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Sunday, 12 January 2014

The self assessment grid.

I had my professional assessment in my course the other day. I’m studying to be an antenatal teacher with the NCT, and in the January before you graduate, you have to fill out an assessment grid all about yourself. If you get all seven or above, and you want to start your teaching career, then they book your first ever course in July. I mention this because of the assessment grid we have to use - twelve points we reflect then mark ourselves on out of ten. My tutor marked all my grades up from 7’s and 8’s to 9’s and 10’s and I’m set to teach my first course in July.
However, looking at the self assessment grid I got to wondering if it might throw some light on the whole writing lark. Seeing as I’m in reflective mood, let’s take a look at them-


Or when writing, what is motivating your characters. You have to know, the reader doesn’t. Or rather, they need to find out, and it might not be what you or they think it is when you start. It’s so much more fun when what we think is the motivation turns out not to be, or rather that the character start off thinking they want A, then discovering they actually want B, and perhaps even that it is A after all. 
You could also tick the box here for actually doing some bloody writing. There are a billion unfinished books out there, but who cares about them? A writer who doesn’t write is a bit like a dancer who doesn’t dance, you kind of have to do it to be it.


How well do your characters know themselves? How well does the reader know them, and how? You can have a character who likes to think that they’re respectable, dependable and reliable - but who goes on to prove that they’re anything but - especially if they’re maintaining their innocence all the while - the classic unreliable narrator. Or, have your character know the truth of their nature and try all the way through to hide it because the world demands it of them - until one slip is their down fall. They key is that you as the writer must know your character absolutely, every beat of their heart and every inch of their dreams - then decide how much of it you choose to share with them, or the reader.

Respect for colleagues 

This means other writers. They’ve all done it before you, you are standing on the shoulders of giants so do them the courtesy of treating the craft with respect. 

Reception of feedback

Ah-ha! You will get feed back. Some of it will be good, some of it will be bad, but all of it should be considered. Everyone wants someone to pick up their first book and say ‘why, this is wonderful, please collect your booker from the bran tub outside the door.’ They’re not going to. What might appear to be bad feedback, or hard feedback, is hard to hear, but once you’ve got over the pain, use it. Pain is there for a reason, pain is there to tell us we need to do something. You may decide that all you need to do is ignore it, you may decide that you need to jump six feet sideways - but think of it as something to use. Better you spend another twelve months working on it, than get another twelve rejections.

Ability to work as a team member 

This I’m going to use to say that you have to get all your team players working toward the same goal, your book. You need to be up on the plot, you need the characters to work, you need to paint the scene, you need to keep up the pace - think of all these things as your team and don’t let one take over from the others.


If you have a deadline, meet it. A deadline is a gift, not a burden. Just be glad you’ve got one, if you ever do.


You’re creating a world, whether or not it’s a fantasy epic or Guilford in January, so do right by it. If the rain in your world is purple, it’s purple - so make sure it’s purple all the way through.


You are getting into the minds and hearts of your readers, I hope. Just be careful what you leave there.

Time keeping and punctuality 

Ok - stretching the point a little but timing is everything in writing as much as comedy. Always be aware of it, when building tension, when wrong footing the reader, especially when telling a joke. If I might load a second point onto this one, I’d also underline the importance here of reading things out loud. Everything, every word of what you think is your final draft must be read out loud to ensure that it is readable at all. You’ll hear at once if the timing is off or out, especially when it comes to dialogue - and yes, you have to do the accents and the voices and walk around the room in the guise of your characters.

Professional appearance 

How you present your work is crucial. There is a professional form you should follow when submitting. It’s not a question of people being awkward, it’s not a question of them nit-picking - it’s the way things are done. If you don’t do it, they will simply have an easy reason to throw your manuscript into the slush pile. There are lots of good books on the subject of submissions which are worth the read.


Don’t give things away lightly. This is going to be my exposition rant. You need to know everything about everyone in your book and everything in the world of your book, then write as if your reader does also. Don’t explain anything, don’t take a moment to set the scene - just be in the world of your book. As your characters walk through it, they will cause ripples in it which will turn into waves which will rock boats - and that’s your story. You know what I’m saying here, don’t you? Show, don’t tell.

Social media
There’s lots out there, some of it good, some of it bad. When you’re writing, turn it off. When you’re promoting, turn it on.

Now, how does your writing stack up, from one to ten? Go on, give it a go, and hopefully someone will come and mark you up as well.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Is this my best cake ever?

It might be. In that it contains everything I love most in cakery, and I have to say I could probably eat the whole thing. I would be sick afterwards, but I'd probably still do it anyway, if I didn't have some shreds of self control left.

