Life at home

26 March 2020

Like so many people around the world, we're adjusting to spending our days and nights at home. For us that's a two bedroom apartment with a balcony that looks out onto mountains :) We're making a special effort to keep it tidy, making the bed most mornings and clearing the dining table of laptops and notepads when the work day is done. I've never swept the kitchen floor so frequently in my life.

Tony and I are both able to work from home, something we're extremely grateful for. These first few days have been a bit of a dance, especially when multiple video meetings are underway. Sometimes the internet can't handle it. It's been the biggest nudge to tidy our spare room, which is now our 'meeting room' and Tony's impromptu studio. He's working on a small painting and it's nice to have him properly home.

I'm working out a simple morning routine - a yoga video, shower, breakfast and coffee before I open up my laptop. There are so many great live streams and yoga videos at the moment, many of them free. This 30 minute mellow flow from Melbourne studio Good Vibes is especially lovely and a favourite Canberra teacher is live streaming soon. I love Sky Ting videos and their live stream, especially when I'm in the mood for something fun and slightly more challenging.

Sometimes it feels like I live at my dining table. But I'm learning to move around a bit more throughout the day, taking phone calls on our balcony, longer meetings on the couch and using the kitchen bench as a standing desk to keep things interesting and my body moving. And I'm thinking about end-of-day activities to help me switch off and wind down. A few days ago it was opening a parcel my brother sent me from NYC!

Giving me hope right now are photos of friends and their brand new babies, professional photos from Zachary's wedding, video chats with most of the family. My brother Zac left me a voice memo the other day about his honeymoon and new home, and it was the nicest thing to listen to in the morning. Simple things like sunlight, a cool breeze and baking are helping too. Sourdough is in high production and I've made some choc chip cookies too.

We have a good amount of supplies for now and no real plans to head out for anything soon. We are very lucky in this way. But when the time comes, I've been bookmarking a bunch of local businesses who are offering pre-ordered produce boxes along with coffee, milk and eggs. If you're in Canberra, High Road, Choku Bai Jo and Rita's Farm are three offering pick up and delivery. We'll probably mix it up to share the love! 

On Sunday night, I also made this very cheery creamy corn pasta, a recipe test for work. It's another Heidi special and it is sunny in both appearance and flavour thanks to some lime zest. The recipe makes a decent amount too, so we've been happily munching on it after a tense half hour of watching the news.

I'm trying to get out for walks at quiet times and it always feels so nice to be outside! I am hoping that everyone will be able to stay safe and well and keep up the social distancing for the good of ourselves and the whole community.

Something I've thought about recently is the fact that this transition, while challenging, has been a little easier for us because of our experience with the smoke haze. We were indoors for weeks over summer but felt more confined with the doors and windows shut and the air-con running 24/7. Being able to see the sunset, hear birds outside is something we're still excited by and grateful for.


Some nice things

20 March 2020

Hello, I hope you're going OK with everything that's going on. I am trying to check the news occasionally rather than all-the-time and feel best when I'm chatting to friends and family (video chats have been extra fun this week!), going for walks, and reading books rather than being on my phone. I hope you can stick close to home this weekend and find some pockets of calm and relaxation. Here are some good things to share:

The 'A bit of relief' episode of The Daily is short but properly soothing, especially the C.S Lewis reading right at the end. Via Leslie.

I read Quartz's 'Staying In' edition of their newsletter weeks ago and enjoyed it but it feels especially relevant now.

Another article from weeks ago - My ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend is Lady Gaga (NY Times). The headline alone is so great but the piece is a thoughtful reflection on the personal moments and info we share and consume on social media.

Fried arancini balls with salad... yes please!

Ugly Delicious is back on Netflix and I adored the first episode, Kids Menu, which was recommended by a work mate. It follows Dave Chang and his wife Grace as they prepare for the arrival of their first child. I really liked the discussion about work and family and how you might balance the two (or simply accept that your life is changing).

We stumbled upon Louis Theroux's latest series on the ABC one night and watched the polyamory episode. It reminded me that I'm yet to watch his Scientology movie so adding it to our list.

Alison Roman's caramelised shallot pasta (NY Times) is really, really good. I've bought supplies so I can make it again soon.

Speaking of Alison Roman, I was meant to be going to a lunch she was hosting in Melbourne as part of the food festival but like many things, it was cancelled. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that she'll be able to return in spring. In the meantime, I've taken her lead and done a free live streamed yoga class from her studio :) SkyTing is doing a free video every day (donations accepted!), with the time difference some of the sessions are 7am AEDT, as the sun is just starting to rise.

