Bread and philosophy

I’ve been stretched out of shape this week.

Since June I have been immersed in an Introduction to Philosophy course. It’s a MOOC (Massive Open On-line Course), a learning format that is starting to make inroads into the way we learn, and is offered by MITx via edX, the non-profit and open-source platform founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012. It offers a wide range of courses and programs from many of the world’s leading universities and institutions. I did a couple of shorter courses earlier in the year but the content weight and length of the Introduction to Philosophy course was a much bigger challenge for me.

After twelve weeks, eighteen lectures and three written submissions, on Thursday I received my final mark (88%) and my certificate.

Intro to Philosophy certificate

It’s been a long time since I’ve undertaken a lengthy period of formal study. Even though I’m not working at the moment, setting aside 6-7 hours each week – sometimes more when a written assessment was due – has been challenging. Much of my impetus to keep at it was the fear of falling behind and potentially having to find double the time the following week.

It’s also been a subject that’s really tested me. Contrary to what you might think, the course was not about what I believed about God, knowledge, consciousness or identity but rather reading a range of arguments about these subjects and assessing them rigorously using a particular structure.

I’ve always loved learning and when faced with difficult concepts, I usually get through by applying myself to pulling the topic apart and putting it back together again. But there were a couple of weeks – thankfully not in a row – when I floundered. I couldn’t see the point of the arguments and engaging in the discussion forums/asking questions made me even more confused. In the end, surviving all of my harsh self-talk required an exercise in generosity. I surrendered to the feeling of ‘wandering in the wilderness’ and tried to trust that I would eventually work it out. As the weeks moved on, the fog did clear a bit and I was able to pick up the pieces and put them together again.

I am proud of receiving my certificate. However more than that, I’m proud of sticking with it, not letting the feeling of being completely clueless deter me and of finding a little generosity of spirit in myself to get me through the difficult bits. And I feel different – more open, more aware, stretched in a new direction.

Speaking of difficult bits, on Saturday I stretched myself in another direction, this time to take on my battle with bread.

About seven years ago, I started my relationship with bread by making hot cross buns. I’m allergic to oranges and all of the hot cross buns here in the UK contain mixed peel (even bakery-bought ones). So I thought it would be an excellent thing to be able to make my own. So with recipe in hand and wielding my spatula, off I went.

The first batch of buns I made were amazing – mouth-wateringly fragrant, absolutely delicious with a cross on each glossy crown.

Since then I’ve attempted several more batches as well as a variety of other loaves. I love the physicality of making bread – my fingers pulling and stretching as they knead, seeing the magical doubling of the dough as it proves and the oh-so-glorious smell as the fresh bread emerges from the oven. But none of these have reached the dizzying, delicious heights of that first batch. So I decided that I needed to go back to basics and booked myself into the Beginner’s Bread Bakery at the Waitrose Cookery School.

I loved it!

Over five wonderful hours, Laini took us through the rules according to bread: The science of the ingredients, the importance of exact measurements and temperatures and the stretchy, springy consistency of great dough. To my delight, my doughs proved and proved again and I managed to produce a range of delicious breads…

Garlic and Rosemary Focaccia

Foccacia montage

Here it is:  Proved, flavoured and about to go into the oven (left) and beautifully baked and cooling (right).

Pesto and Cheese Straws

Foccacia Straws montage

We used some of the focaccia dough after the first prove to flatten, fill and shape these deliciously salty straws to accompany the mushroom soup served for our lunch. I had two at lunch and then the other two that evening.

White Bloomer Loaf (and dinner roll)

White bloomer montage

What’s a baking course without a white loaf and here it is (left). We also learnt how to make a perfectly shaped dinner roll (right). It’s not as easy as it looks!

I also learnt where I had been going awry in my bread-making, namely the water being too warm (thereby killing the yeast before it even got going) and using flour instead of oil to knead the dough (according to Laini, adding flour during the knead makes for a very dense loaf). Needless to say I’m very keen to put these all of these new techniques into practice but I need to finish all of the bread I brought home first…

bread basket 1

I ate the two focaccia straws and the dinner roll that evening, enjoyed the crust of the white bloomer loaf with organic raspberry jam the next day and portioned three quarters of the focaccia for freezing.

So in the space of a week I feel like I’ve achieved a little mastery over two challenging subjects – bread and philosophy – and now have some sound points of reference to build on. I feel incredibly energised, eager to apply it all and excited to learn more.

Just goes to show what a little stretching can do.


For my other visit to the Waitrose Cooking School – Sliced and Diced – click here

Happy telly

There has been much excitement at Gidday HQ today. Yes peeps, the ultimate in happy telly – the Great British Bake Off – is back. That’s ten whole weeks of signatures bakes, technical challenges and showstoppers to look forward to.

Yippee!!

So this afternoon I raced home from work, got two loads of washing on and with dinner done and dusted, I curled up on the comfy couch just in time to enjoy the opening sequence, the white peaks of the marquee sweeping into view amidst swathes of green and accompanied by the familiar tinkling of the GBBO theme tune.

Week one was Cake Week and the twelve contestants (I always think that thirteen i.e. a baker’s dozen, would be more appropriate) whipped – and in a lot of cases rewhipped – their way to a drizzle cake, produced a passable batch of Jaffa cakes and showcased the art of mirror glaze.

There were winners and grinners, triers and even a few fliers with Candice piffing her genoise sponge across the tent. The first Star Baker was announced and someone else’s spatula was despatched to the back of the GBBO cupboard. It seems that a nice weekend in the countryside (albeit a rainy one in what amounts to a big tent with nineteen strangers plus a film crew) and a judge’s nod to being one of the top twelve bakers in the nation pales quite a bit against the ignominy of being the first one to leave.

