Monday 31 August 2015

Holiday tales: Spa 1

I had the pleasure of visiting several natural hot springs whilst on my travels this summer.

The first was at the top of Napa valley, in a town called Calistoga. There's plenty of natural mineral activity there and I picked Dr Wilkinson's resort to stay in, partly because they offered spa treatments. There were three pools of varying heats, the biggest being like a hot tub for 36 people. I practised some yoga in it (that was a theme of the summer, really....large body of water capable of holding me up? Bow pose practice).

Mr Z and I had a muddy spa treatment, too. Although this was billed as a couples' treatment, we were ushered into separate spas, mainly because nudity was a requirement. The resort was built some time in the 50s, I think, and the decor had not much changed: white tiles and exposed pipes everywhere. I quite liked it once I had got over the feeling that it was like that place where Bricktop keeps his flesh-eating pigs.

Once naked, the attendant bid me shower. Then she helped me into an enormous vat of peaty mud. It was an indescribable sensation but of course I'm going to give it a go. The best analogy I can think of is that it was like crawling into a very accommodating, warm, heavy bean bag. I expected (hoped) to sink instantly but once I had gone a certain distance my body stopped; the attendant heaped mud over me as I tried to wriggle down further. It was quite peaty, rather than sticky. She placed cucumber over my eyes and a cold flannel on my face - the mud was pretty hot. It felt utterly strange. I started to enjoy it after a short while, as long as I didn't move too much: wriggling fingers and toes reminded me that it was something wet, not just a warm, weighty pillow.

After a while the attendant asked me to get out and scrape off as much mud as possible. Hilarious: I looked like Bigfoot. I wetly slithered towards to shower, clumps of the mud dropping out of crevices and creases as I went, and removed what I hoped was all of it. Next came a bath of the naturally hot water. More cucumber and cool flannels; citrus water to drink. I enjoyed this part so much I stayed in for longer than I was meant to.

Once out, it was time for the steam room: a tiny little tiled booth in the corner, with windows, through which the attendant could pass water and flannels. Those flannels! There was an endless supply. After this, another quick shower; finally I was taken to a little cabin where the attendant wrapped me in a light blanket, like a baby, adding yet more cucumber and explaining that it was important to rest to recover from the heat treatments. Fine with me.

I did enjoy the experience. The mud was, as I said, weird; my skin did feel quite soft afterwards, and I was super-relaxed. If I was them, I would more heavily embrace the 50s kitsch theme rather than putting modern accoutrements in, which made the original fixtures look a bit dated. But then, I mostly had cucumber on my eyes, so who really cares how it looks?

Weekend WIP: Fossil top

I was going great guns on this after coming back from holiday to America. Last weekend I put a whole ball on it in a day. I packed it neatly into my knitting bag with extra yarn and another project to cast on on the plane, all ready to go to Budapest. Then I left it at home. GUTTED.

So, anyway, I have been plugging away at it this weekend and I am nearly there. I ran out of the paler blue Damask - I mentioned before that I only had 6 and the pattern called for 8. Interestingly, I think I might have managed to do it out of 6 if I'd been knitting to the pattern measurements. The body is meant to be 35cm to the underarms; when I reached this point I had about half a ball left which would probably have been enough to do the neckline. However, when I tried it on it was waaaaay too short (likely due to it stretching widthways once on) so I continued, finishing off ball 6 and starting on the darker blue, using up half a skein I had leftover from the last damask top I knitted.

What I intend to do today, whilst sitting waiting for my blood donors appointment, is pick up and knit the neckline (as you see this has already begun) in the darker blue. Then I will finish up the current ball of yarn I'm using for the bottom, and the rest of the ball I used for the neckline, and hopefully that will be long enough and I can finish it up with no pesky partial skeins.

I wanted to finish before September but I think that's a bit hopeful. Hopefully it will be next weekend's FO post.

Weekend Baking: Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake

My favourite ice cream at the moment is Haagen Dazs chocolate salted caramel praline. It is deliciously chocolatey with little pockets of salted caramel that I like to dig for. Delicious.

Having made a salted caramel recently when trying out this recipe (I bought the same bundt tin, I couldn't resist), and having had a request for a cake, I decided to try out a cake version of the ice cream. It has worked very well - the cake rose like a mofo and is light and very chocolatey, but not so sweet that the caramel is too much. I also added a generous sprinkling of pecan nuts. YUM.

I'm not winning any photography prizes here - it looks a lot more spectacular in real life.

250g butter
400g caster sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
270g plain flour
130g cocoa
2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/4 tsp salt
350ml buttermilk
150g dark chocolate, melted

125g butter
200g caster sugar
125ml extra thick double cream
Dash of vanilla
Pinch of salt
Packet of pecan nuts - I think mine was a big 200g packet. I love pecans though, so not all of these made it to the cake.

Cut a small piece of butter (about a half cm slice) off the end of your block, melt it and use to to grease the inside of a bundt pan - you can pour any excess into the mixing bowl with the cake mix.
Cream the rest of the butter until fluffy, then beat in the sugar for a couple of minutes until light. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla.

Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl and sift into the egg mixture in three batches, alternating with the buttermilk but finishing with a flour dump and mixing between each addition. Don't overmix. Melt the chocolate and fold this in. Rummage around in the cupboard to see if you have any chocolate chips; if so, throw those in too.

