Square Eyes

About four years ago, I learned to crochet. I say “learned” like it was an easy task, but in fact it was a long, arduous process in which I would sit with my crochet hook and wool, and struggle, then swear, then throw the whole lot across the room. I went on like this for about eight months. I could knit perfectly well, for goodness’ sake! Why couldn’t I do the crochet dance? My annoyance mainly stemmed from wanting so much to be able to make a granny square. Those neat little colourful squares looked so much fun – and so satisfying – and I wanted to join the club. Mostly, really, after falling in love with this wondrous granny square afghan by Molly Chicken.

So I persevered, and thanks to lots of patient help and demonstrations from my friends Mabel and Helen, it finally, one day, just…clicked. I got it! I was no longer resigned to gaze with wonder at the projects in my copy of Happy Hooker. Finally, single and double and triple crochet meant something to me, and I knew how to make a magic circle, and I could actually understand those little symbols in crochet patterns!

As usual, I jumped right in, ordering eight balls of Rowan Pure Wool DK in bright rainbow colours, and with Happy Hooker as my guide, I set to work. Man, I was obsessed. After eight months of pent-up crochet frustration, I must admit I got a little bit carried away. I drew out a chart so I could tick off the colours and avoid the horror of making two squares in the same colours (NEVER). I took my squares everywhere with me, and crocheted wherever and whenever I could: on the bus to and from work, in the car (as a passenger, silly), on my lunchbreak. I even took them all on holiday to Indonesia with me, along with a wooden hook so I could crochet on the plane.

Gradually, my pile of squares grew. I wasn’t sure yet how big I wanted my finished blanket to be, but after a while I had enough to be able to lay the squares out and play with colour combinations: another very addictive activity.

I would highly recommend weaving the ends of your squares in as you go, taking a break from crocheting to tidy them up. Otherwise you’ll have them all to do at the end, and that would be a pretty monotonous job. After another month I needed to buy more wool…and after another month I had enough so my blanket measured 9 by 11 squares, which I decided was enough. I spent a good, ahem, few days playing around with the layout of the squares, then sorted then into neat piles before stitching them together using a simple mattress stitch, first stitching the squares into rows, then stitching the rows together. In the end, my blanket about one metre by 140cm.

And so, after several months, many miles of travelling and lots and lots and lots of wool the granny square afghan…was finished! It now has pride of place on our sofa. I actually finished this blanket a couple of years ago, so think I’m about ready to tackle a new crocheted afghan…maybe a black number…and a bit bigger this time I think…

Cherry bomb

A couple of months ago, I treated myself to the Leon Baking and Puddings Book. Although we have a copy at the library where I work, I decided that I must own this lovely book so I could get it as fruit-stained and chocolate-smeared and well-loved as I liked. It’s a really beautiful book, with nostalgic snaps of Leon’s extended family members, quaint illustrations and beautiful photography.

The book has two sections: ‘Everyday’ and ‘Celebration’. The first part covers breakfast, power snacks, puddings and cooking with children, amongst others, while the second part contains those show-stopping recipes perfect for birthdays, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and even ghoulish biscuits for Halloween. It has quickly become one of my favourite baking books, and my copy now has a few dozen yellow post-it notes poking out of the top, waiting for a rainy day.

A couple of weeks ago, I turned to the very last section of the book, entitled ‘Extra Helpings’, to help me out with a friend’s birthday. Sue is wheat intolerant but loves cherry pie, so I opted for ‘Claire’s Cherry Pie’. The recipe uses sour Morello cherries and shortcrust pastry, so I decided to simply swap the normal plain flour for wheat-free plain flour. I realised too late, though, that the reason pastry is roll-out-able is because of its gluten content. Whoops! This made rolling out the non-gluten pastry pretty tricky. As usual Jim came to the rescue, rolling the pastry between two sheets of clingfilm, which helped it to stay together. He also had the idea to cut out squares for the top of the pie, instead of long strips for latticework, as suggested in the recipe. We didn’t think our pastry would stretch to strips!

I was a bit nervous at serving this pie up to 12 hungry bellies at Sue’s birthday dinner. But it turned out great! Proof of this were the empty plates left at the end of the meal. If you are going to have a go at gluten-free pastry, just be patient, be gentle and stay calm. You can of course use normal plain flour for this recipe, in which case I’m sure you will sweat a bit less. In both cases, above all be mindful of the beauty of a pie you’re going to have at the end. I’ll leave it up to you whether you want to share it with 11 other people.

Claire’s Cherry Pie
from the Leon Baking and Puddings Book

300g shortcrust pastry (see recipe below)
500g fresh or frozen sour cherries, preferably Morello (I got mine frozen from Asda, they worked great)
200g caster sugar
4 tbsps cornflour
a pinch of salt
1 free-range egg, for glazing
a little milk

– Heat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6. Butter a 20-23cm pie dish or fluted tart tin and set aside.

– Roll one half of the pastry out into a circle large enough to line the pie dish with some excess. Place the rolled-out circle of pastry in the dish, pressing the pastry down well. *With the gluten-free version, we ended up pressing most of the pastry into the dish with our fingers.*

– Roll the other half of the pastry into a rectangle 3mm thick and place it on a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Place both in the fridge while you prepare the filling.

– Put the cherries, sugar and cornflour into a bowl and add the salt. Toss to coat the fruit evenly.

– Remove the pie dish from the fridge and fill it with the cherry mixture. Remove the rectangle of pastry from the fridge and use a small knife to slice the pastry into 2cm strips (or squares, like we did). Arrange the strips/squares of pastry over the cherries in a lattice/chess board pattern – if doing a lattice save 3 strips for the edge.

– Crack the egg into a small bowl and add a few drops of milk. Whisk to combine. Using a pastry brush, carefully coat the lattice with the egg wash. If making a lattice, use the last 3 strips to cover the rim, then brush this with the egg wash aswell.

– Place the pie in the oven for about an hour, with a piece of kitchen foil underneath to catch any drips. The pie is ready when you see the fruit filling bubbling through.

Shortcrust pastry (makes 300g):
200g normal or wheat-free plain flour
a pinch of salt
75g unsalted butter, cut into rough 1cm cubes
2½ tbsps cold water (or about a cup-full for the wheat-free version)

– Sift the flour and salt and add the butter. Mix gently until the mixture resembles coarse sand.

– Sprinkle the water over the mixture and mix until it forms a cohesive ball of dough.

– Wrap the pastry in clingfilm and allow to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before using.

Lately: Lisbon edition

Admiring: Lisbon’s beautiful architecture and pastel-coloured buildings

Falling: in love with the magical haven of nearby Sintra

Exploring: Lisbon’s botanical gardens, streets, flea markets, views – and cafés

Finding: inspiration in Lisbon’s beautiful old tiles

Spending: quality fun time with one of my oldest, and best, friends

For yet more photos from our holiday head on over to flickr.