Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The best laid plans...

I’m not one of those people who can just throw caution to the winds and improvise very well. By that, I don’t mean that I’m not capable, simply that whenever I try and make changes to a set of instructions which are designed to improve it, I tend to make things worse. Especially cooking.
Every so often I get a little obsessed with a particular baked item- usually about once every 3 months. It’s usually macaroons or banana bread. The former is my baking nemesis, and I’ve never been able to get them right, the latter I just really like. I use Harry Eastwood’s Cinnamon Banana Bread recipe, which uses no butter or wheat, and is probably why I feel I can get away with making it for three or four days on the trot and almost immediately inhaling an entire loaf. (I know the baking world is very divided about Miss Eastwood’s novel approach to cakes, with many people complaining that cake isn’t supposed to be healthy and that vegetables have no place in a sponge. I’m in favour of anything that gives me an excuse to eat more cake.)
A while ago I got it into my head that what my banana bread needed was some chocolate chips, and set about trying to introduce them to various recipes, increasing or decreasing other ingredients on a whim, which I’m sure made sense at the time. I’ve learnt two lessons from this latest speight of culinary experimentation: 1) The combination of chocolate and banana bread is still delicious when you’re eating it scraped off the bottom of the tin where it’s stuck and 2) If a cookery book, which was written by a pro, edited by professionals and tested by more pros says to add 150g banana, it really probably is best to add 150g banana. The fact that I am a housewife and have the wedding ring and baby to prove it, doesn’t suddenly give me the skill to make wild “improvements” to a recipe which I’ve plucked from the ether and my life isn’t actually lived out according to a Good Housekeeping 1953 centrefold. If I could just get my head around that my life would be so much easier.
The same tends to apply with knitting: while I am a perfectly competent knitter, when I try to make adjustments or alterations to a pattern they generally look terrible. Seams pucker, hemlines sag, holes appear on one side of a garment and not the other and I generally find myself wishing I’d just done as I was told in the first place. (Incidentally, if my mother read that last statement, she’d probably have a heart attack and she’s literally just had her kitchen re done, so please don’t tell her I said that)
Not everyone has this problem. Some people can freestyle to their hearts content, pulling jumper patterns out of nowhere and just “shoving in a cable” to an otherwise boring cardi- they’re like the knitting equivalent of musicians with perfect pitch and they never, ever seem to produce elephantine sweaters or brobdinagian hats.  Other people are meticulous enough to actually sit down and do the sums for the adjustments they intend to make, and therefore never end up with gigantic socks or tiddly little scarves. They tend to be the same kind of people who knit, wash and block swatches, then pin them out before diligently counting the stitches.
I’m not really either, and therefore when a project goes well for me I feel a glow of pride that I managed to get through something without getting delusions of artistry. The opposite side of this is that when a project I’ve tried really hard on just doesn’t work, despite my careful preparations, I feel totally crushed.
When I was expecting Daughter #1, I knitted a pretty blue matinee coat with flower shaped abalone buttons which came up so big that it fitted her until she was about 7m old. I didn’t swatch, although that was only part of the problem, the greater part being that the pattern called for 3 –ply and I’d only bought blue cotton double knit, assuming with the innocence of someone who’d only ever really bought 99p balls of acrylic before, that the difference between 22st to 4” and 32st to 4” wasn’t really that much. The one tiny coat took about 7 balls of yarn and came out with a gauge of steel so tough that I could take it off and stand it in a corner until it was next needed. Problems notwithstanding, I loved that coat, I was proud of that coat and every time someone complimented me on it, I swelled slightly.

All of this left me with a terrible precedent to live up to when making the matinee coat for my next daughter. I chose a pretty 1960s pattern which was similar, but not too like the one I used for daughter #1 and bought a gorgeous cashmere/ silk/ merino blend in an elegant shade of purple. I picked out some hand painted mother- of- pearl buttons which had been a gift from my mother and were decorated with flowers in exactly the same shade of purple and then I sat down and knitted a swatch. I pinned the swatch out, I measured the swatch and I looked around smugly for another knitter to comment to about the perfection of my gauge and when that didn’t work, I told The Director instead. Buoyed up by my own diligence, I cast on.
I don’t know what kind of weird self delusion came over me at that point. I began knitting the back and at some point, about 15 rows in I vaguely remember thinking to myself “this looks a little loose” and then a few rows later “Good grief, I could practically read the newspaper through those holes” but for some reason, I kept going. I finished the back, and thought “Gosh, that looks rather big” but, undeterred, I cast on one of the fronts. Reader, I persevered through two fronts and two sleeves, all the while thinking that the coat looked as though it would be too big for a newborn. I blocked it. I sewed it up. I improvised a fricking collar. And then after three weeks of hard work I photographed it and sat back to examine the fruits of my labour.
Oh well. I guess it’ll fit her eventually.

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