Something you may or may not have picked up about me from reading this blog: I am quite the nerd. So when a Hogwarts letter for me arrived in the mail (a very clever dinner invitation by food in literature blogger Bryton Taylor), my excitement was through the roof.

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Photo by Danica Zuks

I like to think I put effort into my dinner parties, but I have nothing on Bryt. Coming to the front gate, I could tell I had the right the house by the ‘Platform 9 3/4′ sign. The front verandah was decked out with broomsticks and Deatheater wanted posters. Inside, there were shelves and tables filled with spell books, jars of potions ingredients, candles, cauldrons and magical homework assignments. In the room decked out as the Great Hall, the ceiling had been decorated to look like the night sky, and candles strung up from the chandelier as if they were floating. The hallway had portraits of wizards past on the walls, and even the bathroom was decked out as the Herbology greenhouse, complete with a mandrake. I wasn’t the only one gazing around in wonder the entire time, wondering if I’d somehow made it to the real Hogwarts.

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Photo by Danica Zuks

As it was (wisely) decided to be a potluck dinner, each of the guests brought along a wizarding inspired dish (or one of the many very British dishes mentioned in the books). We feasted on chicken drumsticks, pies, and the best damn mashed potato I’ve ever tasted, along with Bryton’s butterbeer and Laura’s Polyjuice potion. Afterwards we had pumpkin pasties, cauldron cakes, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Jellybeans and Danica’s liquorish spiders, ghost nuts and Golden Snitch chocolate truffles.

With food bloggers and book bloggers (and all Harry Potter nerds) in attendance, there was a lot of conversation about nostalgia for old Young Adult novels, ‘shelfies’, how we go about reviewing things, fantasy tv series… Definitely my kind of crowd!

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Short on time but determined to make something vaguely wizard-y, I settled on the relatively simple treacle tart – the favourite dessert of Harry Potter.

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I followed this recipe from Adventures in Cooking with a few small changes, some good, some not so much! Here’s a few notes I’ve made for next time:

  • Try a different shortcrust pastry recipe – maybe I didn’t add enough butter and too much water, but I found this pastry got a bit tough, and in the large tart was almost impossible to put a knife through. This made it quite difficult for guests to serve themselves at the party! The shortcrust pastry I’ve used for tarts previously seemed to work much better.
  • I found rolling out the pastry much cleaner than spooning it into the tins as per the recipe.
  • Definitely a good call to skip the sugar in the pastry – the filling is more than sweet enough on its own.
  • It really does need the lemon juice – I tried to substitute with an orange I had on hand, but it isn’t acidic enough to cut through the sweetness from the golden syrup.
  • Treacle tart must definitely be served with cream and/or ice-cream – the flavour is quite intense, and the balancing it out with creaminess would make it just right.
  • The fact that golden syrup is difficult to get in the USA really surprised me – it’s something I’ve always taken for granted, and always have in my pantry.
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Besides the tart, I of course had to have a go at making a real feather quill (yes it really writes) and sewing up Hogwarts robes. I was slightly ambitious with the latter as I’ve never tried sewing a garment with lining or pockets before, but it turned out mostly alright, if a little short due to running out of fabric. I ran out of time to get any schoolgirl outfit pieces, so just went with a dress in Slytherin green under the robes. Almost everyone else came as Gryffindors! Oh well, it takes all sorts to make the world go around…

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Yes I decided to go ahead and make myself a prefect

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Me in Slytherin green – photo by Danica

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Photo by Danica

What an amazing night! Big thanks to Bryton for the invitation, Danica for the great photos and all the other guests for the fabulous feast.

I’ll be honest – August was not a great month for me! As I’ve mentioned previously it’s been punctuated mainly by injury, which is especially because it stops me from doing as many hobbies and side projects as I like to fill my time with. That said, there have been a few exciting things going on which I can’t wait to share more of over the next month! Here’s my recap for August.

“A monthly capture of my feelings and doings, in the raw.”

What I’ve been grateful for

Although I’m feeling a bit crappy right now, I’m very thankful for being able-bodied and pain-free most of the time. I know there are people out there who have to deal with chronic conditions that make life difficult, and experiencing some of that in short bursts always makes me feel grateful for how easy I have it the rest of the time. I really need to work harder to maintain and improve my health, because times like this show how important and taken for granted it is.

