Saturday, March 28, 2009

Before I forget what I did

Here's a recipe for cinnamon-pecan-raisin sticky buns. With the dough rising at cool room temperature this batch took about 8 hours from start to finish; I made the dough at about 0900 and took the end result out of the oven at about 1700. I froze half, and we're eating the rest for weekend breakfast reheated sticky-side-up in a 100°C oven for about 8–10 minutes. I used a pan 13"x8"x1.5"; if you can fit a pan that size in your refrigerator, then you could try starting the dough at about 1800, leave to rise 4 hours or a little less, make the rolls and arrange them in the pan, then leave them to rise in the refrigerator overnight (I suggest putting something to catch overflowing sugar syrup under the pan, just in case). The next morning, set an alarm for about an hour before you want to get up, stumble downstairs, take the pan out of the refrigerator, set the oven to 375°F, go back to bed. When you do get up, put the rolls in the oven before you start making coffee and they'll come out of the oven hot, indigestible, and completely delicious about 30 minutes later.

The recipe started with Greenstein's 'Sweet Rolls' in Secrets of a Jewish Baker. There are a lot of interesting breads in there, and it seems to be much cheaper now than when I bought it!

For the dough:
1 1/4 cup warm water
1 tsp 'active' dry yeast (the one intended for breadmakers)
1/2 cup sugar
4 tbsp butter
2 eggs
1/3 cup skim milk powder
4 cups bread flour
1 tsp salt
rum, at least 1 tbsp, but add up to another tbsp as you knead if you can manage the softer dough.

To make the sticky:
1/4 cup melted butter
at least one cup brown sugar
1 tsp water or 1 tbsp corn syrup
50g (2-ish oz) pecan halves

To make the rolls:
another 4tbsp or so of butter
2/3 cup brown sugar (light brown, not dark) mixed with 1/2tsp ground cinnamon
100g (3-and-a-bit oz?) pecans chopped to the size you'd like to find in a cinnamon bun
1 handful really nice raisins

To make the icing:
about 1 cup icing sugar
a drop of vanilla essence
a dribble of hot water to make a drizzleable paste.

Note: I lined the pan with non-stick teflon paper before doing anything. If you can, do, as this makes it much easier to get the buns out. If you haven't got any you'll need to pay some attention when you're turning the buns out of the pan (more detail at the time).

Mix all the dough ingredients together. If you've got a breadmixer, use it, but I knead by hand. Not the two-handed wrist-flexing method my mother used for bread and clay, but the technique I was taught by a professional baker. You'll need a straight-edged dough scraper, ideally with a flexible blade (the stiff blades are a pain for this), or improvise with a piece of perspex, windshield ice-scraper... anything that will scrape the dough along the surface without cutting into the surface the way a knife blade might. With the scraper it's simple: dump the dough on the surface and put the heel of your hand in/onto it, then drive the heel of your hand away across the table. Feel the dough stretching and breaking as it's trapped between your hand and the table. Push from your shoulder, not your wrist or elbow; it's a straight-arm power move. This photo isn't bun dough, I didn't think to take a picture. It's sourdough bread dough from one I made earlier.
When you've gone as far as is comfortable, curl your fingers down to catch the ridge of dough in front of your hand and pull that back as you bring your hand/arm back. Use the dough scraper in your other hand to bring stray bits back into the lump, then push away again. Try to build a circular move that rotates the lump of dough as you knead to bring every bit of it into the kneading process. It feels awkward to start with, but persevere: it's much kinder to your joints and is particularly good for handling sticky, wet doughs. When the gluten is reasonably well-developed I use the two-hand method to form a nice tidy ball to be put well-buttered bowl, covered with a towel and left to rise until doubled in bulk. This increase in volume is the key to a nice light bread, as opposed to the brick-like objects I insisted were bread when I first started baking. I mean, they were flour and salt and yeast... had to be edible, right? :-)

While the dough is rising, make the sticky: mix the sugar and butter together to make a thick gooey paste and put 12 big dollops of this in three rows of four down the pan, roughly where you plan to put each roll. Put a couple or three pecans on top of each lump.

