooth curve but end up with too many stitches.

4. Continue with the gusset and do extra decreases until I'm back to how many I should have. Proceed with the foot.

5. When most of the foot is done try the sock on and realise that there is a flap of fabric on the sole caused by those extra stitches.

6. Attempt to remain vaguely calm as I rip back several evenings work. Fail.

7. Try the square heel version again. Follow it through to completion this time and decide its quite nice really.

8. Finally finish sock one.

9. Start all over again with sock 2, skipping steps 1-6. Hopefully.

Lesson learnt?  I'd like to think so but I'm not optimistic!
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Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Great Swift Bake Off: Round 7 - Layered Cake

This month it's layered cakes in the office. As it's my final round before bowing out from the remainder of the competition I thought I should put a little extra effort in. I wanted something summery and decided to base my concoction on a Frazier cake. I was concerned that the two layers may have been insufficient so twisted the traditional structure somewhat, ending with three layers of cake topped by Frazier and then Italian meringue.

Joe's Strawberry Layered Cake:

For the sponge:
4 Egg Sponge Mix (Vanilla)
100g Raspberries, puréed 
2 tbsp Cocoa Powder

For the creme patisserie:
4 Egg Yolks
70g Cornflower
600ml Gold Top Milk
1 Vanilla Pod Equivalent (paste / powder / extract)

To Assemble:
4 Egg White Italian Meringue Mix
1/3 jar Lemon Curd
500g Strawberries (minimum, I used more to pick even sized ones at the edge)

 Sieve the raspberry purée into a bowl.

 Split the sponge mixture three ways, putting one third in a prepared 8 1/2" tin, one third in with the raspberries and ...

... one third in with the cocoa powder.

 Spread the mixtures into tins

and bake for 15-20 minutes at 180C.

Whilst they are baking make the crème patisserie. Add the egg yolks to the sugar and cornflower and mix into a paste.

Heat the milk with the vanilla before adding bit at a time to the egg mix. Put the whole mixture back in the pan and heat gently until thickened. Spoon into piping bags and refrigerate.

Whilst everything is cooling line your tin with acetate. 

Once cool, layer the cakes with lemon curd in between. I went chocolate, raspberry then vanilla but this is up to you.

Arrange half strawberries up against the acetate, packing them in tightly. Pipe the cooled crème patisserie in between the strawberries firmly before adding a spiral to protect the cake from the remaining strawberries. 

Pile in the rest of the strawberries, chopped roughly into quarters.

Cover with the remaining crème patisserie. You can see I panicked that mine was too runny and now it is too thick! Trim the acetate to a sensible height (about 1-2cm above the crème pat.).

Pipe in the Italian meringue before applying a blowtorch.

Chill before serving.

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Sunday, 10 August 2014

Life's a Game 8: Whist

This year we're sharing with you our game of the month. These are all favourites from our collection, or ones we play with our friends.

August's game is Whist

If you have a good memory you'll recall that many many months ago, whilst talking about Cribbage, I said that my family have always enjoyed a game of cards. Whist has many different variations I've enjoyed both knock-out whist and nomination whist with different groups of friends and family.

Deciding which card to play... In this case clubs were played first so I have to follow suit with my Q.

All versions of the game involve playing cards in tricks; each person plays a single card and the person who played the highest card in the chosen suit wins that trick (if you've ever player Hearts on the computer thats also a trick based game). This continues until everyone's hands are empty when scores are tallied, the cards are re-dealt and it starts again. With nomination whist (sometimes called "oh, hell" whist apparently) you make a guess at how many of the possible tricks you think you can win in each hand before play starts and the scores are based on how accurate your prediction was. The number of cards dealt varies throughout the game adding an extra challenge of adapting your bidding tactic to match.

The advantage of this sort of scoring is that someone with a rubbish hand can correctly predict to win zero tricks and get almost as many points as person with all the aces who correctly bid four - its all about playing your hand to match your bid, and less about the cards you're dealt. Of course the person who was given a hand of 8's, 9's and 10's would probably beg to differ as making an accurate prediction is significantly harder with the middling cards.

This time spades were led, so I have a choice to make. The A on the table will win the trick regardless so I played my 10, hoping that my K might win me a trick later.

We've had so much fun playing this game over the years on all sorts of rainy evenings and family holidays and it has an added advantage that all you need is a pack of cards and pen and paper.
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Friday, 8 August 2014

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Travelling: The Plan

More and more of our life of late seems to be consumed with planning and organising our trip this autumn. From printing maps and researching sim-card options to buying kit and arranging house/hen-sitters there seems to be an unending list of jobs to be done. Slowly, however, we are getting there.

We're away for three months, and while there are several weeks where we're just touring and going wherever we fancy next, there are also sections where we're getting all the details pinned down in advance. We have a mortgage to pay and jobs that are expecting us back on 1st December so we can't just walk away without thinking things through a bit.

I've been really enjoying most of the planning as it gives a sense of purpose and adventure. I was finding it hard to get excited when all we had were flights and the start date felt like decades away, but as we've read and researched about the different places we're visiting, sorted accommodation and contacted friends around the world, a sense of reality has kicked in and now we just can't wait to be off. Fortunately there's less than a month to go!

Where are we going, you ask? We're starting with two weeks in Canada before heading to New Zealand for the bulk of our trip. While in NZ we're going to spend a few weeks WWOOFing as well as taking our tent and seeing as much of the country as we can. We're finishing the trip off with a few days in Australia and a few days in Thailand.

The blog is going to keep going just as before. We've got some great guests lined up for you on Wednesdays, mixed in with a few things we've prepared in advance. Photo Fridays will continue to be just that - hopefully with plenty of jealousy inducing scenery from around the world! Finally, internet access willing, our Sunday posts will become a travel journal with more photos and stories from where we've been that week and I'm sure food, crafts and gardens will continue to feature there as we explore each area.

And just in case that doesn't seem like enough, we've also started a twitter account. If that's your cup of tea then you'll find us hanging out @Urban__Cottage. It's quiet over there at the moment - but it'll pick up soon!

Just a few more weeks before the off and despite such a glorious summer here in the UK we're definitely itching to get moving...

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Sunday, 3 August 2014

Elderflower Champagne the Second

Our elderflower champagne has been quietly brewing for the last six weeks and has turned out very tasty - if a little syrupy. It did an excellent job in helping us to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary last weekend with most of those fine people who were willing to be bridesmaids and ushers for us at the time.

We also had five dessert courses - because that's what every fifth anniversary needs, don't you think? Unfortunately we were bad bloggers and took hardly any photos so you'll have to imagine the de-constructed trifle, tripolino, lemon sorbet, chocolate mousse and fresh berry pavlova. Sorry!
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Friday, 1 August 2014