It’s probably a little early to be laying claim to my favourites but cool Selasi (could he be any more laid back?), pragmatic Jane and brave Benjamina were the ones that won my heart this week. How did they fare? Well there is a strict no spoilers policy here at Gidday from the UK so my lips are sealed. Unless of course there’s cake involved.

Speaking of cake, I pushed the boat out for a birthday bake earlier this month. A forage through the pages of my More Secrets From The Beechworth Bakery cookbook unearthed a recipe for Dutch Apple Cake so I set forth, wielding my spatula and turned out a veritable treat…

IMAG5200 (640x640)

My delicious Dutch Apple Cake: full of sugar and spice and all things nice and fattening!

…which was rapidly demolished by my workmates the next day.

Just when I was thinking my hips were safe again, there has been talk of an Office Bake Off. And next week the Great British Bake Off brings us Biscuit Week.

Hmmmm. Shame that.

The Great British Boast Off

You might think that the British are a modest bunch. Not for them the brash competitiveness of the Americans, the super-styled ‘look at me’ of the Italians, the colourful flamboyance of the Brazilians or the voluble national pride of the Indians. No, Brits are self-effacing, stoic types who enjoy a moan through their stiff upper lip much more than a me-moment.

Or do they?

The proliferation of ‘Great British’ television shows might suggest otherwise and whilst singing contests for warbling amateurs demonstrating their vocal chops have long been a fixture of reality TV, a range of more everyday pursuits have found their way into our living rooms.

To my mind, this spate of TV DIY-ness began with The Great British Bake Off.

For the uninitiated, a group of home bakers compete in a flurry of flour, butter, eggs and sugar to win the title of Britain’s Best Amateur Baker. The series began on BBC2 in 2010, when Britain’s recession forced wallets closed and people indoors. Five series on, GBBO has reached both BBC1 and an average viewership of more than 10 million (up from 2.7 million in Series 1). It has spawned spin-offs such as Junior Bake Off, The Great Comic Relief/Sports Relief Bake Off (2 series of each so far – the Comic Relief version is running at the moment) and segued jauntily into 15 other countries – I’m thinking that Denmark’s The Great Baking Joust (Den Store Bagedyst) sounds like quite a competitive arena versus the British Bake Off tent that I know and love. Series 4 attracted more than 10,000 applicants and 2014’s Series 5 was accompanied by An Extra Slice where the latest departures could lament the justice of their elimination.

The series has been credited with reigniting the public’s love of baking and I count myself amongst this number. During said recession, finding a relatively low cost hobby to keep my hands busy and my mind off the financial challenges my circumstances had brought to bear provided many moments of simple and joyful accomplishment. And I find nothing more enjoyable (well, maybe a gutsy red wine with some great cheese) than curling up on the comfy couch after a hard day at the office for a little armchair judgement of a dozen spatula-wielding amateurs.

It would seem that success breeds….well copycats. And every time I turn on the telly, there appears to be yet another amateur home-challenge to be taken on.

2015 has already given us the third series of The Great British Sewing Bee. It’s a similar format to GBBO with ten sewers (yes that’s what they are called – an unfortunate homographic coincidence and should be pronounced so-er) judged by experts from The Women’s Institute and from Savile Row for their worthiness to the claim of Britain’s Best Home Sewer (now remember the pronunciation peeps). Contestants stitch their way through three challenges – Pattern, Alteration and Made-to-Measure – to produce, among other things, necklines, patch pockets, men’s shirts and evening dresses. It appears to be gathering momentum with the number of episodes doubling to eight for Series 3.

Then there’s The Big Allotment Challenge, again from the Beeb. Series 2 has just concluded with nine budding horticulturists taking on six weeks of Grow, Make and Eat challenges in the heart of the English countryside. This enterprise takes a bit more long term planning for the chosen green-fingers-and-thumbs (4 months) – even I know that it takes longer than a few episodes to grow a bounty – and as a bonus, throughout the series you could download each contestant’s plot layouts if you felt particularly inspired to ‘allot’ for yourself. In case you are wondering, I did not, despite my efforts to cultivate a little self-sufficiency with a Gidday HQ patch at a previous time and location.

And then The Big Painting Challenge starts tonight with week one’s theme – landscapes – to be painted at Hogwarts (aka Alnwick Castle, Northumberland). Ten amateurs will pit their paintbrushes against each other to be crowned Britain’s Best Amateur Painter where the glory of winning  the title seems to hold significant appeal. Consider this: the show attracted more than 6,000 applicants against the Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year (previously Portrait Artist of the Year)  which offered the winner a £10,000 commission (and which is added to the National Trust‘s permanent collection) and a previous show, BBC2’s defunct Show Me The Monet, giving the winning artist the chance to sell their works in a London gallery.

So despite the self-effacing stereotypes that abound, these shows suggest that the Brits do like a contest and that the glory of a title is enough to encourage them off their couches and into their kitchens, sewing rooms and the great outdoors. This may not be surprising when you consider that titles still ‘matter’ here and ‘lordship’ is bestowed on those not born to it on what seems to be a pretty regular basis.

Rumour has it that the next in the BBC’s arsenal of challenges is one for the angler – travelling around the world to prove themselves across a range of fishing locations and techniques. It just might be worth watching this – after all what could be more entertaining than to see who will be crowned…

…The Big Fish?