When the dough is doubled, flour your work surface and pat/pull/spread the dough into a rectangle about 12" wide, 16-18" long and just under 1" thick (those measurements are guesswork and memory, but the proportions are roughly right and the details really don't matter too much as you'll make 12 rolls regardless). Leaving about 1/4" clear along one long edge, drizzle the melted butter evenly over the surface and spread with a brush/spoon. Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar, the chopped pecans on it. Dot the raisins as a surprise for raisin-lovers in your life. Work a little cold water gently into that clear strip to make it sticky, then roll up from the other long side. Press/pinch the join to hold it together. Press a sharp knife into the centre of the cylinder, then divide each half into half, then divide each quarter into three (feel free to use a measuring tape, I used to). The end rolls will be slightly smaller than the middle, which makes it easier to be slightly less self-indulgent, or subtly penalize someone who has offended you. Place one bun-to-be on top of each dollop of sticky, remembering to mix big and small in each row (if you cram all the centre buns in one place, they won't have room and the little ones will be lost and sad). Leave to rise for another three to four hours, until the buns have joined at the edges and are looking puffy and, well, risen. Preheat the oven to 375°F over the last hour.
bake until the tops are really well-browned.

While the buns are in the pan it's hard to check that the toffee base has worked so what I do is: remove the buns from the oven when the tops look done. Leave sit for about a minute, no more than three, to allow the toffee to set a little bit, then run a knife around the edge of the pan and turn the buns out as a slab, scrape any toffee left behind off the pan and apply to naked bun-bottoms. If you haven't used teflon paper and you wait too long, the toffee will stick the buns to the pan; if that happens, carefully and evenly heat the bottom of the pan over a low burner to melt the toffee a bit, then turn out. Best to avoid this if you can. If, when you've turned the buns out, the toffee isn't quite toffee enough, you can put the entire slab under the grill for a couple of minutes to properly melt the sugar and butter. Watch like a hawk to ensure nothing burns.

By this time the smell will be driving you mad, so as the toffee sets, turn the buns over, drizzle icing over the top and rip the slab apart like slavering wolves falling on a hapless caribou. Or hungry people on fresh cinnamon buns.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


We haz it. Life feels a bit like an avalanche might at the moment, just at the start when everything is slowly but inevitably obeying the force of gravity, with me balancing in the middle juggling rocks. The goal? end? is our walk in Sutherland. The rocks are training for it, checking and acquiring gear, work, cutting the lawn, doing the ironing, knitting and spinning and just... everything. Spinning is low priority at the moment, alas: if I don't get the weeds under control now, I'll lose the war later in the summer. If we don't get the training in, there's much less chance that we'll enjoy ourselves walking. If I don't do the ironing or clean the loo... it's not fair to him. Us :-)

So. Speaking of walking, we did it again on Saturday. The forecast suggested this was the last good weekend for a while, the car had just been serviced... so the alarm went off at 5am and by 0615 we were out the door and away. It was a gloriously promising morning, but for some reason I didn't feel quite my usual early morning enthusiasm. Nonetheless
That's the view from the passenger seat as we headed north up the M1 (celebrating its 50th birthday this year) at 0700. I don't think embiggening that will let you read the big blue sign, so take my word for it: beside the vertical 'straight on' white line are the words 'The North'. I love that. Just... The North.
We arrived in Edale at about 1000.