Everyone who has put up with me shuffling around like a zombie and generally being a bit useless. Especially The Boy who has had to take over all the cooking and cleaning whilst I’m being an invalid. I’m not sure that my patience and sympathy would last quite so long if the situations were reversed.

What I’ve been thinking about

After completing my letterpress printing short course (more on that later), I was a bit devastated that there isn’t anywhere available to keep improving my skills, so spent a good couple of weeks seriously considering buying a press and starting a little letterpress business. Unfortunately now that it’s so trendy, prices for these antique machines (they were built up until the 70’s) have shot up, and due to their weight, size and fragility it isn’t something you can easily send via Australia Post. After some thought and research I’ve decided that I’m mostly just interested in doing my own experiments and printing my own designs – doing it as a form of income would kill a bit of the fun for me, just like it would for calligraphy or illustration. I’m still keeping an eye out for a small press that I can pick up locally, if I can find one for a good price…

I’ve started working on a big project, which I was going to keep semi-secret until it’s a bit further along, but I hear it’s better to start generating buzz early so… along with a couple of friends, I’m starting a zine! For the uninitiated, zines are self-published works which can run the gamut from scrapbook style, photocopied punk affairs to rather polished publications that are basically indie magazines. We’re aiming to lean towards the latter end of the scale, with the focus on creative people and fun DIY projects. In addition to handling the digital and social components (which I’m woefully behind on), my contributions for our first issue will include a beginner’s calligraphy guide and maybe some simple recipes. More on this project and my co-conspirators soon, and hopefully I’ll actually have a website up by then!

In researching for the zine, I’ve seen the sentiment echoed amongst independent publishers – print is not dead, it’s just evolving. Maybe people are less interested in getting a daily printed newspaper or gossip magazine, preferring to get that kind of instant, disposable content from social media and blogs. But high quality, less profits-driven and beautifully written and crafted independent publications are on the rise, because in this world where there are so many things which are disposable or clickbait, having something solid and considered is a rarer and more valuable experience. With a lower barrier to entry than ever and online stores replacing the need for a traditional publisher, some really awesome stuff is surfacing, if you just know where to look.

What I’m excited for

I’m going to a Harry Potter themed party this weekend, and my (not so hidden) inner nerd is incredibly excited for it. I’ve gone all out making Hogwarts robes with Slytherin green lining, and need to go hunting for a good twig to fashion a wand out of. Expelliarmus!

Later this month I’ll be attending Eat Drink Blog, a conference for food bloggers, which is being held in Brisbane this year. I had an amazing time at last year’s conference in Perth, so have very high expectations! I’ll be flying over a day early, so plan to spend some time checking out GOMA and exploring the city. Also exciting (to me) is that this trip is mostly free – free conference with some meals, flights using up my points, accommodation with a hefty AirBnB discount. I’m no seasoned travel hacker, but I feel pretty proud of my efforts.

What I’ve been doing

A lot of lying still, napping and reading magazines. Normally this would be very enjoyable, but when you’re doing it because doing anything else is painful, it loses a bit of its shine. I hope to be doing this in a more intentional/recreational way this month rather than out of necessity.

Not exercising, again due to pain, which is especially problematic because one colleague keeps my workplace well-stocked with ice-cream, chocolates, lamingtons, pineapple tarts, biscuits and occasionally cake, and I get suckered in every time. Every day I resolve to not give in, but it hasn’t worked so far. Thankfully I’ll be back to exercising at least a bit again this week now I’m recovering, although I think I’ll need to do a lot more than that to cover ice-cream o’clock and those pineapple tarts.

Keeping my kitchen window greens (spinach, rocket and raddicchio) alive, with the occasional haircut. As the weather grows warmer they’re going through a growth spurt, and are probably ready to be culled back further. The seedlings that I transferred to an outside pot have surprisingly shot up after a shaky start, so I have high hopes for nice salad crops this spring.

