Baking away the darkness

To complement the hordes of articles that seem to be popping up in newspapers and magazines lately about how to deal with the oncoming darkness and not go crazy, I thought I would add my little bit of advice. I have learnt it through a combination of instinct and necessity, and unlike pretty much all of the advice that others seem to be spouting, it doesn’t involve leaving the house. Or even the kitchen. And you eat it.
Oh yes.
I’m talking about baking.

My home town in the middle of November at 3:30pm. On a nice day.

My home town in the middle of November at 3:30pm. On a nice day.

(If you’re reading this from Australia or somewhere else that isn’t currently getting dark by 3.30pm, pretend I am making ice-cream, or whatever else you like that suits weather over 5 degrees.)

It started some time ago, when I realised that this whole making bread thing isn’t as hard as I thought and that if I make bread my partner gets a bit giddy with excitement. I found an amazing recipe that makes bread rolls in about 45 minutes, from start to finish. And they are perfect. I’ve done it three times now and both times there was a sense of a miracle as I took the tray out of the oven. The second time was also the time when I realised that this baking thing was becoming a thing. It was halloween, and as mentioned in that post, I decided to do some traditional, themed baking. There was the Roman dish, soul cakes and the bake that was not quite a cake.

Successful soul cakes!

Successful soul cakes!

It was the first of my recent failures and it stung. A few weeks later I decided to use the scrapings from the halloween pumpkins to make pumpkin bread for book club. It… did not work. We agreed that it made decent slice though, and left it at that. I brought tiny vegemite sandwiches to make up for it.

However I kept going, making another delicious pile of rolls (oh the burgers, oh the joy), and it started to creep up on me that there was a pattern in my behaviour. I’d wake up, do weekend things and somehow find myself in the kitchen, wearing an apron and spraying flour dust around the counter, while outside the sky lowered and rain fell. The oven would be on and though kneading and cries of ‘oh damn, why is it still sticky!’ lay ahead, I knew at the end would be something warm and comforting, and edible achievement that perhaps in some way made up for the cold and inability to picnic.

Bread rolls

Bread rolls

It was around this point that we began to get creative. By now my partner had decided he wanted in on this baking thing, and not just as the happy recipient of baked goods. Prior to my baking revelations he had been the house baker, proud owner of the knowledge of how long to leave the yeast to grow and at what temperature, how elastic the dough should be and how many times to punch it before baking. And he does certainly make very fine bread. So when I said that I was curious about making rye bread he fiddled on his tablet and replied soon after that he might be interested in making barley bread, using ancient recipes. So after a trip to the shops for the correct flour and extra yeast, the bake-off was on.
Except without officially being a competition, because I don’t like competitions. And neither of us are especially graceful losers.

We set to in the kitchen, wearing our respective aprons and were soon thoroughly dusted with flour. There was much kneading, poking, tutting about consistency, watching dishcloths slowly rising and finally carefully putting them in the oven. Both turned out great, especially just baked and slathered in margarine. Most certainly a victory for us both.

Rye bread

Rye bread

This has all been leading, as the best stories do, to a climax. Last weekend we had been invited to dinner by a good friend and I offered to bring dessert. My inspiration, as I leafed through cookbooks and the internet, was chocolate. In the end I found a chocolate cake that was not only egg and milk free, but it had the word epic in the title. After recent cake incidents I wasn’t feeling confident and there were minor details that I could have done better (such as reading all the instructions before getting halfway through) but at the end, when I assembled it at the friend’s house and stood back to consider, I decided it was damn good. You should have tasted it. In fact, there is still some in the fridge now, if you’re quick!

Chocolate cake. Mmmm.

Chocolate cake. Mmmm.

So I suppose what I mean to say is that I’ve found my own personal type of activity/therapy to while away the crawl to the day of least light. It requires practice and concentration, there is always something new to learn and I can pretend that watching The Great British Bake Off is studying. Plus we eat the results. I’d be curious to know what other habits or hobbies others are taking up to keep the darkness at bay. Whatever it is, may it be satisfying and keep you sane.

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The hallowed weekend

Growing up in Australia, Halloween wasn’t a big thing in my life. It seems often to have been associated with sniffs and ‘oh, that’s all a bit Americanised, isn’t it?’ which usually leads straight into a rant about how every year Christmas decorations are out earlier and earlier.
There was neither trick nor treat on my street, pumpkins were left unscathed and costumes were something you got for themed birthday parties.

An uncommon sight in Perth

An uncommon sight in Perth

Here in Sweden there’s a similar sense of not taking it too far, but in addition there’s another tradition underlying the new, and as with Jul it concerns light.

Halloween at our apartment started with a frenzy of baking, in which I decided that festivals are basically about food and on a cold rainy day, fiddling about with an oven and sweet food isn’t a bad way to go.
I started with a basic spiced cake, which didn’t turn out exactly right, and will have to be the subject of another go in future. The less said about it the better really.

Next was an ancient Roman delicacy, the awkwardly named Placenta cake, that originated as a religious offering. I found a great blog with heaps of recipes and did the modernised version and it worked well. As with Carthaginian porridge, there’s something about baked cheese and honey that I really like, and that the Romans apparently enjoyed as well.

