Musically-inclined…

Firstly, apologies for the long break between posts; it seems like everything is happening RIGHT NOW and I just have a lot on my plate at the moment, hence the slight blog-neglect.  Also, this will probably be a more music-centric, rather than food-centric post, so you have been warned!

Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain,

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today,

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you,

No-one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun…

Time – Pink Floyd

(This feels very relevant to my life at the moment.  It is as if, in the past two years of university life, I have simply been drifting along and trying to get through my degree without too much mishap.  Suddenly the end is drawing near and I have no idea where I’m going with my life after I finish my course next summer.  It’s a wake-up call, reminding me that real life is out there waiting and I am very much unprepared for it.  Time to start running…)

Recently, I’ve taken to listening to Pink Floyd again.  It seems that my musical tastes run in cycles and I go through phases of rediscovering music that I love but don’t listen to for inexplicably long periods of time.  (To give you an idea of my eclectic tastes, this includes Muse, The Beatles, The Strokes, The Killers, Rachmaninov, Norah Jones, Coldplay, David Bowie, Ingrid Michaelson, Queen, Mahler and the Hairspray soundtrack.)  However, sometimes, a rediscovery leads to something more, almost like I am finally realising the potential of my love of a particular artist, composer or group.  This is what has happened with me and Pink Floyd in the last week.  (A casual re-listen to Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V) led to a desire to revisit the entire Wish You Were Here album and things just spiralled out of control from there.)  The strange thing is, it’s not like when you discover an artist for the first time; you already know and love this music, but it’s as if all of a sudden, everything just falls into place when you hear their songs.  I don’t know how to describe it, other than it just feels right.

I was first exposed to Pink Floyd several years ago, in my early teens.  (Strangely, my dad felt that it would be appropriate to play The Wall album whilst we decorated the Christmas tree; as a result, I have come to associate Christmas with Pink Floyd.  It’s definitely not your usual Christmas soundtrack, that’s for sure.)  At the time, they were just another of my dad’s bands, good but nothing special.  Then, as my own musical tastes developed, I began to listen to and take a great interest in music from that era, including the likes of The Beatles and Supertramp and of course, Pink Floyd. I longed for the 60s and 70s, an era that seemed so romantic and remote from the times we live in now; the music was better, life was more exciting and it just felt a world away from the decade that I grew up in.  I know it’s strange to be nostalgic for a time that I wasn’t alive in, but I’ve always felt like I should have been born thirty years earlier; of course, it’s probably much more romantic to look back at it now than it was actually living in those days.  After all, it’s easy to idealise the past…but anyway, now is not the time to go into my opinions on modern society – maybe I’ll leave that for another day!

Right now, Pink Floyd has become the soundtrack to my daily life; I can’t explain it or deny it, it’s just a fact.  I’m currently reading Nick Mason’s personal recollections of the band and have a Syd Barrett biography waiting for me when I’ve finished.  It’s a distraction, an escape from my otherwise boring daily routine of lectures, rehearsals, essays and research.  In some ways, my passion for music (unrelated to my degree, of course) is like my passion for baking.  It takes me away from the responsibilities of university and daily life, gives me a chance to breath and to relax and take a break.  It’s just something different, and that’s important – without these things, I would be entirely consumed by worry and stress about my course and my workload and goodness knows what else…

Talking of baking, here’s the food part of this post!  (Sorry if you had to wade through reams of nonsense about prog rock and music to get here, I just needed to get it out of my system and thought it might make an interesting post…)

So, Sundays are lazy days – I like to turn off my alarms on Sundays and sleep in.  I like getting up later than usual, not worrying about work, having leisurely meals and just having a day off.  Sometimes, I like to spend time cooking, and that’s what I did yesterday.

American-style pancakes (or drop scones) with butterscotch bananas – 23/10/2011

I struggle with pancakes.  I don’t know why, but more often than not, my attempts result in heavy, doughy slabs of floury, tasteless nothing.  I don’t know if it’s the recipes I use or (more likely) my method, but me and pancakes are not friends. (That’s not to say I don’t enjoy eating them – it’s just making them that I find stressful!)  However, seeing a recipe for pancakes on this week’s episode of Nigel Slater’s Simple Cooking, I was inspired to try once more.  What’s different about this recipe is that it is much simpler than all the ones I’ve tried previously.  Four ingredients mixed in a bowl, no faffing about with baking powder or gradually adding liquid to form a batter – it was literally just a ‘measure your ingredients in this order and mix them together’ approach.  Simple.  I feel that where I fall down with pancakes is in the actual frying; my impatient nature doesn’t agree with the slow frying over a medium heat method and I inevitably end up burning half the batch. This time, I managed to exercise some restraint and actually turned out a nicely-browned and non-doughy batch of pancakes!  It was a sweet success, after so many failures.