What I’ve been reading

I’ve almost finished Walden! The descriptions of nature are lyrical but kind of tiresome, and they make up a good half of the book. But every time I feel like giving up it comes up with another brilliant nugget that keeps me going.

“This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet.”

Some recent indie magazine discoveries – Extra Curricular (excellent interviews with creative people), Peppermint (sustainable living), and Lucky Peach (food journal).

This article about the historical rivalry between Coles and Woolworths, and the effect it’s had on smaller grocery stores and suppliers, is fascinating if terrifying for the future of biodiversity and food security. A long read, but well worth it.

What I’ve been spending my money on

Pretty much just magazines, as listed above. I am however eyeing the Spring selection of short courses at CIT – maybe painting or pottery?

 


 

If you’d like to join us or see others’ posts in this monthly series, head on over to helario.us for the master list.

I’ve always been a bit of a stationery nerd – I still have a collection of unused notebooks and sketchbooks, waiting for ‘something special’ to fill them in. As a quiet and bookish kid, the present I was given most often was a diary, complete with little lock and key (which you could easily break open with a hairpin or hard knock). I don’t think I filled any of those diaries, and probably didn’t touch some of them at all.

These days I’ve stopped collecting different novelty notebooks and stay relatively true to a single kind that works for me. Even in this digital world, I think there’s a lot of value to physically hand writing plans, ideas and problems to solve the old fashioned way (and there is evidence to suggest that it can help with memory and grasping concepts). As a designer, about a third of my notebooks are filled with sketches, wireframes and diagrams which are less convenient to do in digital form. I’ve taken to carrying my notebook and a pen or pencil with me everywhere I go, in case a sudden idea or unexpected opportunity to write down something I’ve been mulling over arrives. I even managed to deboss ‘sketches & ideas 2014′ on the cover with a hot foil stamping machine in my letterpress class, which further makes it more special than any digital notes.

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I was a dedicated Moleskine fan for a few years, with a collection of filled medium red notebooks sitting on my shelf, but since falling into the world of calligraphy and fountain pens have made the switch to Rhodia. This French brand uses Clairfontaine paper intended for use with fountain pens, so works beautifully for calligraphy as well (Moleskine by contrast bleeds horribly with even a slightly inky pen). I’m also a complete convert to the dot grid as opposed to lines, grids or plain paper – I find it gives just the right amount of guidance for both sketches and for writing, although the latter was a little cramped until I adjusted the size of my writing to suit. The dots practically invite you to use the spaces in between, rather the rigid tyranny of lines or grids, or the completely unguided plain paper. I have a larger Rhodia dot grid sketchpad which I use for all my calligraphy and lettering practice and planning.

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I’m curious – do you use a paper notebook, or have you switched to a digital alternative? Is there a particular brand which you feel committed to?

P.S. Apologies for the extended absence – I’ve had a flareup of an old injury, something which usually subsides within a day or two but this time has managed to just keep getting progressively worse over the past three weeks. At this point the best I can manage is to get through the work day (or not, as the case was today) and then collapse, completely spent, at home immediately afterwards. Dealing with near-constant pain is both physically and mentally exhausting, mainly as every action needs to be strategised so it can be executed with as little pain as possible. I was going to write a full post on this, but decided that I don’t really want to invite sympathy or (sometimes worse) well-intended advice. I’m doing the best I can, but expect blog posts to be a little less frequent for a little while longer.

In case you were wondering about the fate of those roses from earlier this week – they’ve been dried and squirrelled away for sprinkling on baked goods for a bit of colour.

Drying rose petals is actually quite easy, even without a dehydrator or other fancy equipment. I just plucked the petals and arranged them in a single layer on a paper towel, then microwaved in 20 second intervals until they were dry and crisp. My microwave has lost a lot of its power over the years so it took a good several minutes in total, but your mileage may vary. Make sure that there aren’t any water droplets from rain or morning dew on the petals, as they will burn spots into the delicate petals when microwaved.

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The petals turn a darker colour when dried; mine went from a light pink to a magenta. I made the mistake of leaving my first batch from a week ago in a jar near a window, and they faded to a sad yellowish colour. These guys are going to be living in darkness until I’m ready for them. I’ve seen rose petals used as decoration on cakes in cafes which look really stunning, so I’m trying to think of how I can use these ones. Maybe a project for this weekend?

