How to tie a knot, how to bake a loaf, how to dance a jig, and how to just relax. These are the lessons we learned in lockdown
How I learned to understand dough
It started with the no-knead bread. An easy recipe, my mother promised, with three cups of flour mixed with yeast and warm water, a quick mix together, then into a steaming dutch oven for 30 minutes or so.
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Quickly the easy-baking obsession descended into madness: quick chocolate chip cookies (too sweet), simple Eccles cakes (too many currents) and no-fail banana bread (too healthy). The Paul Hollywood hot cross buns, the Jamie Oliver easy loaf.
Each one promised foolproof techniques that could be thrown together in minutes. Recipe after recipe that guaranteed as little work as possible, seemingly written for people who didn't really want to be making them at all.
But then came the pizza dough. The recipe came from a friend in Italy, who confessed she'd taken it from the New York Times. A scan of a photocopy of a newspaper page that she'd been marking up with personal observations over years of practice. There were 153g of 00 flour, 153g of all-purpose flour, 2g of yeast, 235mL of water - the amounts were so mysteriously precise.
But there was one magical ingredient none of the other recipes had included - time.
Forget everything you've been told about a two-hour rise here and a quick proof there. You want proper pizza? You need time. If the recipe tells you otherwise, it is more interested in clicks than in your Friday-night dinner.
As dough rises, the yeast eats the sugar from the flour, and then burps out carbon dioxide. This becomes trapped by the dough's gluten - these are the bubbles that form in the dough, and are later seen in baked bread. The more sugar consumed, the more CO2 is burped, the more flavour is imparted into your dough.
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For reasons beyond the grasp of this amateur baker, a cold rise creates a more complex flavour, more like a sourdough. The lower temperature will also reduce the number of bubbles in the dough, which results in a better chew.
To be fair, this recipe can be whizzed through in just 24 hours - if you're a life-in-the-fast-lane kind of pizza maker. But right now there's pizza dough in my fridge that I made days ago, and I won't be touching it for days yet. Leave it alone, for four or five or even six days, and it just keeps getting better.
For those of us who can't commit to waiting five days for their pizza, I have a quick and easy tip.
Just google 'fast simple pizza dough recipe', and good luck to you.
How I learned to stop worrying and love nautical knot tying
Just two months ago there are things you just couldn't have predicted.
If someone told you that soon we'd all be stockpiling loo-rolls and canned beans they'd have been laughed out of town. Never had I considered letting anyone but a trained professional approach my head with a sharp object, let alone the girlfriend after a two-minute "haircut at home" tutorial on YouTube.
But the very last thing I'd have expected is to have taken up is nautical knot tying.
Once I'd have written it off as a hobby for frustrated boy scouts and social deviants. My new advice is: don't knock it until you've tied it.
At first, it was a hobby of convenience. While on a small cruise ship quarantined in the port of Punta Arenas, Chile, it was the only pastime that didn't involve drinking, re-reading the same books or endlessly pacing the upper deck. Stranded in a South American port for two weeks there were less useful things to learn. Particularly if I could find enough strands to create a ladder and climb to freedom.
The ship's balding boatswain, Sergio, began teaching classes to anyone who would listen. Which was a surprising proportion of the captive passengers. Like the Buddha of the bowline knot he had a hitch for every occasion and seemingly limitless patience. Each he produced with deceptive speed and precision.
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Creates a loop that won't alter in size. It can be tied through the simple mnemonic: 'Up through the rabbit hole, round the big tree; down through the rabbit hole and off goes he' - helps if you keep track of what's the rabbit, hole or tree.
Sheep Shank: To shorten a rope. Fold to desired length create a half hitch in one end and drop it over the loop of the shortened rope. Do the same at the other end and slowly tighten.
Fisherman's knot: Whatever knot he likes - it'll be lost in a tree in five minutes.
How I rediscovered dance
My mind insisted I still had the sprightly joints of a 7-year-old. My knees indicated otherwise.
I'd had a brief foray into Irish dancing as a child, but since then, my only attempts had been ones fuelled by Guinness in crowded pubs in Galway. That is, until the Great Lockdown Of 2020, and the countless articles each day about virtual classes I should join. I got sucked into the pressure of "now's a good time to learn x/y/z" and started trawling through online Irish dance classes.
Ladies: if you want to attempt this too, for the love of God wear a supportive sports bra because there's a whole lot of jumping in this type of dancing.
I started with the basic steps - point-hop-back, point-switch-point, 3s, 7s, jump-overs. It looked simple enough. I've always had good balance. I'm a figure skater - how hard could it be? Then the music started and my ego suffered a tremendous punch as I thumped around like an elephant to a lively Irish jig. There was no height to my jumps or hops, no rhythm or timing, and absolutely no flair. My point-hop-backs were point-hop-thuds and my jump-overs made me look more like a hurdler than a dancer. My knee contorted into unnatural angles, I rolled my ankle three times and stubbed my toe as I hopped to the couch. Irish dancing seemed far less dangerous when drunkenly pretending to do Riverdance in a pub, than actually attempting real steps.
I switched up the dance schedule and did a bit of ballet to work on my posture. I considered putting rocks in my hands to keep my arms down straight by my side. I gave the jig another shot. And another. And the steps began to come a little easier.
But then I viewed a video of my attempts and remained horrified at my distinct lack of grace. I decided it was best to leave the past where it belonged and hung up my metaphorical Irish dancing shoes as fast as I could and grabbed an ice pack from the freezer for my knees.
How I learnt to relax in lockdown
On my first few days working from home I, like most of New Zealand, felt motivated to make this strange time work for me. "I can do all the things I never have time for!" I exclaimed. "Like learning a language!".
I tried Duolingo for a few days, but I soon lost interest as the reality of my cancelled April trip to Italy sunk in. Why learn Italian when I wouldn't be able to use it in situ any time soon?
So, something else. Baking! The whole world was one big ball of sourdough it seemed, and as eating is one of my all-time favourite pastimes I thought I'd give it a try.
Turns out a good cook does not a good baker make. My disastrous hot cross buns are testament to that. They tasted okay, but somehow ended up looking like cheese and Marmite scones. The main thing they were good for was self-deprecating posts on Instagram to make my friends laugh.
Undeterred, I googled "easy sponge cake recipe" and put my pinny back on.
How does an easy sponge cake go wrong? I'm not sure either, but it tasted quite a lot like an omelette and not a lot like a cake. I put my pinny back in the drawer.
Second favourite pastime? Drinking wine. "How hard can it be to learn to properly taste wine," I thought, confidently. After sipping along with a couple of YouTube tutorials, I was tipsy, but no more articulate on my tipples. "It tastes of … grapes?" was about the best I could do. Perhaps the best time to try and become a wine master is not when you're spending most nights swilling cheap supermarket plonk to stave off the fear of impending doom.
I tried running, but I hurt my leg. I tried mindfulness, but I got bored. I tried gardening, but all I really felt like doing was cutting back dead things and after a while there was nothing left to chop.
Finally, I found a great teacher, someone who could give me so many lessons about the best way to use my time in lockdown: my dog. Working from home has given me an insight into how she spends the majority of her days… and it's something I can really get on board with. So for the rest of alert level 3 - and probably beyond - you'll find me curled up in any available patch of sunshine, enjoying a long, languorous nap. Who needs to learn new tricks anyway?