I'm calling it a 'Nutty Betty', just because it's mine to name and here's how to make it. Oh, and yes, it contains nuts.

You will need:

3 eggs, separated.
3 oz plain flour.
1 tsp baking powder
3 oz caster sugar
3 oz creamed coconut - the hard block stuff you get for Indian cooking.
2 oz hazel nuts

to decorate:

300ml double cream
sugar to taste
1 tsp Vanilla essence
more hazel nuts
Brandy - or other favorite liquor, Tia Maria or any nutty, coffee, caramel sort of one will do.


Grease a small ring mold well. You can use any cake tin you like but you may need to cook for a little longer if you use a loaf tin or similar. You can use two sandwich tins also, and spread the filling between them. Line your tin with baking parchment, but with a ring mold this can be hard so I just used plenty of butter and it came out fine.

Heat your oven to 220 degrees.

Place the nuts on a baking tin (not a flat cookie sheet or they roll off) and bake for 10/15 mins. Let them cool for a little, then wrap them in a tea towel and roll them between your hands, think of massaging them, to remove the skins.
Put some aside to decorate the cake, roll these in icing sugar to stop them from being bitter,  then either grind the rest in a coffee grinder or pound in a pestle and mortar until sandy looking, or as fine as you can manage.  They smell divine!

Lower the oven temperature to 160 - don't forget to do this!
Gently melt your coconut cream in a small non-stick pan over a low heat.
Sift the baking powder together with the flour. 
Separate your eggs, and whisk the whites well into stiff peaks. Sprinkle a little of the sugar over them and whisk until glossy, won't take long at this stage.
Pour the rest of the 3 oz of sugar onto the yolks and beat well until the mixture turns paler in colour.
Sift the flour over the yolk mixture and fold in with a metal spoon.
Pour in the melted cream coconut and fold in next.
Fold in the egg white and then the ground nuts.

Pour the cake batter into the tin and bake for 20 mins or until a skewer comes out clean. It's quite a light airy cake so shouldn't take long, especially if you bake it in two sandwich tins, when I'd only give it 15 mins before you check it.

Give it a moment or two to cool, then turn it out onto a wire rack. When it's a little cooler, pour over a few generous spoon fulls of liquor.

To decorate:

Whip your cream, adding in the vanilla and liquor to taste, and some sugar - it's up to you how sweet you like it. You can just spread it over the cake (wait until it's cool though!) with a knife and fork it up for a nice, rough finish, or you can pipe with a large rosette which is what I did. Decorate with the saved hazel nuts rolled in icing sugar, and Bob is indeed your mother's brother.

If you don't do dairy, omit the cream frosting and grease your tin with white vegetable fat instead. The ice the cake with glace icing flavored with liquor or coffee and decorate with the nuts as before. This also works well for a less rich version and so so tasty with a cup of coffee.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Pudding it about!

As boasted on Facebook, I have indeed made a marmalade steamed pudding. If you would like to make one too, and if not, what's wrong with you, it's freezing out there! - here's how.

 Here are your basic requirements -

150 grams self raising flour.
2 tea spoons cinnamon
150 grams butter.
150 grams sugar.
3 eggs ( free range)
two pieces of stem ginger very finely chopped.
Juice of one orange, zest of one orange ( I only had lemons, which work fine!)
Four or five spoons of marmalade
Golden syrup.

You're also going to need a pudding basin, I have a glass mixing bowl which works fine, you just need something that has a lip around the edge.

 Grease the inside of the pudding bowl with butter and put four spoons of marmalade in to the bottom, then a good pour of golden syrup. You need a piece of baking paper and a piece of foil to make a lid, lay the foil on top of the paper and make a pleat in both, this gives it room to expand.

 Put all the other ingredients into your mixer, or a bowl and use your hand mixer to blend it all together until it's smooth, light and fluffy. Pour into the pudding basin, lay the foil and paper over the top, scrunch it down over the edge of the bowl and tie in place with string - you may need a hand with this! Put in a steamer and steam for 2 hours - remember to check it so it doesn't boil dry.
 And here we go - two hours later take it our of the steamer, take off the foil lid and then place a plate over the bowl. Holding both together ( you'll need oven gloves) invert the bowl so the pudding drops out onto the plate - is should come out pretty cleanly but if any juicy bits cling on, pour them over the pudding. Serve warm with cream or custard.
 Someone had two helpings!

In case you're wondering how it's going with the economy drive, over the last two months we have saved £1200. Yes, £1200!! Unfortunately, dental bills and other medical expenses have cost us £575, which has rather taken the air from out sails, but we're still hoping card one of three, the one with interest, will be canceled out by the end of March. If we can make it through until Thursday that is, with about £20 left in the world!

It's hurting, but it is working!

