Summer Baking, or: Why Sponge Rolls Make Me Happy

One of the things I miss about Adelaide is not being able to make cakes for my friends. So when we were invited to a BBQ last night, I jumped at the opportunity, smiling with glee. The cake pictured above had already lost six fat slices (I was too excited by the prospect of eating it to remember to take a photo), but you get the gist. The remaining two and a half slices didn’t last for long, either.

Yes there were six of us – I didn’t eat it all by myself.

Sponge rolls are one of my Grandma’s specialties. She makes two different sorts: one with passion-fruit mixed with the cream, and one with strawberries and cream. Strawberries and cream in a sponge roll are amazing. There’s something about the slippery texture of the strawberries contrasting with the smooth cream and the cloud-like cake… Heaven. I was immensely proud of myself when I mastered the art of making these, and I’m sure in the old Adelaide days it secured me many invitations to dinner. But M doesn’t really like strawberries, so devoted girlfriend that I am, I bought raspberries instead (and what fat juicy raspberries they were). I’ve used raspberries before, and it was good, but not as good. I was musing on this as I carried the ingredients back along the river to our flat, and I was suddenly inspired. I would squash half the raspberries and mix them with the cream! It would be amazing!

Now, because the recipe is so simple and so short, I’m going to share it with you. There are only three ingredients:

3 eggs
1/2 cup castor sugar (normal sugar works too; you just have to beat it for longer)
1/2 cup self-raising flour

Beat the eggs and sugar with an electric hand beater until the mixture goes light, creamy and fluffy and the sugar is dissolved, in my grandma’s words: ‘the mixture should be quite firm in that you can make a pattern with a stream of it if you hold the beaters up’. Nowhere near as thick as you’d get with meringue, but you’ll notice a definite difference in colour and consistency. Then you stir the flour in very gently with a metal spoon. Pour into a sponge roll tin lined with greased baking paper, and cook in a moderate oven (that’s about 180C) for twenty minutes. (I didn’t have a sponge roll tin, but used a large baking tray.)

Tip out onto a tea-towel sprinkled with sugar, and roll up while it’s hot. After leaving it for a minute or so, you can unroll it to let it cool down. When it’s completely cool, spread with your desired combination of whipped cream and fruit, and roll it up again!

Here it is, cooling on the tea-towel.

So why does it make me happy? They are very quick and simple to make, but you have to pay attention and do each step properly – the whipping, the folding in the flour, the baking, because the joy of these things is that they’re mainly air. If you make several in a row you can experiment with oven temperatures and baking times and get them just right… And you should have seen the glossy glowy mixture of the squashed raspberries before I stirred them into the cream along with a sprinking of vanilla sugar. I tried to show them to M but he laughed and said it was more fun watching me, and that if I smiled any more my head would explode. Here it is before I rolled it up. Just for you, I uploaded this picture in full resolution, so if you click on it, you’ll get the most delicious close-up of the raspberries and cream. Go on. I know you want to.


Despite the earnest sentiments expressed in my last post, this week I’ve been wondering if I should hand in my Australian passport. It’s been HOT. And I haven’t been coping. Not sleeping well, feeling faint and floppy. But when I say hot, I mean 28 degrees. Nothing.

Nevertheless, we went cycling yesterday evening. The sun baked down on us and the warm air brushed our skin. It was my eighth 30k ride since arriving two weeks ago, bringing my total to 240k. I want to see how long it takes to get to 1000. M’s managed one more ride than me so far, so he’s at 270. We cycle to a lake. Often there’s a lone duck, preening her feathers. Sometimes there are ducklings, six of them, peeping and paddling. And a woodpecker, tap-tapping above us. Once last week it was over-run with picnicking families, reminding me of the scene at the end of Cloudstreet. The other day, on the way back, I saw a tiny red squirrel, scampering across the road (made a nice change to all the squashed ones).

Anyway, yesterday was the first time I could actually keep up! Usually M passes me on a hill and that’s the end of it. But this time I kept him in sight. I floated up those hills, and flew down them.