To go with them, I decided to cook down some bananas in a butterscotch sauce.  It was really more of an experimental approach to butterscotch, made up in the spur-of-the-moment rather than taken from a recipe.  (In all fairness, it tasted good, which is all that matters in the end.)  The fruit and the soft, cake-like pancakes complemented each other very well, and I will definitely be recreating this recipe in the future.  An excellent start to my (what was actually an unintentionally) lazy Sunday.  Needless to say, I spent the remainder of it listening to Pink Floyd and not getting any work done…

Oh well.

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Chocolate brownies and progressive rock.

That pretty much sums up my Saturday.  And goodness knows I needed a good weekend, after last week.  Cue lots of time spent listening to Pink Floyd (hence the prog-rock aspect of this post.  I can never decide whether Wish You Were Here, The Dark Side of the Moon, or The Wall is my favourite Floyd album – all I know is that I love them all greatly) and cooking, my ultimate method of relaxation.

So my first proper week of lectures was definitely varied, I’ll say that much.  From fun and exciting to stressful and panicky, I think I went through the entire emotional spectrum over the course of the last seven days.

My first dissertation tutorial was decidedly less than helpful; it left me feeling even more pressured than I already was, which is not good.  My first “Intersections of Elite and Popular Music” lecture was more like a seminar, with a lecturer who likes to pick on people to answer questions.  Now, if you know me, you will more than likely know that I don’t respond well to that kind of attention and generally manage to sit in awkward silence, trying to think of something to say whilst waiting for the lecturer to get bored and choose someone else.  (I’m currently reserving judgement on that particular class.)  In contrast, I absolutely loved my “Philosophy and Aesthetics of Music” class – it’s a way of studying music that is totally different to all my other classes and forces you to look at culture and art from a different perspective, rather than the traditionally dry, analytical view of a musicologist.  It reminds me of the old days when I used to study Classics and I love that whole way of learning and thinking about things; I still occasionally think that I should have taken a Classics degree instead.  (I think that Philosophy is shaping up to be one of my favourite units so far.)

Of course, this week meant the start of all the extra-curricular activities too. Symphony Orchestra is in full-swing once more, and it’s nice to be back in an ensemble environment; I have always been an orchestral, not a solo musician, so to be involved in my final year is a nice way to end things.  On the other hand, I made a promise to myself at the beginning of this last academic year to branch out and get involved in some non-music-related activities.  For my entire university life, everything I’ve done has been music-based and I felt that for my final year, it would be nice to do something new while I still have the chance. Enter LeRoc, the university’s modern jive society – that’s right, I’m taking dance classes this year and I survived my first-ever dance lesson without making a total fool of myself!  (At least, I hope I did.  You can never really tell with these things, since you can’t actually watch yourself dance.)  At any rate, I had a good time and that’s the important thing, right?

But a busy (and largely stressful) week took its toll and come the weekend, all I wanted to do was not think about work.  I figured that a break from my dissertation could only be a good thing, giving me time to gain some distance and come back to it later with a fresh perspective, so I decided to devote my Saturday to cooking.  (I must say, it’s been a good two weeks since I last baked and I was definitely starting to experience baking-withdrawal symptoms.  Maybe it’s a sign that my baking obsession is starting to become unhealthy?)

Now, a yearning for chocolate (normally when I’m feeling stressed out or under pressure) always leads me to want chocolate cake and what could be better than a dense, fudgy chocolate brownie with pecan nuts and caramel?

Chocolate and pecan brownies – 15/10/2011

I was originally going to make S’mores Brownies, but one of my housemates is vegetarian and therefore can’t eat marshmallows, so I decided to experiment.  I kind of view brownie batter as a blank canvas, a rich chocolate base into which many other flavours can be incorporated – from dried fruit and nuts to other kinds of sweets, your personal taste and imagination is really the only limit to what you can do.  Now, I’ve recently become a big fan of caramel, so I chose to add chopped up Mars Bars – the sweet milk chocolate coating, soft, sticky nougat and smooth caramel just add a little something extra to the dense cake. And pecan nuts, my favourite kind, a classic brownie ingredient – I couldn’t resist.  Baked up into a rich, fudge-like cake with that delicate, papery top and soft texture, they were just perfect – just the thing to satisfy a serious chocolate craving!

Now, I like my brownies to be very fudgy and sometimes I deliberately reduce their oven time in an attempt to get them that way, and I only recently found out that in actual fact, the bake has much less to do with their final texture than I originally thought.  It’s really the mixing process which determines if your brownies will be rich and dense or fluffy and cake-like, and for brownies the way I like them, it’s important not to over-mix; as soon as the flour and other dry ingredients are incorporated, you stop mixing.  It took me several years and many batches to get it right, but now I know the secret!

Anyway, there you have it – chocolate and caramel brownies, perfect accompanied by a large cup of tea (or my personal preference, a tall glass of cold milk) and Pink Floyd turned up loud.  Try it sometime, I guarantee that it’s a great combination…