Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Gluten free Easter baking

This week's challenge is making gluten free hot cross buns.  In January I was diagnosed with coeliac disease and put onto a gluten free diet.  This is quite a major lifestyle change.  It hasn't been particularly difficult for me at home as we cook most things from scratch.  Everyday bread is no problem because of Genius brand which I gather is quite new, but we are keen cooks and I am having to rethink some of my recipes.  A few days ago I made Easter biscuits as usual, simply substituting gluten free flour for ordinary and adding Xanthum gum because the recipe is rather crumbly at the best of times.

This morning I tackled hot cross buns.  Gluten free breads cannot be kneaded because they come out like cake batter.  I used several  recipes - the one on the flour packet for the basics, Delia Smith and the New Zealand Edmonds Cookery Book (my bible for baking) for the added ingredients and Healthy Gluten Free Eating by Davina Allen for instructions on proving and baking.  In the end I decided it would have to be a 'hot cross bun' loaf as it seems impossible to divide and shape such a sticky mixture.

The mixture filled one tin right to the brim so I split it into two which has meant that the finished loaves are rather flat but I think it would have overflowed badly in one tin.  You only prove the bread once.  I gave it about an hour, putting it in the oven with the door open after heating it to 50 degrees C and then turning it off. Davina Allen said 20 minutes is enough but the flour book said an hour.  This is why gluten free baking takes some learning!  I think I overbaked them slightly as my husband did not realise what they were.  He is really the baker but he had problems trying to make bread before I had read about all the difference between gluten free and ordinary baking and declared it was like working with wallpaper paste.

Anyway I have eaten a piece and it tastes fine to me.  You just have to imagine that it is round and has a cross on it!

As you can do other things while bread-making I have also been printing off a few of my Venice photos of reflections with an eye on the journal quilts I have to do by the end of April.  I have cropped and enlarged bits of some photos and now need to think about what techniques would work with them.  I think a bit of work with paint and paper is called for first.

I don't seem to have saved the enlargement of the reflections in the photo on the left so you will have to wait for the next posting.  Oh, and the fourth cat was returned to its rightful owner.  The postman recognised it as belonging to someone on the next corner.  It is seventeen years old, deaf with thyroid problems and going senile.  You cannot call it because it does not hear and when it wanders off it cannot find its way home again.  It was delighted to see its owner and so were we!

Monday, 29 March 2010

Venice - a Day on the Lagoon

The highlight of my March has been a trip to Venice.  In my youth I 'did' all the touristy bits but I hadn't been back for over thirty years.  This time I chose an art history tour with Art Pursuits:  It was a wonderfully stimulating week in which we visited lesser known places to study painting, sculpture and architecture mostly of the Renaissance.  We also learnt a lot about Venice more generally and walked around areas that are well off the tourist trail.  Where to start?

As a change from churches and palazzi we spent one day on the Lagoon, travelling by private motor launch.  This was not a trip to Murano and Burano but to some of the lesser known islands.  Just travelling across the lagoon was very beautiful in the soft morning light.

Here is a traditional boat, not a gondola but one where the boatman makes his way with one oar.  We passed several of these people on our way out from the city.  Often they were carrying vegetables, the weekly shopping or tools and materials for the day's work.  You have to remember that most of the lagoon is very shallow.  The navigable channels are marked by lines of  'pilones' made of tree trunks lashed together.
 This can give the impression of a motorway when you look back and see a line of motorboats racing north to the airport.

Our first stop was at the island of San Francesco del Deserto.  This is where St Francis told the birds to be quiet while the monks prayed, a story I remember being told when I first started school.  St Francis went to this island on his return from the East (the term used to describe the area of Constantinople which was under Venetian control for a long period) and set up a small monastery.  The island was later made over to the Franciscan order and there are still friars there today.  You can go on a retreat for a few days but you must be able to speak Italian and be prepared to take part in the monks' services.  The gardens are very beautiful and the whole place is very quiet after the noise and bustle of Venice city.

Most of the monastery architecture is quite new but this well in the cloister is older.  San Francesco del Deserto is near to Burano and there are some good views of the island and its crooked cathedral tower.

