Made from scratch: everyday pleasures

Homemade._SX260_Every now and again I get very excited by a new recipe.  But it’s never one of those Cuisine Magazine extravaganzas with 27 ingredients.  Instead, the recipes which float my boat are those which show how to make something I’d ordinarily be obliged to buy such as crackers, pasta, biscuits, jam and …marshmallows you know, just the essentials.

With this approach to cooking, the pleasure comes from a feeling of self sufficiency, a smidgen of frugality and a soupcon of sticking it to ‘big food’.  In going back to the way our grandmothers used to cook, there’s something of the pioneering spirit about it. If you have relied on preprepared or processed foods (and let’s face it there can’t be too many families with two parents working outside the home who haven’t) is can feel empowering to get back to basics and demystify food. For me it’s satisfying to circumvent the commercial powers that be, and I enjoy knowing what goes in to what we eat.  Some say growing your own food is a political act.  I’d say cooking it is too.

My favourite recipes are based around pantry staples, with the considerable benefit that you don’t need to get dressed to make them (no special trip out for pomegranate molasses!). Generally staples can be bought in bulk, meaning that otherwise pricy Lavosh crackers for example cost virtually nothing to make, and you can make a lot at once.

If a recipe is to make it on to the regular rota of things made in my kitchen they also need to be more delicious than ‘shop bought’. Putting some spectacular failures aside for a moment, this is often shockingly easy.  A wise gardening rule is only to grow what you really like to eat.  This rule applies to cooking and baking as well.  If the kids eat them, and they store or freeze well, consider me sold.

There are certain reliable guides I have found, and I highly recommend them.

Everyday-109x150Sophie Gray of Destitute Gourmet is my go-to for all basic household cooking.  My top five most cooked items, including birthday cakes and everyday baking come from her stable.  These are the cookbooks I wished to replace first after an unfortunate incident with a rogue watermelon.

Sophie is remarkable for her down to earth approach, her sense of humour and her understanding of the pressures involved in feeding a family well and healthily on a budget.


One indicator of long term value in a cookbook for me is the number of times I have had it out from the library before I buy it.  I just couldn’t let this one go.   Homemade is a gorgeous book by Yvette Van Boven, a Dutch chef with a lot of heart and a fearless ‘why not’ attitude to making hearty, delicious satisfying food, including the mucho moreish Lavosh crackers mentioned above.


Homemade pantry TopRight,1,0_SH20_

3. Another reliable indicator is the number of post it notes you stick into a book as you read through it for the first time.  This book, Homemade pantry – 101 foods you can stop buying and start making  looked like a little yellow 3M sponsored hedgehog by the time I had finished with it.  In fact, I’m still not finished with it.

Do you have a go-to cookbook for everyday or do you rely on friends and family for recipes? And what do you find you tend to make over and over again?

Rub your eyes and purify your heart

Purified heartWhile being deported to the Gulags, Nobel Literature prize winning author Solzenitzyn observed a mother and daughter engaged in a petty squabble on his bus.  In response, he wrote the following:

“Do not pursue what is illusory – property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated on one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life – don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter does not last forever and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart – and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well.”

As we go through some significant changes in our work and family life, this quotation resonates strongly with us.  Even now as I read it the hairs rise on the back of my neck in recognition of the the essential truth.  We are blessed to have people in our lives who care about us and who wish us well. We are healthy and strong enough to live with integrity, love, honesty and kindness.

What else could possibly matter?



Appliance love: Sew, sew your pants up!

Sewing machineThere is a current of love which hums between creative women and their sewing machines.  Unlike appliances such as printers which are universally a source of frustration, unreliability and misery, sewing machines represent potential, self sufficiency, affordable embellishment, satisfaction and accomplishment.

The first sewing machine I ever used was my mother’s old Elna.  From there a relationship began with that brand, a joy which even the nasty old primary school ‘manual’ sewing teacher failed to kill. When I think of that machine, which Mum still owns and uses today, I associate it with creativity, colour, fabric, ball dresses past and the feeling of love channelled through the act of making.

My mother learned to sew from her widowed mother who brought in much needed income for her family of four as a ‘tailoress’.  Maternal family recollections are often based around outfits, fabrics and special occasions distinguished purely by the dressmaking skill which allowed them to feel lovely despite their lack of income.  Even in recent times, when family income is not the problem it once was, one of the most beautifully dressed groups at my wedding was almost entirely outfitted by my Aunty Carol.

Skill with a whirring machine runs through that family.  As a girl, my mother’s cousin Myrla was legendary for not even needing a pattern, but placing her (then) very expensive fabric on the floor and taking to it with her shears to cut out her garment pieces. There’s a definite unsung genius and quite a dash of derring-do in that course of action, which even now makes others draw in their breath and shake their heads.

As a child, late night shopping on a Friday would often feature the fabric shop with Mum, standing at the steeply angled pattern book counters and flipping through line drawings in the heavy Simplicity, Butterick and Vogue catalogues.  Then, the fabric choice which involved wandering around the different fabric types giving each fabric a quick mean squeeze to see how badly it held a crease. We may well have been the scourge of the shop, leaving a trail of crumpled textiles in a behind us.We were regulars in the haberdashery shop, where Mrs Spencer would let me pat her dainty black pomeranian dog.

There’s poetry and history in the names of those fabrics: linen, crepe de chine, georgette, sandwashed silk, faille, grosgrain. And as much as we joke as a family about Mum’s colour fixation (and perfect colour memory), the distinctions between indigo and navy, french and royal blue became clear, evocative and significant. And why just get by with red, when you can revel in cherry or scarlet?