I’m tempted to go around my neighbourhood with a pair of scissors to collect more colours…

 

Last weekend I was in the fortunate position of having leftover dulce de leche and nothing to eat it with. As much as I like just eating it by the spoonful (yes really), I decided that a better use would be to sandwich it between shortbread cookies.

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Dulce de leche translates literally to ‘candy of milk’, and is made by slowly heating condensed milk (or milk and sugar) until it turns into something like a gooey caramel. The Boy made ours using this Taste.com.au recipe for an earlier project. Not being someone who does things by halves, he was hoping to sandwich it between gigantic chocolate peanut butter chocolate chip cookies into massive double-sized super cookies that would probably give you a heart attack from looking at. I decided to go down a slightly different route.

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Shortbread is a favourite of mine, because what could be more simple than butter, sugar, flour and a pinch of salt? There’s something so pleasing about the crumbly texture and the smooth flavour of butter, the perfect vehicle for a filling. I deliberately rolled out the dough quite thinly, less than 5mm, and cut them into circles small enough to eat in one bite. Somehow I don’t have any simple round cookie cutters, only things like ninjas and stars, but a little wineglass does the trick. Shortbread dough gets trickier to work with the warmer it gets, so I find it easiest to roll and cut straight onto some baking paper and transferring the whole sheet onto the baking tray, saving the hassle of trying to pry thin and delicate circles off the bench and preserving the nice circle shape. They don’t expand as they bake, so I just crammed as many as possible onto one sheet.

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Fifteen minutes in the oven at 180 degrees and these guys were nice and brown and crisp. I had to be careful spreading on the dulce de leche, because these biscuits are so short (that is, full of butter) that they snap and crumble with a fraction too much pressure. I found that smearing a circular dollop in the centre of the biscuit then twisting another one over the top, squishing the filling between them, gave the neatest results. The ones where I tried to put too much filling onto began to slide apart as the chilled dulce de leche melted slightly in the morning sun, delicious mistakes to be eaten before they made too much mess.

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Shortbread Cookies with Dulce de Leche Filling

A small but decadent sweet treat with just a bit of salt. Perfect with a cup of tea, just remember they can be very more-ish. Adapted from my butter-stained copy of The Cooking Book. Make roughly 30 double-decker cookies.

You’ll need:

  • ~1 cup of dulce de leche filling (recipe here)
  • 175g butter, softened
  • 50g sugar (for a not-t00-sweet biscuit – go for 75g if you’re not adding filling)
  • 250g plain flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Here’s what you do:

  1. Beat the sugar and butter together until soft and fluffy.
  2. Add the flour and salt, then mix until combined and the mixture forms a dough (it can look like dry breadcrumbs at this point, but it always comes together).
  3. Knead gently until it becomes a smooth dough.
  4. Preheat the oven to 180˚C.
  5. Roll the dough onto a lightly floured sheet of baking paper, to a thickness of ~4mm. The butter content can make this dough difficult to roll without sticking – I find giving the dough some time in the fridge and rubbing some flour over the rolling pin before rolling can help.
  6. Use a ~4cm round cutter to cut circles in the rolled out dough, then remove the scraps and repeat the process. As the biscuits don’t rise as they bake, they can be cut very close to one another.
  7. Move the sheet with cut circles on top onto a baking tray, and bake for ~15 minutes or until golden brown.
  8. Once baked, transfer to a cooling tray to cool completely before adding the filling.
  9. Carefully spread a dollop of dulce de leche onto the center of a biscuit with a circular motion, then push another on top, twisting as you go to evenly spread the filling.

I’ve found these cookies stay crisp for a few days in an airtight container, whilst the dough can be rolled into a log and frozen for up to 3 months, ready to be sliced up and baked for emergency cookies (it happens).

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P.S. I’m digging rustic, ‘real’ food styling lately, especially as it meant I could take photos right in my kitchen work area and just tidy up all in one go at the end. I often over think styled food shots, but this one was mostly on the fly and a whole lot faster for it. What do you think?