But it was hot. So when we got to the lake…

Why I’m doing this

Been thinking about Australian poetry. What it means to me. Why it called out to me, and drew me to study it. Why on earth I ended up devoting several years of my life to studying Australian poetry and the Middle Ages, together. It has something to do with being out of the limelight. And something to do with feeling at home. Not sure if that makes sense. I love all kinds of literature – Dostoevsky, Keats, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, but I’d never consider doing a PhD on them. (I wrote an honours thesis in Dostoevsky but that’s different – I didn’t have to learn Russian for that…)

Before I did the Masters in Medieval literature in York (which I did because it sounded amazingly fun, and it was), I came up with the PhD topic that I am now getting close to finishing – to look at representations of the Middle Ages in Australian literature. It helped me get funding for my Masters, which in turn helped me get funding for the PhD. While I was doing the Masters, I wondered if I would come up with a new topic, a ‘proper medieval topic’, and abandon my old one. My Masters dissertation was on the Pearl-poet and fourteenth-century mystics. I loved it. Pearl is still one of my favourite poems. Anyway, I agonized over potential PhD topics for months. But I remember walking along the river one afternoon, and it all suddenly becoming clear. Australian poetry. That was it. It had to be. It lit something up inside me. It made me smile. It was as certain as the grey light on the water, winding out a path.

At various points over the past few years as I’ve studied Australian poetry at an English university, I’ve wondered what’s special about it, to me. When I was tutoring on the introductory ‘Reading Prose’ module, I listened to lectures on Great Expectations and Mrs Dalloway (both novels I adore, especially the latter), and I suddenly realised – London’s down the road for these students. It’s not some mythical city on the other side of the world. ‘English literature’ happens here, it comes from here, here is the centre. And they probably don’t even notice.

Which was probably the reason, as I got into poetry as a teenager and a young adult, that I felt especially connected to the Australian poems. Yes I loved T.S. Eliot and Hopkins and Dylan Thomas and for that matter Zbigniew Herbert, but there was something extraordinary about the fact that John Shaw Neilson wrote about lakes and trees not far from my home, and Les Murray wrote about Emus and possums ‘skidding down the roof on little moonlit claws’, and when Judith Wright described the ‘delicate dry breasts’ of a moon-glazed country seen from a train window, she spoke of a land I knew by heart.

There’s also the weird pride that I come from the same place. I like it that Francis Webb was born in Adelaide, and Randolph Stow taught there. And I love it when I show someone a poem written in Australia and they are seriously impressed. I do feel proud. Like I have some strange national duty to share with the world what good stuff is going on down there.

So that’s the personal baggage I’m bringing to this project (we’ll have to do the ‘why the Middle Ages’ post another day, if anyone’s interested). And it’s what hums in the background as I consider rather tedious arguments about ‘national traditions’ and ‘postcoloniality’ and ‘cultural autonomy’. Because with my thinking-hat on, I don’t buy any of that whole-sale. Belonging is problematic in Australia, and I think ‘cultural autonomy’ is a myth (more on this another day, too). But – something about these poems belong to me – and I to them. And that makes me happy.

I am modelled on the sun

I appear from the inner world, singular and many, I am
the animals of my tree, appointed to travel and be eaten
since animals are plants’ genital extensions, I’m clothed in luscious
dung but designed to elicit yet richer, I am modelled on the sun,
dry shine shedding off mottled surface but having like it a crack seed. . .

. . . I am streamy inside, taut with sugar meats, circular,
my colours are those of the sun understood by leaf liquor cells
and cells of deep earth metal, I am dressed for eyes by the blind,
perfumed, flavoured by the mouthless, by insect-conductors who kill
and summon by turns, I’m to tell you there is a future and there are
consequences, and they are not the same, I emerge continually
from the inner world, which you can’t mate with nor eat.

Les Murray, ‘Stone Fruit’

I don’t think anyone has imagined stone fruit as perfectly as Murray. I ate this peach, ‘streamy inside, taut with sugar meats’, yesterday. Two of them, in fact. I’m planning on eating more today. Peaches were always my favourite at a child, but I gave up on them years ago. They were never as I remembered – often floury, often small. But in the supermarket yesterday, I saw them, and I could tell. Sweet but bright. Its juice ran down my chin and my hands and squirted out over the wooden steps as I ate it. Liquid sunlight, all the way.

Rainy Weekend

The boxes arrived on Thursday. Six weeks after I sent them. Long story.

We had to make space in the cupboards for all the stuff. Luckily it rained all weekend, which meant we had time to turn this:

into this:

and this:

Now it’s Monday again, and, as always, the thesis…


Thought I’d show you some snow photos to match fifi’s. But this is summer snow! (From the week before last.) It was so thick on top of the mountains that we couldn’t cross the stream to continue the hike. (Didn’t trust the snow-bridge.) That’s one of the glacier arms wriggling its way down into the valley.

And that’s another shot of the glacier behind the stream and the snow-bridge. Underneath the snow were stepping stones, but we didn’t fancy tumbling down towards the waterfall. We were staying in cabins on the valley floor, and that night we saw (and heard – it was like thunder) an avalanche of snow tumbling down and blocking one of the smaller waterfalls. The stream on the valley floor radiated cold. It stayed light all night. This is a strange and dynamic landscape. You can’t imagine anything more beautiful, but neither can you quite relax.