Finally, when it comes to reliable coronavirus information, I've been finding Dr Norman Swan's videos for the ABC clear and and to the point. He and ABC health reporter Tegan Taylor also have a daily podcast called the Coronacast in case you'd like the latest on coronavirus but not too much of it (most eps are 10 minutes and under). And this is the only corona-related thing that's made me laugh this week. 



I made a wedding cake!

18 March 2020

I made a wedding cake for my brother Zachary and his fiancee Hannah who were married on Saturday. Bringing the cake meant showing up in a big way for my youngest brother (we're 12 years apart), who had 50 guests cancel due to coronavirus, including my sister and brother.

Tony took this photo after I'd finished installing the cake on the morning of the wedding - I was completely elated, it looked like a real wedding cake :) My work friend Eleni described the weeks-long process that I documented on Instagram as a "wonderful drama", which just about sums it up.

The cake making started with a couple of test bakes to perfect the sprinkle layer, which I'd offered to include in the cake but had never successfully made. It was also the layer the bride was most excited about, so I really wanted to get it right.

Luckily my friend Danie clued me in on the secret ingredient - American sprinkles which are so much brighter than the ones you can buy here. You can order them from Brisbane, along with clear vanilla extract to make sure the cake stays white rather than yellow. I watched so many YouTube videos at various stages of the wedding cake prep, especially helpful at this point was this video of  Molly Yeh making the sprinkle cake recipe I used and this one of Christina Tosi making her famous sprinkle birthday cake (Alison Roman is in it too!).

The final cake had two tiers, eight layers and four different flavours - sprinkle, lemon, chocolate and coconut rose. It was inspired by a beautiful wedding cake that Molly Yeh made with multiple flavours inside, which I'd had a go at replicating one year for my birthday.

I started baking two weeks out, on weekends and some nights after work. Each layer was frozen, wrapped in multiple layers of clingwrap so they didn't attract any freezer flavour! But before that, they were levelled so they'd sit flat on top of each other. That meant cutting the bit that domed in baking, which was handy for taste-testing as I went along. I drew up a timeline, so I knew what cake I was making each weekend or weeknight, which also helped me feel like I was on track :)

Of all the steps, I took the fewest photos of the icing because it was very new to me and required my full attention. Three out of three friends who'd made wedding cakes recommended making Swiss meringue buttercream instead of regular buttercream. It's made from egg whites, caster sugar and a little butter instead of lots of butter, icing sugar and vanilla extract.

It took me awhile to get the hang of it and I only properly mastered it at 10.30pm the night before the wedding 😂 It can be temperamental (it can curdle or become runny) but when you do it right the texture is silky and it tastes light and marshmallowy. My brother and his fiancee wanted the cake to have a white finish, and Swiss meringue buttercream comes out bright white because it's mainly egg whites and sugar rather than butter. Plus, if you do stuff it up, there are plenty of ways to fix it.

I made all of my buttercream at home in Canberra while listening to a lot of Drake (thanks Derrick!) but didn't even think about practicing icing with it. If I could go back in time, I'd ice a cake with it, just to get a feel for it and build my confidence. And to save me a lot of stress the night before the wedding.

The wedding was in Sydney so I packed everything up and drove it down the afternoon before the big day. The frozen cake layers travelled in a lidded styrofoam box that my veggie store gave me - I'd seen Molly Yeh fly with cake layers like this and it totally worked for a three-hour road trip.

Driving meant I could bring a lot of stuff, including my Kitchen Aid to re-whip the icing and to have on hand in case I needed to make some more. I didn't love the idea of bringing it but am so glad I did, it would've been a very slow process without it. Also in the car, a cake turntable which my friend Angie gave me when I went through a novelty cake phase that included a rubber ducky and bus shelter cake, offset palette knives, and a brand new metal icing scraper.

I put the cakes together at my parent's place because while I'd booked an Airbnb with a full kitchen... I didn't double check the size of the fridge! My accommodation only had a bar fridge, but in the end it turned out for the best. It was so nice to hang out with my parents and brother the night before the wedding and have some company as I got to work. Their place was also much closer to the venue, which made moving the finished cake slightly less stressful.

This cake involved many firsts, including a cake soak! I've never used one before but they're meant to be great for cakes that have been frozen because they add moisture back into the cake. I used a simple syrup that was 50/50 sugar and water and brushed it onto each cake layer before adding icing. I also used dowels, which I'd previously never heard of (apparently if you're a Bake Off fan, this will make immediate sense). They're like extra sturdy straws that you put in the middle of the cake to keep the layers together, there were three in the middle of each cake. They also help strengthen the bottom layer so the top tier doesn't sink into it - aka one of my top wedding cake fears, right up there with dropping the cake. Speaking of...

