I listened to a fascinating programme on Radio 4 yesterday about what was lost under Kielder Water when the dam was built. The landscapes, the communities, the culture. I learned Kathryn Tickell played the last music ever to be heard in the buildings swallowed by the water, mere hours before the flood came. Today, I am listening to her exquisite pipe playing on Spotify, but I thoroughly recommend this programme if you are at all interested in British folk music or liminal spaces.
It’s hard to believe it’s November already. I don’t know where time has gone.
I realise I haven’t updated this blog since May — it has been even longer since I did anything with my other one — and, for once, I’m not going to hold myself to task over it.
A friend and I were having a glum discussion about boilers the other day, and the terrifying prospect of having to replace one. To give this some context, when Frood and I bought our house in early 2015, we knew it was going to be a bit of a project. We hadn’t realised how much of a project it would turn out to be. As my friend said, being an adult pretty much turns out to be a game of resource management. This house has taken up a lot of resource, in terms of time, energy and money, and between that and the day job there hasn’t been much left. What little I’ve had I’ve put into writing, although the one thing writing needs and I lack is mental energy. It’s hard to write when you can do barely more of an evening then eat and fall asleep on the sofa, and when it takes most of the weekend for your brain to decompress from the previous week.
In our previous house, I used to get up and write before work. Since this house is too far from work to cycle, we were both spending too much time sitting in front of a computer, and not getting enough exercise. My health had begun to suffer, and I know where that leads. Been there, done that, don’t intend to do it again. So while we’re now both getting up super early before work, that time is for trying to undo the effects of spending the rest of the day relatively inactive.
So there we are. Being an adult is a matter of resource management, and I have had barely the resource to write, never mind post to the blog.
And, you know, that’s okay. Having a social media presence is important, sure, but it’s not the critical part of being a writer. What is obligatory is writing (and reading). That’s it. To be a writer, you have to write, and you have to read, and you make time in whatever way you can. I can’t manage Stephen King’s recommended 2000 words a day most of the time, so I do what I can, which is why I’ve managed to complete six pieces this year, including a couple that are bordering on novella length.
In a way, I think that lack of resource has been useful. It’s easier to produce when you have all the time in the world, but it’s also easier to click trance away on some spurious line of research or be distracted by the wonders of the internet. When you are limited for time, and know it, you knuckle down and do the work. Bum on seat, words on page. It’s a bit like a Masterchef challenge in which the contestants have to produce a three course meal in 20 minutes or something else ridiculous. You can’t just work hard, you have to work smart.
One day, I hope that I will have more time to write, but I also hope I can hold onto that lesson of working smart, not just hard, and focusing on what matters.
What better accompaniment to freshly brewed coffee than soft, delicious, home-baked bread?
We make all our own bread. It started as an experiment, because I was having trouble with wheat. Marko read somewhere that the commercial method of bread production, the Chorleywood Bread Process, can produce bread that some people find problematic, because it is so fast the yeasts don’t have time to break down the gluten properly. This might or might not be true in my case, but my experience of home made bread has been a positive one, and I don’t enjoy commercial bread any more.
It might seem like a lot of effort, but it really isn’t, and while the resulting loaf works out more expensive than a standard sliced white from Aldi, my preference is to substitute quality for quantity where it makes sense to do so. Each 1kg loaf we make does us for anything from 4 days to a week, and while the process takes a few hours, the amount of actual work involved is about 15 minutes, and it’s well worth it.
So if you’re having a day at home writing, and fancy breaking up your writing with an activity that doesn’t take your mind away from the story, try making some bread.
For reference, all my flour comes from Marriage’s Millers these days. I’ve tried lots, and their flour consistently produces great results. I most often use a 50:50 blend of Strong Wholemeal and Very Strong Canadian White flours, but you can make up the full weight with whatever flour you like, as long as it’s bread flour. I also have a baking dome by La Cloche, which Marko bought me for Christmas last year and is the most frequently used piece of specialised kitchen kit I own apart from the kettle and the Chemex. It makes superb bread in a standard domestic oven. For proving, I use a 1kg lined wicker proving basket.