Here we are half way up. Note my rosy cheeks – it was steep (M’s still trying not to smile on camera – I think he looks very nineteenth century). You can just see the bright blue fjord in the background. We couldn’t walk without pain for four days afterwards.

And that, my friends, is a farm. Yep, snuggled into the right hand side of the picture (small brown building with turf roof). Apparently they had to tether their children to stakes so they wouldn’t fall down into the fjord below.

And here’s the snow I promised you, on another mountain in Jotunheimen. Our shoes were pretty much like icy paddle-pools by this point. In other news, thesis introduction writing is going swimmingly. More on that next time I surface…

Last Week

Last week I felt like I was five steps behind, scrambling to catch up all the way. But it was fun all the same. The Medieval Congress in Leeds was much more fun than last year because it was packed with clever Australian medievalists. (‘Isn’t that an oxymoron?’ asked the London-born lass whose sofa I kipped on. No. And no.) There was also a whole day and a half devoted to medievalism of various times and forms, which was amazing, but I have to admit I skipped a couple on Tuesday and went to papers about medieval animals instead. According to an obscure Anglo-Saxon text, I learned during a paper on Anglo-Saxon whales in fact and fiction, at one point God became a Leviathan in order to fight the devil. Some of you might know why I think this is cool.

I also saw some lovely old friends, including Liz, who did the masters in York with me and I hadn’t seen since graduation. And I cycled home in the unseasonable English rain, and got completely drenched, twice.

The paper I think went better the second time. Some interesting points were raised in the questions that will help me if I want to make anything more out of it. I wish I didn’t stammer though. It wasn’t that bad, but a couple of times I’ve given virtually flawless presentations, and I wish that would happen every time. I’m just so bored of dealing with it that I’ve stopped adequately preparing for it. (If I read through the paper over and over and over again before I give it it’s usually smoother. Trouble with this one was I kept changing it so I didn’t have a chance.) I talked about it with a couple of people from the audience afterwards, and one of them asked me if it was stage fright. No. Nothing like that. Of course giving a presentation is more stressful than having a chat to someone, but I don’t get more nervous than anyone else. It’s just that the slightest hint of nerves (or sometimes excitement) somehow manages to break my words into little pieces.

At school, if I ever had to give a presentation, I would dread it for weeks. It’s not like that any more. I really don’t mind. And it’s not like people can’t deal with listening to a minor stammer – I still get my point across. But – I do feel sort of raw and broken afterwards, as though I’ve cracked open and everyone can see inside.

Anyway, loads of people told me they liked the paper – and I don’t think they were just being kind! The poems I was talking about are themselves pretty impressive, so it was fun to share them with people.

I’m back in Norway now, and looking forward to working full-pelt on my thesis tomorrow. After the conferences I feel refreshed, rejuvenated, awash with possibility.

Transit Blogging

On the train from London to Leeds. You get free wireless these days. Cool. Should get in by 22:30. Looking forward to sleeping tonight, even on my friend’s sofa. The last two nights didn’t involve enough sleeping.

Last week we went to the mountains and the fjords with two old friends from Adelaide. The weather was perfect. The glaciers and the waterfalls glistened in the sun. It was all too beautiful for words. We climbed a very steep mountain, and then – even more painfully – climbed back down again. That was three days ago. My legs are only now slowly stopping aching. I’ve been hobbling about London with my suitcase, staggering up and down the tube station stairs.

I gave a paper today on medieval antipodean animals. There were some good ideas in there and lots of potential, but I think I was trying to squeeze too much in. I was comparing how Murray and Webb invoke different medieval genres in their depictions of Australian animals, and how their purposes are quite different despite obvious similarities. After ten minutes I realised it was far too long and I ad-libbed the second half. That was kind of fun though. Anyway, I’m giving the paper again on Wednesday – I think I’ll streamline it and try to give it a clearer structure, and maybe plan to build in more talking rather than reading aloud. Non-humanities people are always horrified that most humanities people read aloud their conference papers.

I always reckon it’s more important to be engaging and understandable in a conference paper than to be too clever or have too many examples. And with a topic like mine – I try to keep in mind what sort of audience I’m addressing (whether they’ve got a background in Australian stuff or medieval stuff, for example). But maybe I don’t need to worry about that as much as I think I do – conference papers are very different to teaching, for example. I guess I’ll strike the right balance at some point. Some papers go better than others, but it’s always a learning experience. And then there’s managing my stammer. I guess rehearsals will always be useful for that. Anyway, lots of people told me they liked it, and the rest of the conference was fascinating.