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Taking the buscuit

It's a cold, grim day in January and frankly, one needs a biscuit. I am reminded of a story of the Duke of somewhere at the advent of world war one, when government officials came round to take an audit of his staff to see who could be spared for the war effort.
The official looked through his list :
'Well, your Lordship, you may keep your butler, the two under butlers, the four footmen, the two kitchen boys, the gardener, the two under gardeners, the chef, the sous chef and the game keeper, but do you really need the three pastry chefs?'
'What?' his Lordship snapped. 'Can't a man have a biscuit?'

As my man requested biscuits and we don't have a pastry chef, I turned to Jo's book and made these oatmeal and raisin cookies. They worked out at £1.80 to make, was ASDA smart price goods, and I made 33, so they aren't as budget as they might be but taste a whole lot better than the smart price biscuit alternative.

Cream together -

170 grams butter
125 grams white sugar
220 grams soft brown sugar -

then add

1 egg
4 tsp sunflower oil

In a separate bowl, sift in

225 grams plain flour.


1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon

then add

200 grams of rolled oats
200 grams of raisins -

Beat well and then roll into walnut sized balls, place onto a well oiled baking sheet, press them a little to flatten, you can fit about 9 on a baking sheet. Bake for 20 mins at 180 degrees.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Sweet and sour dough

I've been wanting to try out sough dough bread for a while, and austerity is the perfect excuse, as the bread uses neither butter or yeast - it's pretty much flour and water, rises with the natural yeasts in the air, and tastes delicious. I was also inspired by my friend Lisa who works in a lovely bar in London with a menu that features sour dough bread, some of which she brought me at Christmas. I used the guide in Paul Hollywood's book, and scarped together my pennies to buy a 2 lt jar with a clip on lid, like the one in his book.
 Here it is - 500 grams of flour mixed with 190 ml of water to make a sloppy dough mixture, with a grated organic apple - organic because otherwise the pesticides will stop the yeasts from forming. You make a mark on the side to judge how far it's risen when starts to ferment, and you leave it for three days.
 Look, here's my mark and some early bubbles!

 After three days, this is what I got - huge bubbles! You then discard half of it, though I was tempted to try and do something with it - and add another 250 grams of flour and enough water to make it a wet dough again. You then let it stand for another 2 days, discard half again, add another 250g of flour and water, and then 24 hours later you're ready to go.
The basic bread needs 500 grams of starter ( add enough flour and water to bring your jar up to your mark when you use your starter) - 750 grams of flour, tepid water enough to make a nice wet dough, and 10 grams of salt.
Sour dough needs kneading, more kneading that conventional bread, I gave mine 10 mins and boy, it makes a glorious silky smooth dough.
It's then left to rise until it's doubled in size, this took 8 hours for me ( this is a bread you need to plan in advance for!) You then shape out two loaf sized lumps and knock them back. Proving takes a long time, set them to prove in mixing bowls lined with flour dusted tea towels, and put the bowls inside plastic bags.
 I left mine to prove overnight, so although the process is long, it's very easy as you sleep through most of it! In the morning I got up at eight, put on my oven and gently placed each risen load on a prepared baking tray - either oiled or lined with baking parchment. Once my teeth were brushed and make-up was done, I was ready to bake - and 35 mins later we had bread!
It had the perfect, bubbly crumb, chewy texture and the glorious, slightly yoghurty taste of sour dough - I was really rather pleased with it.

You have to store your starter in a cold place if you're baking less than every three days, but I'm hooked, watch this space for a lot of sour doughs!

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The pig man cometh.....

 It is true that bulk cooking helps stretch your pounds. Bulk buying is no good if you can't eat it all before it goes off, that's just wasted money in the bin, so if you want to take advantage of bulk discounts, make sure that you've room to store it all.
 Pig man pie is my version of Shepherds Pie, as my husband won't eat beef or lamb. To make your mince go further, I add in some tinned beans - borlotti  are my favourite as I think they have the best flavour, and grated carrot which adds taste, bulk and extra veg.
This is my basic 'meat sauce' mix, which you can just as easily serve with spaghetti or make into lasagne.

meat sauce

mince 750 g £ 2.97
red onions 2 - 8p
carrots 200g grated - 11.5
garlic - 2p
beans x 2 - 74
chicken stock -  4.1

 It's the usual thing - fine chop and soften your onion, add garlic and grated carrot. In a separate pan, brown the mince and then add the beans. Add this to the veg (Make sure you have a big pan) and then add your tomatoes and stock. You can thrown in any herbs you have, bay leaves etc, and ends of wine, that sort of thing. If you have an odd rasher of bacon, chop it up and fry that in with the mince, same goes for sausages - and if you have cooked meat left overs, chop and add these also, they will be fine if you add them with the raw meat so they get well heated and cooked in.