You don’t need to use either a dome or a basket — the following recipe can be baked in a 1kg (2lb) loaf tin. If you want to do that, the dough should go into the tin for its second proving. Alternatively, you can use the dough to make a plaited loaf or some other shape that will hold itself together on a tray for the second prove.
Our last trick is the use of a sourdough flour improver. Our sourdough is around three years old, and I’ve tagged a method for making one at the bottom. It’s not necessary to include this, and you can either leave it out or put in quarter of a cup (about 4 tablespoons, or 60ml) or plain, live yoghurt instead.
This recipe makes an 800g loaf. Or thereabouts.
600g flour (strong white, strong wholemeal, or a blend of flours, as long as they are strong bread flours) plus a little more for dusting the proving basket, if using
100ml boiling water
260ml cold water
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp dried yeast (unlike Paul Hollywood, I do NOT use the fast acting kind, which contains flour improvers, but the kind that needs to be activated in water)
1.5 tsp fine sea salt
Half a cup (about 120 ml, or a ladle full) of sourdough starter OR quarter of a cup (about 60ml) of plain live yoghurt (optional)
1 tbsp olive oil plus a little more for oiling the proving bowl, the kneading surface and the tin/tray/dome
1.Dissolve the sugar in the boiling water. Add the cold water, then sprinkle the yeast in and mix thoroughly. Measure out the flour into a large mixing bowl.
2. Go away and do something else for fifteen minutes. Perhaps a timed writing exercise. Adam Maxwell has a fun prompt generator if you’re stuck for ideas. Or how about a picture prompt from Flickr? I keep a Pinterest board just for story prompts — feel free to use one of those.
3. Now your yeast mix should be nice and frothy. (It could take longer if your house is cold. If this is an issue, you can use 150 ml boiling water and 210ml cold water to give it a boost.) Add it to the flour along with about half a cup of sourdough mix or the yoghurt, if using. Mix it together thoroughly with a butter knife, so all the flour is incorporated. It might be quite sticky: this is fine.
4. Go away and do something else for twenty minutes. Perhaps another timed writing exercise. You could use the results of your last one as a starting point or try something different. Maybe a random Wikipedia entry. Or pick a scene from one of your favourite stories and write about what one of the bystander characters was doing before the scene started.
5. Now that the flour has had a chance to absorb all the water, and the yeast has started work, add 1 tbsp of olive oil and the salt to the dough. Squidge it all together and turn out onto an oiled surface. Knead. Try not to add any more flour, even if the dough feels sticky, unless it’s more like wrestling with an amorous squid than kneading. HOW TO KNEAD: Pin one edge of the dough ball with the fingers of one hand (usually your non-dominant), as if it had teeth at the other end and poisonous spines, and the only way you could keep it from escaping or turning round to bite you was by pressing the fluffy top of its tail to the ground. With the heel of the other hand, push the dough away from you, stretching it to about as half as far as you can reach. Take the distant end, fold it in half back over itself towards you, then turn the dough through 90° (a quarter turn) and repeat. Once you get the hang of it, you can try the double fold (stretch as far as you can reach, fold, press down, fold again, turn, repeat).
6. Knead until the squid wants you to stop — the dough will tighten and feel like it wants to stay a ball rather than be your BFF and cling to you for dear life. At this point the surface will be smooth and soft, but the dough may still be a bit sticky. That’s fine, as long as it’s happy being a ball. This takes about ten minutes, which is just enough time to think about what you’re going to write next, or for your subconscious to get to work on that tricky plot point that’s been bothering you.
7. Round the dough. HOW TO ROUND THE DOUGH: On an oiled surface, and with freshly oiled hands, flatten the dough into a round then pinch a bit of an edge, pull it out and fold it back in to the centre. Repeat slightly further along, as if you were creating petals and folding them into a bud. Once you’ve done this all the way round, turn the dough over and use the edges of both hands to smooth down and spin the dough, tucking it under itself. Gill Meller of River Cottage has a video showing the process — start at 4:45 to avoid listening to his sales pitch for the oven he’s using.