Pour into the bundt pan. Bake at 180 degrees for about an hour, until coming away from the side of the pan and clean when skewered. Take this opportunity to toast your pecans, too - spread over a baking tray and place in the oven for about 5 minutes (set a timer). Chop them up once they're cool.

While the cake is baking, make the caramel. Put the sugar in a saucepan and melt over a low heat. Don't stir it - I'm sure you watch Bake Off. Swirling and gentle prodding with a wooden spoon is OK. Add the cubed butter. It will hiss and spit and you will worry but keep stirring, it will probably be OK. When the butter has combined and isn't sitting in a greasy layer on top of the sugar, stir in the vanilla, cream and salt. You should end up with something resembling melted chocolate.

When the cake is out of the oven and cool, drizzle with the caramel and sprinkle over the pecans. Wait for the compliments to roll in.

Saturday 15 August 2015

Stash Enrichment: Jimmy Beans

Once again, I managed to build in a trip to Jimmy Beans during our recent holiday in the States. I had planned to go on my birthday but it seemed I preferred to spend that day at the beach, attempting paddle boarding and getting bumped on the head.

So, we went the day after my birthday. We began with pancakes at Coffee &... in Truckee, as is tradition; then we drove an 80 minute round trip back to the campsite to pick up my purse which I had stupidly left in the bear box. Then we drove to Reno, to Mr Z's impossible golf course from last time. It was full of hares and reeds and weeds. A quick Google revealed that it had closed in June. Oh. Luckily there was another nearby, so after I had dropped him there, bought some sportswear at a nearby shop (I was looking for a new ski jacket but, unsurprisingly, there were none available in August) and eaten lunch at Whole Foods, I toddled off to the promised land.

It had changed a little since my last trip. Now there is just a little yellow square of warehouse available for rummaging; but when I asked in the shop I was escorted to the Lorna's Laces aisle and, from there, pretty much allowed to get on with my rummaging. Amazingly, the SA, Teri, remember me from my first visit way back in 2009 - how cool is that!

I tried very hard to be restrained. I did pick up another jumper's worth of Madelintosh, in Betty Draper's Blues, but I made myself put it back, mainly because I have a ridiculously busy 6 months ahead of me (the chances of me making 127 posts this year are exceptionally slim) and a lot of yarn I want to knit up immediately.

So, I ended up with two jumpers' worth of 4-ply yarn, both in blue:

At the top, Madelinetosh Dandelion in Blue Nile...that colour! Mwaahahhhhhh! And it has 10% linen in it. It's like, the perfect yarn.
At the bottom, La Jolla 4-ply by Baah! I had not come across this brand before. The colour is London Blue. Perfect.

Then I bought three skeins of Lorna's Laces Honor in Bold Red. It's a solid but for some reason it doesn't look that way in this picture. I have three skeins of this is Red State from my last visit, plus one of Stitch Red from my winnings; I had it in mind to tackle a Stripes Gone Crazy but then discovered this is a 4-ply cardigan. Doh. I see some people have knitted it in DK but I'm not sure if I can face the maths. I have been browsing patterns and think the Maxfield Cardigan might work, possibly...not sure. The red of Red State might blend too well with the background Bold Red. Hmm. I don't know. I need to rummage around with that some more.

Multicoloured reflective yarn! I couldn't resist, and I couldn't choose between the two colours, so I bought both. I still have about three skeins of this sitting around waiting to be turned into hats. I need to save them for an evening when I want to finish something quickly.

Finally, I bought a skein of Madelinetosh DK in Lapis. This is to blend with the remaining skein from my v-neck jumper, to make a Zephyr Cove shawl, as suggested by the imaginative Kat at Knatterers.

I also got a new project bag, of course. Well, you'll see why....

Holiday FO: Wingspan

I bought this kit from Moonlight Yarns at Wonderwool and grabbed it to take on holiday with me, since it seemed perfectly portable. And so it turned out to be, although I managed to forget all stitch markers and a pair of scissors. Doh. I used a tiny ting I found on my key ring as the travelling marker and made loops out of the leftover yarn for the end-of-colour markers.

No trees harmed in the taking of this picture: I just flick the scarf at the rough bark of this sugar pine by our tent and it stuck on.
It was a totally addictive knit. I started on the plane, then each day I would knit another block and wind another colour, twice if the light was good or the drive was long. I was finished before we left Tahoe, which made this a very lazy two-week project. The colour blending is just so smooth, I couldn't stop looking at it!

Here it is with all the ends sewn in, but not yet snipped off. Mr Z offered the services of his axe but I was after something with a little more precision.
When I got home I weighed it: 86g of sock yarn, so there's not quite enough left in the baggy to knit another; but I don't think I'd be far off. The mini skeins provided by Helen at Moonlight were very generous. I can highly recommend this kit!

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Calistoga Roastery

This afternoon, Mr Z has taken himself off for a round of golf and I'm enjoying the delicious offerings of the Calistoga Roastery while doing some preliminary book-ing. Such a lovely afternoon! This morning we ate breakfast at Cafe Sarafornia (Brannan Benedict, named in honour of the town's founder) then took a wander to an awesome bookshop where I stocked up on knitting magazines and resisted the urge to buy all the beautiful journals. After that we visited the spa - a post in itself - and now here I am, playing with my phone camera, drinking iced almond milk mocha and distracting myself from the enjoyable business of reading and page planning. An ideal way to while away a holiday afternoon.

The coffees are imaginatively named. I am tempted by Eva's bitch-in-a-bag, Darren's dark despair and Frank Sumatra.