Monday, 26 September 2011

Apple & Raisin Cookies

We've made nearly thirty litres of apple juice this year, from our favourite apple tree. But we also have a tree full of cooking apples to use. I can't quite imagine we'll get through them all, even if I make more mincemeat. However, this was a very tasty start...

You could use dried apple pieces if you prefer, but the texture will be very different to fresh apple.

Apple & Raisin Cookies
Makes 10-12

1½ cup plain flour
¾ cup soft brown sugar
½tsp baking powder
1tsp cinnamon
125g butter (US: 1 stick)
1 egg
½tsp vanilla essence
½ cup apple pieces (one medium cooking apple, chopped finely)
½ cup raisins

  1. Preheat the oven to 160°C.
  2. Mix the dry ingredients thoroughly, breaking up any lumps.
  3. Melt the butter.
  4. Break the egg into the butter, along with the vanilla essence, and mix with a fork until even.
  5. Add the liquids, apple, and raisins to the dry ingredients.
  6. Knead until you reach a dough of even consistency.
  7. Divide into balls and press lightly onto a baking tray - allow space for the cookies to spread during baking.
  8. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown.
  9. Cool on a wire rack.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Something In The Woodshed

Since we finally got our woodburning stove installed last month, we've been half wishing for winter to hurry up so we can have more fires. It's such a cozy way to spend an evening.

Meanwhile my husband has been working hard, using the late summer days to build a fabulous woodshed, and chopping wood to fill it up.

Actually, it's not yet anywhere near full. Andy estimates that each of the three sections takes about a cord of wood, and we haven't quite filled up one section yet. But we're getting there. I think the shed looks great, and it'll look even better when it's fully loaded.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Airlie Center, Virginia

After my short stay in New York, it was time to head to Virginia for a workshop at the Airlie Center. It would be hard to imagine anywhere more different from the bright lights of the big city, with 1200 acres of beautiful countryside. Everything was trees and lakes. We saw plenty of deer and geese, and the staff assured us that there were bears, skunks and coyotes in the vicinity. I'm only sorry that my head was so full of tough research questions (and jetlag) that I didn't have that much chance to explore the area.

I did, however, make sure I had plenty of time to explore the food. Airlie grows a lot of its own vegetables, and you could really tell from how beautifully fresh it all was. The buffet format made it possible to try a little of everything at every meal, and there were at least a couple of veggie and vegan options each time.

As well as growing their own food, the Airlie Center uses environmentally friendly and recycled products, and has recycling bins all over the place. Although I didn't actually see any there, the beautiful butterfly garden is specially planted with butterfly-friendly plants.

I didn't even get around to going for a swim, although we did have a discussion meeting at the poolside one day. While the ten minute walk from my room to the main buildings was a nice stroll, it felt a bit far to walk back while dripping and in need of a shower!

The bar was a nice environment to continue chatting into the evening, with very generous measures of gin in their G&Ts, and loads of free snacks.

And can anyone shed any light on why you might want two double beds in your room? (At a conference centre...?)

Wednesday, 14 September 2011


I've had landscapes take my breath away before, but it's typically been plunging ravines or towering cliffs, windswept oceans or bleak desert. The only man-made scene to physically take my breath away was the Great Wall of China, and that snakes through mountains that are more than impressive enough in their own right.

Until this.

I'd seen the New York skyline before, of course. In endless panoramic film shots, which didn't really give me a sense of scale. And in the daylight, which simply didn't give me this hit of pure and overwhelming beauty.

It put me in mind of Christmas lights: quite possibly the biggest display of fairy lights on earth. Chatting to a colleague today, she said it made her think of black velvet studded with diamonds. But whatever your analogy of choice, it was certainly breathtaking.

I don't really do cities. But staring wide-eyed across the water, I could suddenly understand why someone might want to wake up to this view.

(I'm just sorry that the picture really doesn't do it justice. Sorry, but - since I've never seen an image that did really capture it - not terribly surprised.)

Monday, 12 September 2011

Walking the George Washington Bridge

There are some things so inherently pointless that, having done them, you can't quite imagine choosing to do the same again. But on the other hand, the very silliness of doing something can contribute to the experience, and make it - one time, at least - quite fun.