8. Place the rounded dough in an oiled bowl (I use a 3 litre Pyrex mixing bowl), top down to get it oiled, then flip it so the top is uppermost. Cover in cling film. Now go away and do something else while it rises, which can be anything from 1 hour to 4 hours depending on room temperature. I often bring my dough with me into my office/writing space so I can keep an occasional eye on it.
9. Once it has doubled in size, knock it back by prodding it firmly with a fist, and repeat the ROUNDING step. If you’re using a round proving basket, dust the basket with flour and put the dough in with what will be the base of the loaf uppermost. If you’re proving it in a tin, shape the rounded dough into a fat sausage with your hands, tuck the ends under, then put it into the oiled tin and press down so it reaches the corners. If you’re shaping your loaf some other way, do that instead. Cover your dough with either a damp, lint-free dish towel, or stick it inside a plastic bag.
10. Go away and leave it to rise again for around half an hour to an hour. It’s easy to tell when it’s ready if it’s in a basket or a tin: once it has grown just higher than the top of the tin or the basket you’re good to go.
11. FOR A TIN: Slash the loaf with a very sharp knife or smoothly serrated bread knife, once in the middle and again about halfway to either end. Spray the surface of the loaf with water and place into a preheated oven as hot as you can get it. If you like, you can throw a few ice cubes into the bottom of the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, then spray again and turn down to 200°C (180 fan) for a further 30 – 40 depending on your oven. FOR A BASKET AND DOME: Turn the dough into the oiled base of the dome, slash once right across the middle of the loaf (you might need to make repeat cuts to get the slash deep enough — it should be about half the depth of the loaf), cover, then put into a cold oven. Switch the oven on to 200 °C, bake for 35 minutes, then remove the cover and bake for a further 15-20 minutes.
12. Turn the loaf out onto a cooling rack. If it’s done, it should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
13. Leave to cool for at least an hour — the sooner you cut into it, the sooner it will start to go stale.
To make your own sourdough starter, take 150g of strong white flour and mix it with 150ml of tepid water in a bowl. Whisk thoroughly, wandering around, harvesting yeast from the air like a perambulatory sky anemone. When I first did ours, I kicked our wood pile a few times and ambled around outside for ages, singing to the yeasts in the hope of luring them from their aerial manoeuvres into my bowl. Cover and leave for 48 hours. Add another 150g of flour and 150 ml of tepid water. By now it should have started bubbling a bit and smell a bit sour. Don’t worry if not, it can take a few days as this method uses only aerial wild yeasts, and they take a while to adapt to their new home. Leave for a further 48 hours, then discard half the mix and replace with 150g flour and 150 ml water. After another 48 hours you should definitely be seeing bubbles, but it might smell acidic rather than pleasantly sour. Keep feeding every couple of days until the colony has settled down and it smells nicely sour and a bit yeasty, almost like beer froth. It is now ready to use. We keep ours in a tupperware tub on top of the breadbin, and it is fed 1 – 2 times a week with strong white flour (i.e. whenever we make bread). It behaves best when the mix is quite thick, like drop scone batter, and it is beaten vigorously at feeding time. Every couple of months we transfer it to another tub and wash the one it’s in.
It’s a common generalisation that writers are fuelled by coffee. (I know of one or two who reserve the coffee for the editing part, but it remains part of their process.) I consider myself one of the unfortunates who was born with a less than optimal quantity of caffeine naturally present in the bloodstream, thus being obliged to consume more merely in order to obtain some semblance of normal function. I drink a lot of it, and therefore am particular about it. My beans are fresh ground at home in a burr mill grinder approaching its fourteenth birthday, and every three weeks I buy freshly roasted beans, storing opened packets in an Airscape vacuum canister.