Key to this is having small pie dishes such as these, which you can find in charity shops and don't have to match at all - so that you can prepare and freeze individual portions - that way you won't eat more than your diet or your budget allows you! I topped these with mashed potatoes - I had a 20 Kg sack from the in-laws at Christmas and it took about 3 lb mashed up with half a tub of smart price cream cheese (20p) to top them all. A kitchen aid or similar is essential for this, beat the potatoes really well and they're go creamy without the need for more than the cheese. Season well and top each pie dish and bake for about 20 mins until browned - this made 6 dinners each costing 70p - but this didn't include the cost of the spuds.

You could make a white sauce and make 6 lasagnes, which would come in at around £1 each, or even fry up some aubergine and layer with the meat mix and top with cheese for a sort of moussaka -  and even, for a real budget bonanza, use slices of buttered day old bread and top with white sauce, it's a way to use up left overs and its really tasty!

Next time - a break from all the scrimping as I make a fairy garden cake for a lovely little girl's birthday.

Friday, 4 January 2013

And just like that, he's scone....

 In the eternal quest to save money, I'm considering lunches. Both daughter and husband are mostly
 out to lunch like the Sex Pistols, so packed lunches are an endless source of debate. I've had a go a costing cheese and bacon scones, as my daughter doesn't much like sandwiches, and have made rolls also to see if they are cheaper the the low quality, low cost super market alternative.
The scones, based on the recipe in Jo Wheatley's book need 225 grams of self raising flour, a teaspoon of cream of tarter and half a tea spoon of baking soda, a pinch of salt, 50 grams of Asda best for baking spread, 85 grams of smart price grated cheddar, 50 grams of panchetta and a teaspoon of smoked paprika.

 It's the usual method - sift the dry ingredients together, cut up the chilled fat and then rub into the flour until it looks like sand, then stir in the grated cheddar and the panchetta and form into a soft dough with some iced water as opposed to milk. Knead very briefly and then roll out into a slab about a half inch thick, then cut out with a 6 cm cutter.
As part of my money saving tip, I then put the scones in the fridge - chilled scones rise better and I also wait until I have the oven going for my bread, it saves power to cook all at once rather than turning it on and off during the day. 
 Then it's bread time - I'm using white bread flour which is cheaper than wholemeal, but to add important fibre I'm adding smart price oat flakes.

To 1 kg of white bread flour add 4 tsp flour and 200 grams or oats, along with 50 grams of best for baking spread.
I then make up my yeast mix, by putting 4 teaspoons of sugar into 50 ml of boiling water and then adding 100 ml of cold once the sugar has dissolved so it's tepid to touch. I add 15 grams of yeast and wait for it to foam up.

Pour into the flour mix, I create a well in the middle and pour the yeast into it, then mix it in slowly. You'll need more liquid, so use either tepid water or milk made up from skimmed milk powder until you have a wet dough.
Turn it out onto an oiled surface, oil your hand and knead, the dough will be sticky at first but keep working it and it will become a lovely, silky smooth ball.
 Leave it to rise in a large bowl covered in a plastic bag (cheaper than cling film and re-usable), mine took about two hours.

Then turn it out onto the surface and knock the air out of the dough and divide in half.
Make one half into a loaf for breakfast bread, and divide the rest into rolls, pressing their tops into more rolled oats.
Leave to prove - or if like me you're going to make a batch of Shepard's pies for dinner, put in the fridge until you're ready to heat the oven and bake it in this order :
 Take bread and rolls from fridge, and put on the oven. Cover the bread and rolls so they can prove. When the oven is at 220 degrees, throw in some ice or water to create steam and bake your rolls for approx 20 mins. Then add more water or ice for steam and then bake your bread.
Get out your scones, brush with a little milk and when the bread comes out, bake your scones for about 15 mins at 200 degrees.
If you've made dinners, finally bake them at 180 degrees.
So - the finished rolls - I made 9 which is just under four days worth, or if I let him have a scone a weeks worth.
Scones work out at 13 p each - I think if I used cheaper streaky bacon cut up then I could lower the price again.
The rolls work out at 5p each but also need some smart price ham and butter, so we'll say 9 p each - and when I have the money to get him a thermos for soup, he can go down to one sandwich and one soup portion. Of course, I don't know how to work out the gas and electric costs, but I'll get back to you on that!

And the bread is 50 p a loaf, and tastes much better than smart price sliced!

If you find this blog useful, please follow and share it about, and if you'd like to help me in my quest, please pass the details of my Kids wear website to your friends, and then I can help pay off the debt in other ways!

Next blog - pig man's pie and bulk cooking.