The sky is blue, the grass is green, there are spring flowers in the villagers' gardens. We're not the only walkers heading toward the hill, but there are fewer than we'd expected. Perhaps the fog on the hilltops has something to do with it? You can't see it in that shot, but cloud is pouring like water off the high western top of Kinder. Surely it will burn off as the sun rises? We carried on, opting for the steep climb that will take us quickly to the top of the Kinder plateau, and I discovered that this was not going to be a good day. Far from it. I'm never good at uphill – I run out of puff very quickly, no matter how hard or long I train, and just have to persevere, panting like a small steam train and pausing to catch my breath at regular intervals – but this time I was feeling almost queasy by the time we got to the top. We're testing some high-tech athletic nutrition stuff, so I split one of the SIS gels with him. Weird stuff, but it's nicely inoffensive and I certainly feel much better about 10 minutes later. Perhaps I should have had more than 2 pieces of toast for breakfast? Or maybe donating a pint of blood on Friday afternoon has left me with less blood than I needed? At any rate life is looking up.
That's the view a bit further down the track looking back (west) past a heather burn. We weren't certain whether this was a deliberate burn or not; controlled burns are useful to encourage regeneration of aged heather. That's full spring sun; if it wasn't for the strong cold northwesterly, we'd have been hot. We were moving fast, our intention to do as much of the entire 'round' as we could, so I didn't stop for many photos. We should have stopped for a little more map-reading, though, as we missed the path across the eastern end of the plateau, moving too far west before we headed north for the far side. A shame, as it cut our mileage a bit. On the other hand... as we turn west it becomes clear that the cloud/fog has not cleared and has no intention of doing so. We'll be walking straight into it, and the wind. We stop for a brief lunch of sausage and dwarfbread, and split a GO bar (there is NO WAY I could eat an entire one of those every hour. It's just not possible) and march on into the wind. Wisps of mist whip past, and the visibility drops to less than 100m. We're theoretically in absolutely no danger of becoming lost: the path around the edge of the plateau is well-worn, but where the peat is deep and soft it splits into a myriad minor tracks as people search for drier footing and on the dry gritstone and sand it can be difficult to spot footprints. So we could become confused and waste time if we don't pay attention constantly. I'm better at tracking, so I lead. And, as the visibility decreases, I begin once more to feel sick. It's completely irrational: I know where we are, in the broadest possible sense. At the very, very worst we can walk a compass bearing... and yet I am still afraid of... what? Getting lost, but there's more to it. A really deep-seated lack of confidence, which can only be overcome by experience. Logic rules, so I pull out some fruit gums for a sugar hit and we continue into the fog. I'm waiting for a particular landmark and, when it doesn't materialise after what feels like an aeon or two, we stop to check the map. The fog is lifting slightly so we can see into the valley north of the plateau and immediately realise we've been walking far faster than we thought. We're well along the northern edge, and - thank heavens - as the fog lifts further, we can see the ridge that brings the Pennine Way to the plateau. Brief flashes of sunlight lift my spirits immeasurably and, as we round the north-western corner and head south to Kinder Downfall, I'm feeling tired but confident. We discuss irrational fears as we walk in the sun :-)

Unfortunately... as we stop for a brief rest and an apple at Kinder Downfall, the mist closed in again. Within 5 minutes of taking that picture, you couldn't see the far side of the cleft, and we were setting off again. We're slightly more familiar with this part of Kinder, and the path is clear sand rather than multiple tracks across wet peat, so I don't feel quite so nervous. Just as well, because by the time we reach Kinder Low, visibility is worse than it's been before. A fell-runner in bright lime green flashed past up just before we saw these two, and those three are the only people we'd seen for 45 minutes. Very, very different from high summer!
And that's roughly the point at which we missed the path we wanted (the Pennine Way), taking instead a more westerly minor path. After about 10 minutes we realised things felt 'wrong', stopped, pulled out both maps, a compass, and worked out where we thought we were, how to check it, and what to do if we were wrong. That weekend at Plas Y Brenin was worth it, because we were right: the Pennine Way was 250m to the east and within 10 minutes we were striding out again. See? Irrational fear. On the other hand, if I wasn't afraid, would I take so much care in working out the details? Perhaps it's a useful irrational fear. At any rate, the path along the southern edge of the plateau is so well-worn it's almost impossible to go astray. We were veritably racing along, slowing only for peaty sections where I stayed on the main path regardless of the wet peat underfoot: I wanted no chance of losing our way now, as it would be getting dark soon. We carry headlamps, but would much rather be eating in the pub as the light failed! And we did, too. By 1700 we were heading down Grindlebrook, tired but relatively triumphant. My knees hurt, but not as badly as I'd expected. His feet hurt, but not as much as usual.
As we tucked our walking poles into our packs and looked back at the hill the cloud dropped even further. We'd just passed a party of walkers heading uphill with biggish packs, perhaps planning an illicit overnight camp high in the mist. We continued downhill thinking of egg and chips and beer and a hot shower and bed. End result was 16 miles walked in 6 hours, which isn't bad. But I paid for it with sore legs at the gym on Monday despite trying the SIS Nocte (supposed to supply nutrients to muscle that might otherwise cannibalize itself during recovery).