Next stop was Torcello which was once a populous island but is now home to fewer than fifty people.

We walked across the island alongside a canal.  This house reminded me of the bargemen's houses you see on our Grand Union canal.  Note the chimneys: all chimneys in Venice have two layers at the top so that the ashes tall down inside and then burn up.  Fire is a constant problem in Venice and this measure seems to be similar to the thatch protectors that people here fit to stop their wood burners setting fire to the house. 

On the far side of the island is the cathedral of Santa Maria Assumpta.  This was founded in 639 AD, rebuilt in 864 and again in 1008.  The oldest part is the remains of the baptistry.

There is lots to see inside the cathedral including a mosaic pavement, elaborately carved screens of Byzantine origin, and wonderful mosaics in the apse and on the west wall.  The west wall depicts The Last Judgement and includes some amazing black and white mosaics representing the dead.  We left here just in time - a huge school party of about 100 children entered the church just as we finished our detailed study.

We then went on to the island of Sant'Erasmo for a traditional Italian lunch.  There are cars on this island!  It is a market garden for Venice and our walk from the pier took us past fields of vegetables although not much was growing at this time of the year.  After lunch there was a slight delay as our boat had broken down, fortunately not while we were on it, and another one had to be sent to take us back to Venice where we fished the day by visiting an old palazzo with a garden.  (Yes, there are gardens in Venice.)

I have to admit that this holiday did not provide opportunities for drawing or painting as our programme was pretty intensive.  I took photos wherever I could but I am still learning about travelling with groups.  I kept seeing 'photo opportunities' of wonderful bits of old buildings, reflections etc. and thought I would go back on the last, free, afternoon, but it was not to be and I appear to have very few photos I would use for design.  But while we were waiting for the replacement boat, I realised there were some very good reflections, almost monochrome because the weather had gone very dull.  Here is an example.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Who wants a fourth cat?

We have three Siamese cats who keep me more than occupied so as you can imagine I was not terribly pleased this morning  to open the door to the studio (which is also our utility room) to get out a load of washing and find a small rather bedraggled black cat sitting there.  I persuaded it to go into the yard but it does not want to leave this establishment.  It obviously knows a good home when it sees one.  I have been round the neighbourhood but  no-one can identify it.  My husband took its photo and made a poster which we have put up in the village shop and on the lamp post outside the house with some more copies to go up on other lamp posts tomorrow.  Then I spent some time talking to various charities (why do these things always happen at the weekend?) but I am afraid that in the end we gave in and fed it.  It is obviously someone's loved pet - has a flea collar with a bell but no name tag and keeps trying to come into the house. No way!  I reckon it has been on the road for a few days as it is showing signs of stress and we all know cats can travel a long way if they have a mind to.

It is absolutely freezing here so I think we will have to let it into the studio again for the night.  This afternoon I found evidence that it had been shut in there all night and I have had to move a few things back into the house in case it 'attacks' them.  Fortunately most of the fabric lives in the house but our three cats are going demented at the smell of another one on the things I have brought back in.   I was also worried about chemicals etc. but I don't really have anything that it could drink or eat so I think it is safe.  There is nowhere else it can go.  Not to mention fleas as it is scratching madly.  Our are protected by Stronghold so we will just have to cross our fingers.  

The visitor has spent the afternoon in the yard in an upturned cardboard box lined with an old pullover and my husband's cast off wheat bag which he has heated up twice for it.  It doesn't realise what a five star hotel awaits it: cat litter tray no problem because I keep lots for dyeing, igloo cat bed that our two girls have grown out of, more food.  We have agreed we will have to foster it - I just hope for only a couple of days although apparently the cat shelters in these parts are rather full at the moment. A friend has suggested we see if it is micro-chipped.  Many years ago we lost our first Siamese for six weeks and as someone looked after him and we ultimately got him back I feel we owe it to the cat world to repay this debt!  Our cat took a ride in the engine of a car and being London, it was virtually impossible to find out what had happened to him.

More news in a couple of days.