I believe I’ve tried just about every form of coffee making known to man with the exception of, thus far, cold brewed and the vacuum system used by Hannibal (the latter firmly out of my price range). I have a single cup drip filter, an Aeropress and a French press at work, choice dependent on how much time I have to make the coffee. At home I have a drip machine, stove top espresso maker (Moka pot), turkish coffee pot (Ibrik) and a Chemex.
The Chemex is a thing of beauty, and appeals to me because SCIENCE. I have used my fair share of conical flasks in my time. It also makes the best long coffee, in my opinion. If you like your coffee short, dark, bitter, thick and with crema, this isn’t for you; I generally prefer long to short, however.
It also has literary history: it’s the coffee maker used by James Bond, as specified in From Russia With Love:
It consisted of very strong coffee, from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex, of which he drank two large cups, black and without sugar.
If you hadn’t guessed already, I’m a bit of a fan.
HOWEVER. It’s not a fast method (hence the machine drip filter for weekday mornings), and nor is it straightforward. Especially if, like me, you are a caffeine monster for whom the standard instructions for a brew to the button (the glass bubble near the bottom) are risibly inadequate.
This, fellow coffee lovers, is a method for brewing a LOT* of coffee in a 10 cup Chemex and keeping it hot while you undertake the business of the day without having it cooking on the stove.
Here’s what you need:
Left to right that’s an electric kettle (American readers, I have no idea what you use for boiling water, but use that instead), my trusty Dualit grinder containing 60g of freshly roasted Brazilian Yellow Bourbon, the Airscape from whence came the beans, a l litre vacuum flask and my 10 cup Chemex (CM-10A) containing a pre-folded unbleached filter. (I also use the bleached round unfolded filters, because, again, SCIENCE, but I think the unbleached gives a marginally faster flow so it’s possible to use a slightly finer grind of coffee and thus a slightly more complex flavour profile.) If you are making coffee just for yourself, you may want a larger flask, say 1.5l.
1. Boil about 500ml of water in your kettle. When it boils, put it in the empty flask. Now refill the kettle (ours has a capacity of 1.7l) but don’t switch it on, yet.
2. Grind your beans. It should be a moderately coarse grind, so the coffee ends up the texture of beach sand. While it’s grinding, using about half the water in the flask, rinse down the filter paper. It’s tempting to skip this step, but don’t. It gets rid of any residue from the packing and warms the Chemex. Discard the rinsing water.
3. Put the ground coffee into the Chemex. Switch on the kettle. Using just enough of the hot water still in the flask, soak the coffee until it’s saturated but not floating, then stir. Empty any remaining water from the flask but put the lid back on to retain heat.
4. Once the kettle has boiled, fill the flask. Use the water from the flask to pour over the coffee in the Chemex, using a spiral motion to ensure even coverage. Fill to within about 5mm of the glass rim. Stir again.
5. Top up the water in the flask using the water in the kettle. Transfer the Chemex to the stove top. If you have gas or ceramic you’re fine — if you have a coil element you will need a special heat diffuser to ensure you don’t damage the Chemex. Turn on the stove to its lowest setting.
6. Once the water has filtered through, top up the Chemex using the remaining water in the kettle (it will now have cooled to the ideal 90 – 92ºC) by pouring gently down the sides of the filter paper, washing the coffee grounds back down into the mix.
7. Continue topping up the Chemex in this fashion using water from the flask, being careful not to overfill, until you have achieved the desired amount of coffee. In my case, this is to the neck.
8. Remove the filter paper, holding it above the Chemex for a few moments to allow any remaining coffee to drain. You don’t want to lose any.
9. Empty any remaining water from the flask (there won’t be much) and fill the flask with coffee. You can now pour yourself a mug using what’s left in the Chemex, safe in the knowledge the rest will stay hot for however long your flask is supposed to keep things hot.
10. Enjoy with your current reading material, or use to fuel words.
* By “a LOT” I mean about 5 full British mugs, or roughly 1.6 litres of coffee.