Lacking patience, precision and attention to detail, I can’t claim the dressmaking skills of my mother’s side of the family.   I’m a ‘bog on in, give it a go’ kind of sewer.  But I like to make gifts, home furnishings, uneven bed quilts and and pyjama pants, all which are more forgiving of an uneven seam allowance, and still enormously satisfying.

When I turned forty, my mother bought me an old Elna machine if my own.  It suffered from age and being left in a room with a small boy who loved to twiddle its knobs and try to make it go when I wasn’t looking.  For the past two years it has sat reproachfully in a corner.  Every now and again I would think, ‘I’ll just fix/run up/make a…Oh’.

Yesterday I put my Elna into the care and custody of a sewing machine savant. Paul works out of his garage in Onehunga, his walls lined with old machines, each sporting its own manilla ticket featuring precise handwriting. The place has the tired but cherished feel of a doll’s hospital.  The lady ahead of me was leaving her machine to be repaired.  And although she was considering trading it in for a later model, you could see she really didn’t want to. She kept her hand on it through the whole conversation, and as she left she gave it a little pat, much as you might leave a loved dog with the vet.

When Paul saw my machine he smiled in warm appreciation, as he showed me how to shut the case properly for once. “Your timing is 25% out.  Even if you haven’t broken that plastic gear you’ll still need to replace it with this nylon one.  You’re still going to be sewing on this machine in forty years’ time. You wouldn’t get another like it under a thousand dollars”. I felt proprietorial and oddly proud.

“Just give me a week with it” he said as I left.

I gave my machine a small pat on the way out.


Inspiration – A short hymn to Rob Ryan

rob ryanWho could possibly be more inspiring than a craftsman-artist who can take a neglected artform and infuse it with freshness, wit and relevance?

Rob Ryan creates beautiful, quirky and instantly recognisable works. He is best known for his clever and intricate paper cuttings.  And though, as part of the Etsy fuelled crafter rennaissance, he has spawned a thousand imitators, his work remains distinctive, so clearly are they imbued with his individual approach and voice. Somehow his works also retain a sense of place while approaching universal appeal.

Rob has written and illustrated books, and designed card ranges as you might expect. However it’s exciting to me when artists and illustrators go beyond the two dimensional and take their quirky voice into other domains.

robert-ryan-vogue-dressRob has has also collaborated with fashion designers and his designs find a natural home on many fabrics

rye-2He has also branched out into ceramics, with a  mug  here and recently, in a lovely joint venture, some  modern Staffordshire cats (!).

There’s a special place in my heart for artists who work with the written word and he often incorporates text, sayings and lines of poetry and humour into his works.  On the base of this Rye mug it reads: ‘Rye Mug July 2013. Asked by his Teacher in History Class when did the Dark Ages in England end? He answered with mock surprise ”I never realised they had finished!” Printed and fired at The Mangle studio London E2. R Ryan.’ 


And will you just look at his lovely shop.  Hate to go all marketer-y on you, but his clear and consistent brand vision is admirable. And even more so because it seems to come from a place of authenticity.

For anybody who isn’t already familiar with Rob Ryan’s work or who wants to know more, his online shop here and here is his blog.

AD20111022995225-Rob Ryan tapestThe last word goes to Rob Ryan via the motto imprinted on a tapestry kit he designed.  It’s a credo which I think would appeal to many an artist crafter. Give me work to last me all of my life.

Amen to that.

PS There’s a lovely article here too for those who are interested

Thank you for spending your time on me

Scanned images 001My middle boy reached double figures today.

Any parent will tell you that each child poses his own particular challenges to their own self mastery as an adult.

This boy with his dramatic swings, verbal dexterity, persistence and emotional intelligence is capable of diabolical tempers, protracted negotiation, belly laughs and breathtaking sweetness.

This weekend he watched carefully as I made his birthday cake.  A wise move since one never knows when an M&M might go rogue. Tension rose as I tried to remember what I had forgotten to prepare for his small party. Just between us, I may not have had a pleasant and loving smile on my face.

My march to martyrdom was halted in its tracks when he looked across the table and said “Thank you for spending your time on me Mum“.

It is a choice to be an involved parent, whether you choose to express it via cake, or soccer coaching or endless standing knitting beside godforsaken dressage arenas (you know who you are). But even a rewarding choice takes time, money, energy and in the opportunity cost to personal projects.

Perhaps as a parent you can’t really expect to be thanked for what you do.  Maybe it’s only when you become a parent that you really realise what went into making you who you are. But when thanks comes, graced with a recognition that you could have spent your time differently, my goodness, it is appreciated.  I spent the rest of that day with a real glow, a feeling of  true delight.

Do you have memories of paging through the Woman’s Weekly cookbook to choose your next birthday cake, sometimes months in advance? The pages of my Australian Woman’s Weekly Kids Birthday cake book which aren’t stuck together are falling out from overpawing.

Even though my mother doesn’t really love to bake she has always been very good at it. Her baking is, without fail, delicious, and her scones are worldbeaters.  Few people can whip up a square meal for five with a heel of cheese and an old boot, but she can. It is usually garnished with a description of how it could have been better.

I have very strong memories of cakes Mum made for me such as ‘The Garfield‘ c1985 in particular. However special mention is reserved for the inventive jelly topped cake (still remembered by Lucy C some thirty years later) which was consumed shivering under a cold concrete ledge at the Parnell Baths.

As an adolescent I lounged about like a sneering know-it-all, not lifting a finger while the domestic arts were conducted around my prone form. Now I find them surfacing in me spontaneously, like a coma victim who wakes to find they can suddenly speak fluent Aramaic.  My mother for her part has been extremely gracious about me discovering these skills as if I was seeing them for the first time and acting as if I may well have just invented them.

It’s too big for one blogpost, but it all just comes down to one thing really:

Thanks for spending your time on me Mum.