We have a routine: he drives up, I drive back (which means he can have a couple of pints with dinner; I'd rather drive than drink). While he drove I knitted, managing another two repeats of Aeolian. The beading slows the knitting considerably, even when I rather ambitiously put 6 beads on the hook to use for the next 6 stitches. I'm not entirely certain I like this many beads. The blob glitters dangerously. It might be alright blocked, or it might not. I was a bit depressed by the prospect of putting this much time (and that many beads!) into something I wouldn't wear, then realised I can get rid of some or all of the beads very easily. With a hammer. Just hit them with a hammer (carefully) and shake the glittering dust away. I told him that (he's been eyeing the glitter warily) and he thinks I'm quite mad. Nevermind, I'm much happier now, because I simply love the yarn. Blue Moon Fiber Arts Silk Thread II in Rook-y.
I cannot take a photograph that does it justice. The colours do look like the structural colouration (scroll down) of a corvid wing. It's just beautiful. If you like dark and subtle, try anything from the Raven Clan. My love for this is a problem, because it's distracted me from my love for Sam. The kit was my Christmas gift from my sister, thanks to my husband, who sent her a chunk of my Firefox bookmarks file. This is SUCH FUN!

Everything so far is shaped with short rows, or by leaving stitches to be picked up later. It's fabulous. I hope to have him finished to greet my sister in April, but if I can't kick the Aeolian habit I might not make it. Incidentally, those orange blobs in the background are dehydrated meals to be taste-tested. We've had one very bad experience with freeze-dried food (can't remember the brand) and one good experience (Mountain House). The essential advantage is that they're light. If we had space for a dehydrator I'd might make our own, but as things stand I'll stick to making beef jerky in the oven. Those are from Expedition Foods, and may or may not be edible. The gold standard meal (expensive but actually tastes *good*) seems to be Real Turmat from Drytech, but Charlie at Extreme Outdoor Food didn't reply to my email until yesterday. He's on an expedition in the Arctic, but will ensure my order is filled! We've also bought several Mountain House meals from George Fisher in Keswick. Momentum... we haz it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A relatively local walk

or Why we get up at 5am to drive 3 hours to the Peak District :-)
There's a New Toy at the end, so persevere!

We are in training for the spring backpacking trip. Seventy miles across Sutherland (northern Scotland was Sutherland (southern land) to the Vikings) from Lochinver to Tongue. The plan is to allow 5 days for walking plus a day for playing on Foinaven, finishing with a couple of luxurious nights at the Tongue Hotel on the grounds that we'll have earned it. Which we will, especially if the weather is bad! We have to prepare for this – the treadmill at the gym is not sufficient – so we try to get out for 10 miles or more every weekend. Only Sunday was free last weekend, so we didn't hammer north up the motorway, as we've got to be up early on Monday mornings for the gym and work. This is a very arable landscape, almost flat, and the footpaths and bridleways run across fields or along field margins. It's not nice walking in wet weather; the mud clings to boots and shoes, adding several pounds to the load (and weight on your feet is particularly bad news for your knees, too).
The ground was reasonably dry, though. Here the path heads across fertile floodplain loam to secondary woodland (trees that have grown up after humans felled the wildwood) growing on the site of a moated manor house. A manor was known here before the Norman Conquest (1066), so perhaps the earlier manor house stood where these trees now grow. A more recent 19thC farmhouse built inside a second moat stands near the wood.

