In the latest of her creative survival guides, craft practitioner Emma Mitchell prescribes a strict diet of daffodils, blankets and appley almond cake.
A portrait of the author as a blanket.
It’s January. The Eeyore month. Spring is nowhere. It’s like a Scandi-noir out there. You have two choices:
1) Join some dormice in a hole in a tree and sleep until March or
b) Follow my handmade survival guide to the dreariest of months
(tip: the latter involves cake and you won’t get moss in your hair).
Smoothies are all very well but there is a disturbing trend for seeking out worthy, thick-leaved brassicas, whizzing them up raw with a turnip and some spirogyra from a pond and downing the lot while doing high-impact yoga in a pair of pants handwoven from Puy lentils. Apparently it confers a boing in your step that defies the ravages of winter. I suspect that it also confers an all-day ticket to the khazi.
I’m more inclined to choose the Yogi Bear strategy for the colder months. As winter approached he would burgle all the delicious refined carbohydrates he could find in the picnic baskets of Yellowstone Park, become pleasingly portly, dig himself a massive hole and have a lovely long kip. I find my body tells me to do the same and sometimes I go with it. In the depths of last January I had an urgent comfort food-craving Yogi moment brought on by slate skies and yet another cold finding its way into the house. It was an emergency so I invented my first cake. I was a little nervous about it but my family devoured massive chunks and then demanded seconds. It’s not a light floofy cake. It has a dense puddingy quality and a crunchy crust (thanks to polenta) and it turns out that when served warm with cream it is the eating equivalent of being swaddled in an enormous duvet onto which several puppies are then placed. Success! It takes a little while to prepare but clear the decks, pop the wireless on and a dingy January afternoon can be transformed into a warm, appley Mrs Beeton-in-her-pinny hour or two of cakey joy. Despite the almonds this cake doesn’t taste like marzipan at all. Retreat under a quilt and eat the whole lot with a spoon if need be. The recipe is below.
In winter I need to nestle under quilts and blankets. It’s the other half of the Yogi plan: hibernation. Until this winter I had never made a blanket, despite sighing and swooning over fellow bloggers’ blanketty endeavours for years. I decided I needed something simple that I could add to while watching Stars in Their Eyes without having to peer at a pattern and reach for the Enigma machine.
My crafty attention span is short so I needed something that would grow quickly. I chose a giant granny square blanket in Misti Alpaca Hand Paint Chunky with a 7mm hook. I actually wanted to be able to snuggle under it this winter. I’m nearly there – it’s currently the size of a proper Nana lap blanket. Here’s a youtube video for a granny square. I didn’t stop at placemat size – I just kept adding to it to make my blanket.
If filling out your tax return means that leisurely baking and woolcraft is out, here are a few cheery thoughts for January’s dour days.
Emma’s determinedly non-floofy wintry appley almond cake.
Some daffodils, yesterday.
* You can buy pots of tiny daffodils down the garden centre for a couple of quid. They’ve probably been forced to flower in a polytunnel in the Benelux countries but who cares? They’re DAFFODILS and look as though they belong in the Sylvanian Families’ garden. Stick their plastic pot inside a terracotta number and boom! You can pretend a magazine stylist has magicked spring into your gaff.
* Every week we claw back 20 minutes’ more daylight as the Earth shifts its shoulders back towards the sun and the Northern hemisphere edges towards spring. That’s 20 minutes more roller-skating at the park for my kids and crucially, more serotonin for the noggin. Sunlight stimulates release of that sometimes elusive hormone that, when set free into your bloodstream, feels like eating a bar of Green & Black’s or looking at a basket of tiny piglets. More daylight = more pigletty feelings.
* Finally, blue tits are beginning to eye one another with interest. In just a few weeks’ time they’ll be finding tiny twigs and making the blue tit with two backs. And isn’t that a lovely thought.
Wintry appley almond cake
200g golden caster sugar
200g dry ingredients. I usually use:
75g self-raising flour
75g ground almonds
50g polenta (as long as adds up to 200g it doesn’t have to be accurate)
1 tsp baking powder (level-ish)
2 medium sized Bramleys
Juice of half a lemon
1-2 tsp cinnamon
Few tablespoons of extra sugar to sprinkle over apple and on top of cake
1) Set oven to 180 degrees.
2) Line 23cm springform loose bottomed cake tin with baking parchment. I don’t worry about origami – I just push a big (maybe 40cm-ish) square of it in quite well. When it’s baked it looks like a massive posh muffin.
3) Peel and chop apple into pieces. Put into a bowl, squeeze over the lemon juice and toss the pieces about in it – stops the apple going brown.
4) Once the apple pieces have sat in the juice for a minute or so pour it off, sprinkle over the cinnamon and a tablespoon or so of sugar and toss about in the bowl. Set aside.
5) Weigh out flour, almonds, polenta and baking powder into another bowl and mix about a bit to blend. Set aside.
6) Weigh out sugar and put into a large bowl.
7) Soften butter in the microwave. Scrape into the bowl with the sugar. Whizz with hand whizzer until it’s pale and fluffy.
8) Add one of the eggs. Whizz with an electric hand whisk to mix.
9) Add about a third of the dry flour/polenta/almond/BP mix. Fold in thoroughly with a biggish spoon.
10) Repeat stage 10 and 11 twice more till no more eggs or dry mix left.
11) Spoon about half of the mixture into the lined cake tin and spread evenly across the bottom. Arrange apple pieces on top. Spoon rest of mix on top of apple. Best to blob it all into the middle then spread out to the edges with flattish knife. Doesn’t matter if bits of apple peep out from underneath. Sprinkle with an extra tablespoon of caster sugar for crunchy-ish top.
12) Wipe any cake mix splodge mess away from the edge with bit of kitchen towel. Shove in oven for 40-50 mins. Do check it after 25 – if it’s getting quite brown make it a lid/roof out of foil and put it back in till 40 mins.
13) Stick a skewer in to check it comes out clean if you have one. Otherwise if it’s coming away from the edges of the tin a tiny bit and springs back rather than wobbles or flobs when you poke it with your finger it should be done.
14) Let cool a little on a rack.
Next month: Handmade tips for a frost-free February.
I make things, mostly out of silver, sometimes out of wool. I’m never too far from a bottle of PVA glue.