This happened at around 9.30pm the night before the wedding 😑 It was the lowest point of the whole project, and the first time I wasn't sure I could pull it off. This is how it happened: my parents and brother had left to set up the church hall, which meant my dad wasn't around to hold the fridge door open as I moved the cakes in and out between icing them (I'm all about a good crumb coat). I tried to do it myself, holding the fridge door open with my foot while trying to move the top layer into the fridge. All the juggling meant I lost my grip on the cake and it toppled over - I caught it just in time.

I reckon the dowels were the reason the cake layers didn't go flying, so it could've been worse. Still, I was exhausted by this point and so disappointed. Throughout the whole process, I'd had a lot of support from my friends Le and Angie, so I sent them this photo as a bit of a distress signal. They both replied right away and no one thought it was a big deal. Angie encouraged me to take my time and enjoy the icing bit. So I took a deep breath, put on a podcast (Highly Enthused is back!) and kept going. My energy and spirits returned, and both cakes were finished and in the fridge by 11pm. The final layer of icing wasn't as smooth as I would've liked but I'd decided hours ago that that was fine.

Then came the bit I was most afraid of - driving the finished cakes to the venue and stacking them. I found it hard to sleep the night before and my stomach wouldn't stop flipping. I managed four maybe five hours max. But I found some focus in the morning and pretended I was at work. We got some coffee, picked up some flowers from my friend Angie who'd done a last minute dash at the markets (love her) and were back at my childhood home by 10.30am.

Tony took this pic of my family as the top tier was loaded into its special cake box! Zachary's groomsmen had arrived, my parents were in their wedding clothes and things were feeling festive. Tony ended up carrying both cakes to the car because I was a wreck at this point and the job needed a calm head and hands.

After some debate about who would drive, I put on a playlist and drove carefully to the venue, with the cakes in the boot. The night before (prior to the cake topple), Zachary and I were in the kitchen discussing whether the cakes should be stacked at all. Maybe they could just sit side by side? It seemed a bit risky for a first-timer.

But I'd come this far and with Tony's encouragement (and a second set of hands to spot me/catch cake), I used a palette knife to lift the top cake off one of its bases, slide my hands underneath it and somehow transferred it on top of the larger cake. Not without a bit of a thud, a gasp and some swearing but we were almost there.

I'd brought a small repair kit with extra icing and did some touch ups while Tony prepped the flowers. Angie had given us a crash course in making the food safe - basically we wrapped the stems in clingwrap to make sure no sap got onto the cake. There was no plan for decoration - Tony did a bit and then so did I. It ended up being asymmetrical, which I loved!

Zachary and Hannah had friends and family setting up the church hall with plenty of homemade bunting and fairy lights - the inspiration was Carson and Mrs Hughes wedding in Downton Abbey. The hall looked like something straight out of a movie. As soon as the flowers went on everyone started to get excited about the wedding cake taking shape. After 24 hours of last minute prep, I was totally thrilled with how the cake looked and was ready to focus on the wedding.

We dashed back to the house, ate some lunch, got dressed and headed back to the church, in about 45 minutes flat. I got teary when I saw my brother in his suit jacket and white tie at home. We took some photos together - all of which were blurry because I was so excited.

The ceremony itself was beautiful and I felt honoured to witness it. I thought about all of the firsts I'd seen this little guy - now man - do. From watching him take his first tentative steps down one of the hallways at home, a sibling or parent at each end to catch and encourage him, to his very first movie (Monsters Inc) that was memorable mainly because we made it through the scary bit together (I gave him my phone to play snake when he was sure it was time to go). And now, getting married to Hannah before moving into their first apartment (seeing photos of their place made me teary too!). 

I was so proud to be there for him as he married Hannah, who is clever, kind and extremely thoughtful. She's also excellent at sewing and made her own cheongsam for the Chinese banquet part of the wedding. The ceremony was also the time I thought most about my brother and sister who weren't able to be there.

I checked on the cake a couple of times during the reception just to make sure it was still standing. My uncle Mark pointed out that it had a slight lean, which it totally did from the base cake. Zac and Hannah officially cut it at around 4.30pm and while the original plan was for me to serve it, that job went to Tony and my cousin Max as it was cut while I emceed the speeches and read my brother Derrick's best man speech.

In the end, it was a relief to hand that job to someone else. It probably wasn't the best task to do in heels but also my time with the cake was done. One of my favourite bits was watching Tony and Max silently negotiate the cutting of it while the speeches went on in front of them. I saw them carefully take the top layer off - it wobbled as they put it down and I snuck this photo straight after they did it and congratulated each other.