This gatehouse was the entrance to the manor that stood within the second site long, long before the farmhouse. Timber from this building has been dated to 1250–1380.

This is not a landscape offering grand views. Instead I look for interest closer to the path. Observe...
Can you see that distinct browse line, the lack of small branches and twigs for about 2' from the ground? Rabbit damage. Rabbits are not native to the UK; they were brought here from the Mediterranean by the Normans, who valued their meat and fur. The first rabbits found life hard in the UK: accustomed to a warmer, drier climate, they didn't excavate their own warrens; the Norman warrens included pillow-mounds, earth-covered stone-lined tunnels built to shelter the rabbits. As time passed rabbits escaped and grew hardier. It's no longer fashionable to eat rabbit here, which is a shame as they do so much damage to crops.

I always keep an eye on the path for interesting tracks and trails. Damp soil or sand of the right consistency records many passing individuals. Avoid the bits where shoe- and boot-prints and dogfeet and horses had churned the path badly. I've circled some of those I spotted, but unfortunately forgot to include something for scale: the adult muntjac cleaves are about 1.5" long. Muntjac deer are another introduction to the UK, brought to Woburn Park in the 19thC and released into neighbouring woodland. Here's the Mammal Society badger page; I've chosen that to avoid some of the more emotive pages produced by groups that dearly love badgers.

This bridlepath was once a more important route, but traffic shifted to other roads and trees now cover most of it. Much of southern England will revert to woodland if left unmanaged; much conservation management consists of finding ways to prevent trees and scrub converting grasslands and wetlands into secondary woodland. The 'leg-warmers' on some tree-trunks are ivy. Contrary to rumour, ivy does not kill trees by strangling them, although a dense growth will make them more vulnerable to wind damage in the winter.

We continue marching across the fields toward one of the few available hills (that pathetic low rise in the distance). The crop here is winter wheat, sown in autumn to become established over the winter. It's just starting to grow vigorously, and the tiny white granules of nitrate fertiliser were visible on the soil of many fields we crossed. Here farmers often mark the line of the path by driving a tractor across the field, or by placing stakes - the far side is often far enough that otherwise walkers might stray off the line and have to search for the gap in the hedge or fence.

That's the view from the top of the hill looking back (roughly) the way we came. We had some wet weather late last year, which meant many people missed their chance to sow winter wheat. As a result there's even more bare brown ploughland than usual. Walking across that would be purgatory; I'm glad we're on a field-edge bridleway!

More small wonders were spotted on the south-facing slope of the hill. Bright yellow coltsfoot flowers shone like tiny suns in the dry grasses and, on the edge of the ditch: patches of sweet violets scented the air.
Fortified by a quick lunch we march on down the hill, discussing the pace (he'd brought his touring cycle GPS unit, which kept stopping because it regarded our walking pace as equivalent to stationary).
Suddenly, in the distance... was it an alien ship? There, in the sky – was that strange glittering object the mothership? Do we prepare to sell our lives dearly? No (just as well, really), the alien ship is a barrel converted to a feeding station for game birds such as pheasants, and the mothership was probably a mylar balloon tethered to scare pigeons from a nearby crop. Probably. It might have been a very small mothership cunningly camouflaged as a balloon. Take that as a measure of our desperate search for interest as we walk :-)

Finally, in the distance we see the road and steeple of a village near the start. Ten miles or so, that was. The Peak District would have been much harder work – but much more fun, too!

Last, but far from least, one of the reasons that Saturday was busy:

That's a Bosworth Journey Wheel, that is. Which explains the remarkably silly grin! It's so different from the Schacht and the SuziePro; I have a lot of practicing to do.