An offering to the gods

An offering to the gods

Thirdly Soul cakes, which was what I found when I searched for traditional Halloween cakes. They were originally made to honour the dead, and were handed out door to door, and might possibly relate to the origin of trick or treat. There are certainly tasty and easy to make, and my partner amazed even myself with his ability to make them magically disappear. My lesson from this cake though was not to put the raisins on while baking. Cooked raisins aren’t especially raisiny.

Soul cakes

Soul cakes

Finally I made a pile of rolls for dinner, using a miraculous recipe that only requires 30 minutes from start to finish. All delicious and fluffy and perfect with a homemade burger.

Homemade burgers

Homemade burgers

Before you begin wondering where the normal blog went and why a kitchen-fancier has taken over, let’s leave the kitchen and discover another Halloween tradition. As I mentioned earlier, pumpkins were quite safe from the carving knife while I was growing up, but as part of our new life here in Sweden my partner and I decided to give the tradition a go.
Fortunately there were 3 pumpkins left from the wagon loads earlier in the week when we wandered down to the supermarket on the 31st, and 2 of those looked decent enough for our purposes. Some googling and pondering gave us designs and steps, and so after dinner we sat down with a few episodes of Buffy and began to carve. It was surprisingly easy and we were both pleased with our attempts. There will be more carving next year I am sure.

Our pumpkins

Our pumpkins

The next day was partly spent preparing for the Halloween party that night, during which time we realised how under-prepared we were. In order to use one of my favourite dresses I decided to be a witch, complete with a pouch of rune stones, a bunch of herbs, Freya and other suitable jewelry and my candle-lit pumpkin. My partner chose to become a ghoul, and was quite convincing, especially once he put on the cloak. We both did pretty well, considering it was our first time getting dressed up for Halloween.
The party was a lot of fun, with spooky food, friends, new friends, music and a very wide range of costumes.

Herbs and runes

Herbs and runes

And during all these adventures in and out of traditions, the cemetery below our window filled with flickering candles and wreaths of pine and flowers. All Hallows Eve is celebrated over a series of days here in Sweden, so everyday the candles would spread just a little bit more, and we could see family and friends tending the graves and standing vigil. These lights in the darkness, and the remembrance of the dead are a nice counterpoint to the fun and silliness of Halloween. I can imagine people up and down Sweden dressing up as ghosts, monsters or beasts, and then the next day, with the face paint perhaps lingering behind their ears, they head to the cemetery to light a candle for their grandmother and think about those who have passed, and the thin barrier between life and death.

Lights in the cemetery

Lights in the cemetery

A mid-Autumn weekend dream

Quiet recovery

Every now and then you get a weekend that seems to meld into one long day in which you barely get a chance to come up for air before you are off again.
Case in point: last weekend.

Sometimes you go to a party that combines great company, a lovely setting, delicious food and getting just tipsy enough to wobble but not enough to fall over.
Case in point: last weekend.

Every so often you plan an event on the spur of the moment, rush the prep while hungover and it still turns out wonderfully.
Case in point: last weekend.

The old belfry

The old belfry

My weekend started with a morning run, trying to time my steps to Don’t Stop Me Now and the Buffy musical soundtrack and not get thrown off by tolling from the old belfry as I crossed the river. It passed into breakfast and preparations for the day at weekend speed (approximately .25 of weekday speed) and then picked up tempo when the actual reality of time passing began to set in. Baking ensued, biscuits and bread, and they were still hot and steaming when our lift arrived.

As the bbq wasn’t mine, and I don’t know the people well enough to presume, I’ll just say that everything was wonderful. As with another party at the home of a Swede on New Years, the organisation was seamless and we as guests happily slipped along through the courses and after an impromptu piano performance worked out how to open the whiskey cabinet.
And the night would not have been complete without learning a new word – skamkudde (literally shame-pillow) which is how you feel when trying to avoid watching someone being humiliated – and being treated to impressions of Minecraft-gubbar by 5 year old boys.

By the time we got home and collapsed it was about 4 and before too long, or so it seemed, we were up again and making preparations for our own party. I had thrown out the suggestion on Friday that we ought to use the final days of sun and have a picnic somewhere scenic. Murphy’s Law being what it is, we awoke to news that Sunday was forecast to be rainy and cold and so quickly changed the plan to an indoor picnic.
A dash to the shops and shuffling of furniture later, and very importantly a playlist on Spotify chosen, our first guests arrived and the party was on.
A few hours later the last guest left and silence fell, unbroken by the need to bake, cook or do anything preparational.
Of course the next day I had an exam, and then there were lessons to prepare for classes, and work to get ready for and the weekend to basically get its act together and pull us under again.

Quiet recovery

Quiet recovery

But for a little while I was in a car on the highway heading home, my head resting tipsily on my partners shoulder and Håkan singing something nostalgic from the stereo. Unlike my Swedish friends, I may not have grown up with him, but now I can say that I have my own Håkan memory. And it is one to treasure.

Happy tipsiness as I lean on my partners arm and listen to En Midsommarnattsdröm.