I think walking from Edgewater into Manhattan is one of those things.

I didn't actually realise until I gave the address to the cab driver at JFK that my hotel - the closest to Columbia University that my travel agent could find - was on the other side of the Hudson in New Jersey. But the info sheet in my room said that it was three miles up to George Washington bridge - and that's a very manageable distance that I should usually be able to walk in about 45 minutes, so I decided to go a-wandering.

It took me an hour and a half, with over twenty minutes of that on the bridge itself. I also got a little bit lost trying to find the pedestrian path, and was turned away by the police on my first attempt! I wouldn't mind the time, though, if it was even a nice route. But the road up to the bridge isn't that great to walk along, it's very busy, with lots of side-roads to cross and gaps with no pavement (sidewalk!). And once you get onto the bridge itself, the traffic is constant and the pollution overwhelming. But once I'd started walking, sheer bloody-mindedness took over, and I wasn't going to give in half-way and catch the bus.

Still, it was a fun thing to have done the once, even if I won't be doing it again in a hurry. And there was a strange sense of cameraderie with other bridge-walkers as we exchanged windswept smiles and wondered why anyone else would be so daft as to be up there...

Saturday, 10 September 2011

New York

By the time you read this, I'll be on the plane from London to New York (I'm writing using the free wifi on the Heathrow Express).

I'm travelling to visit some colleagues at Columbia University, but I'm taking the opportunity to meet up with a couple of blogging friends while I'm there: Charlotte from My Pixie Blog and Alice from The Rabbit Hole Report.

Speaking of which, Charlotte asked me a while back if I'd submit a story to her 'happily ever after' series; I finally got around to writing it, and you can find possibly the strangest first date story you've ever read, here.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Play-Testing and Beta-Reading

I've been reading a few books lately that aren't published, or even complete. There's something really interesting about that glimpse into the unfinished, unpolished work that gives you more insight into the writer's thought processes than you'd ever get if you just read the final book. You have to look past errors and inconsistencies, but in exchange you get a product of raw enthusiasm that has its own kind of beauty. It's nominally a favour, but I love reading and I enjoy that sneaky look behind the scenes, so I keep volunteering.

I used to do the same for board games, especially in London where there were plenty of games designers looking for their first players. Play-testing tends to be a more interactive process than just reading a book and giving feedback. You're playing a game before it's fully developed, and often the game designer is there to make notes and clarify - or occasionally tweak - the rules.

In both cases, if you stick with the process you can get an overview of the development stages, and maybe learn some of the ways in which improvements get made. It's nice to see successive drafts get better and better - and to know, when the final product appears, that in some small way you were part of the process.

Have you ever volunteered for something like this? Anyone else find it simply fascinating?

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Cheese & Onion Cookies

A couple of weeks ago I served chocolate cherry cookies at a BBQ. As we were sitting around munching the cookies, someone suggested that savoury cookies would be a good idea. What with it being a BBQ, sausage flavour was suggested. Well, I haven't made those yet, but the general idea stuck and I have made a couple of other varieties in the meantime.

My first attempt, while very tasty, came out rather brittle and pastry-like. I wanted to make something softer, more in keeping with my (admittedly British) use of the word 'cookie', so I tried again. This time, I reduced the amount of flour, and included some mashed potato in the mixture. They're very moreish, and taste sort of like a cheese-and-onion pastie in cookie form. We tried some warm, but they're also nice cold.

Cheese & Onion Cookie Recipe
Makes about 20 cookies

2 cups plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1 cup chopped red onion
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
2 eggs
250g butter (US: 2 sticks)
1 cup mashed potato

  1. Preheat oven to 160° C.
  2. Mix baking powder into flour. Combine with cheese and red onion pieces.
  3. Melt the butter (1 minute in the microwave) and break up the eggs.
  4. Add the egg and melted butter to the flour. Mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon or spatula until no patches of raw flour remain.
  5. Knead the mashed potato into the dough.
  6. Form into balls and press down onto a lined baking sheet.
  7. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown and beginning to crisp.
  8. Cool on a wire rack before serving. Store in the fridge if you're not going to eat them all at once.

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