I tried my best with the exterior of the cake but it's the interior I'm most proud of. It's colourful, fun and different to regular wedding cakes, and was perfect for Zachary and Hannah. The bride and groom chose which flavours would go together, the top layer was coconut rose on the base, sprinkle, lemon and another sprinkle layer. The bottom cake had coconut rose, sprinkle, chocolate and sprinkle. 

I packed up a box of the best looking slices for the honeymoon - one of my happiest memories from my own wedding was eating leftover wedding cake with Tony the day after the wedding. We had cups of tea on our hotel balcony and were still letting it all sink in.

Back at home, we have a lot of egg yolks to get through - leftover from both the buttercream and the sprinkle cake. So we'll be eating carbonara for awhile yet and maybe some chocolate mousse too! Apparently you can buy eggwhites in a carton at the supermarket to avoid a situation like this - but I couldn't do that to my brother. I only bought the best for this cake, investing a lot of money in Lurpak butter.

Throughout the whole process, I imagined plenty of things that could go wrong but not Zac and Hannah cutting into the cake as husband and wife. That bit was totally thrilling. Cake is always great but it's definitely even better when you're baking it for two people you're rooting for, who share it with the people they love most.

It's been a bit a shock coming home from such a happy weekend to bare supermarket shelves and a sense that things are changing quickly. I am on holidays this week and was planning to travel to Melbourne for the food festival and a work mate's exhibition opening and then back to Sydney for a hen's party. All of my plans have been postponed, which I totally understand. Instead, I've been chilling at home and slowly making some preparations for the weeks ahead.

I have a feeling that the satisfaction that came from making the wedding cake and the sheer joy that comes from watching someone you love get married is going to sustain me for awhile yet. 


P.S If you're making a wedding cake, I loved Smitten Kitchen's sensible break down of all of the steps, which includes cake maths.

Hot Chip, Sydney and a wedding cake count down

09 March 2020

March could be my busiest month yet. There are five sleeps til my brother Zachary's wedding and I've been baking cake layers after work for the past week and a bit. The cake itself is done and in the freezer, which leaves me this week to practice icing (I'm going to try Swiss meringue buttercream for the first time!) and get everything organised to go to Sydney. I'm happy with my progress but have real moments of stress, especially because there's only so much you can do before the day. Thankfully I know people who have done it before (including Le who does it professionally!) who have been sharing their tips and helping me make good choices :)

One of the highlights of the last fortnight have been seeing Hot Chip - we bought last minute tickets to their show in Canberra, which was also our 12 year anniversary. We chose one of their songs for wedding dance so it felt like the best way to celebrate. They are so fun live.

Because I've listened to their music for more than 10 years there were some surprises too. They opened with a song I listened to constantly when I going through a rough patch in Wagga Wagga. There was a big restructure happening at work and Tony was away from home a lot for art fairs and residencies. The song is extremely upbeat and it used to trick me into thinking I had more energy than I did at the time. They also played songs I listened to before I met Tony, when I was at uni and going to see bands every other weekend. It felt like most big moments of my life were covered across their songs.  And in some ways, it was a very Canberra gig - at one point we were dancing right next to a barista from a favourite cafe, a guy from our yoga studio and the newsreader from my work 😆

It's a long weekend in Canberra  and we spent part of the weekend in Sydney, a super fast trip that was also super fun. Tony had a painting collected by Artbank last year and it was in an exhibition as part of Art Month Sydney. It's a work he made after Donald Trump was elected in 2017, which goes a way to explain some of its intensity. He called it 'Not enough blue to hold it down' and it's always been a favourite of mine. Artbank leases work to businesses, so I'm so excited to see where this one ends up.

My uncle had invited us to stay in his apartment in the city, a generous offer that came at just the right time. We both have a bit of travel coming up in March and were trying to work out if we could afford to go to Sydney for the exhibition opening when he texted to say it was empty and we were welcome. Being in town that weekend almost meant we could join a birthday dinner at my friend Angie's house, which was epic!

It was the ultimate menu for a rainy night. She made pici in a ragu sauce (I've pinched the recipe and often make it for new parents, it's so good), gnocchi in a creamy truffle sauce, cacio e pepe, an eggplant melanzane with smoked mozzarella, followed by a giant choc chip cookie with malt ice cream for dessert. We went home with full bellies and hearts - it's always so nice just to be in the same room as my friends, especially as it's been close to 10 years since we lived in Sydney.

Because it was still raining on Sunday, we decided to take it easy on the drive home. We had coffee in Surry Hills (this place is so great!), bought some bread from Bourke St Bakery, moseyed through book shops before heading home. It's extra nice to have a Monday off to catch up on sleep and tinker around with some cake things.