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I’m supposed to be baking. Or tempering chocolate. After all, it’s only a week to Christmas.

Instead, I’ve been consumed by an urge to create shiny things. Many years ago, I used to make a lot of Swarovski crystal jewellery. I used mostly vintage stones, worked onto either sterling silver or rolled gold findings. I haven’t really made anything over the past few years, but as we’ve discussed before, old enthusiasms don’t die, they just go on the backburner for a little while. So even though it’s nearly Christmas and you’re probably expecting a recipe for a baked treat, here’s a tutorial on making earrings instead. Just for fun!

I like to use 10mm Swarovski crystals for earrings – the red ones below are a colour called Siam. I’ve also used 6mm silver rondelles, 22 gauge sterling silver head pins, sterling silver earring hooks, and a small spacer crystal (Swarovski 5305 in 6mm clear).

Tools required: wire cutter, flat nosed pliers and round nosed pliers.

Stack the crystals onto the head pin. I placed the large crystal at the base, followed by the rondelle and then the clear crystal…

Using flat-nosed pliers, carefully bend the wire, leaving a gap of a few millimeters between the top of the crystal and the bend…

Using round nosed pliers, turn the top into a complete circle – with your fingers, bend the wire half way around the nose of the pliers, then readjust the pliers and complete the loop. This takes a bit of practice…

Grasping the loop with one set of pliers, use the other set to wrap the wire around the gap between the loop and the top bead…

Carefully trim off the tail…

Holding the loop in the round nosed pliers, carefully and gently tuck the end of the wire in with the flat nosed pliers…

Open the loop of the earring hooks by gently bending the wire to the side. Never open a loop by uncurling it, as it weakens the wire…

Slip in the finished earring, then close the hook loop back up again…

If all the wire wrapping sounds a bit ominous, here’s a much easier method. Thread the beads onto the head pin – this time I used vintage Swarovski green tourmaline in 10mm and 6mm, with a small sterling silver spacer between them…

Using flat nosed pliers, bend the wire over as close to the top bead as possible (be careful not to crack the stone)…

Trim the wire about 1cm away from the bend…

Using round nosed pliers, slowly turn the loop. The best way to do this is in two stages – bend the loop half way by twisting the pliers, then readjust them and bend it down to the base…

Open the loop by twisting slightly to the side…

Slip the earring onto the hook and then close the loop back up…

I personally prefer wrapped loops, but they take a bit of practice and the simple turned loops are really just as attractive…

How are your Christmas preparations going? I really have to start baking soon!

A few weeks ago, I popped into my mate Joe’s shop to buy some frozen gnocchi to make Sami Tamimi’s Instagrammed recipe.

As I was paying, Carmel gave me this brilliant suggestion for another incredibly easy gnocchi dish. She suggested baking the potato dumplings in sauce, from frozen, and told me that her daughter had absolutely loved the results.

I can never have enough simple dinner ideas at this time of year, so I picked up an extra packet of gnocchi to give it a go. As Carmel had advised, I poured in a layer of good tomato passata, scattered over the frozen gnocchi, then added a layer of defrosted pulled pork*…

This was topped with more passata and a mix of parmesan and mozzarella cheese, then baked in a 180C with fan oven until golden…

The serving plate was scraped clean! Next time I’ll put a bit more effort into the sauce, but as a proof of concept dish, this was fantastic – the gnocchi cooked to tender but not mushy and there was just one dish to wash up at the end of the meal!

*The pulled pork is optional (Carmel didn’t use it in her dish). Whenever I make pulled pork, I always freeze the leftovers in small takeaway containers for later meals. They defrost perfectly and can be used for a multitude of easy midweek dinners ranging from fancy ragus to toasted sandwiches.

I write a lot of bread posts – mostly about my sourdough experiments with different flours and ingredients. As I’ve said before, tweaking recipes and trying new techniques makes the whole process enormously enjoyable.

But as all my baking buddies know, a lot of the time we simply bake prosaic, pragmatic (and all of those other words that mean everyday) bread. Bread for school lunches, bread that doesn’t require too much thought, bread that always works.

One of the tricky things about baking with a sourdough starter is figuring out how to fit the long proving times into our busy schedules. Mistime it by just a little bit, and we find ourselves peering into the oven at 2am, willing the loaves to brown. But once a routine is worked out, it’s incredibly soothing and simple to orchestrate.

As I’ve now mailed out oodles of dried Priscilla starter, I thought I’d show you how easy it is to make a very serviceable everyday overnight loaf with her. I’ve taken lots of photos – one-handed, on my iPhone, in poor light. What you see below is what I see when I make this bread (in one form or another) a couple of times a week.

Always start with a bubbly bowl of starter. I take out ¼ cup of starter from the fridge at lunch time, feed her ¼ cup each of bakers (bread) flour and filtered water at 1pm, followed by ½ cup of each at about 4pm. By 8pm, this is what she looks like…

This very basic loaf uses just four ingredients – starter, water, bakers (bread) flour and fine sea salt. Measure out 300g of starter in a very large mixing bowl…

Add between 570g – 600g of cold or room temperature water. I start with the lesser amount and then add a bit more later if needed, depending on how the dough feels (it varies from night to night)…

Add one kilogram of bakers (bread) flour…

…and 18g of fine sea salt. That’s it…

Get a clean hand into the bowl and squelch all the ingredients together…

Cover the bowl with a shower cap or cling film and let it sit on the bench for half an hour…

Uncover and give the dough a quick knead in the bowl. I spend about a minute doing this…

Now cover the bowl again, wish it a good night and leave it on the bench…

At 6am the following morning, this is what my dough looked like. I should mention here that Priscilla is incredibly resilient – she can prove for hours to the point of overblown and still bounce back for a second rise. Not all sourdoughs can do that, so you might need to adapt accordingly to suit your starter’s temperament…

Dust the bench well with fine semolina and scrape the dough out (alternatively, you could dust the bench with rye flour, but avoid white flour as it tends to stick)…

Using a plastic spatula or dough scraper, fold the outside thirds into the middle…

Divide the dough into two…

…and shape as desired. Here’s a short video on shaping the round loaf.

A tip: try to pull the outside of the dough as tightly as possible – this will create a good gluten coat which will help the loaves to keep their shape…

Place covered pots into the oven and preheat to maximum. The pots aren’t essential – you could just as easily bake on a pizza stone or oven tray, but the pots produce beautifully shaped loaves…

Once the shaped dough has puffed up a bit (about half an hour), slash with a serrated knife. I’ve learnt from experience that wielding a razor at 6am in the morning is unwise, so now I use a small bread knife…

I couldn’t get any photos of the next bit (and no-one was awake to help me). Carefully take the hot pot out of the oven, remove the lid, place in the slashed dough, then cover and return to the oven. Reduce the heat to 220C with fan and bake for 20 minutes with the lid on.

After 20 minutes, remove the lid and bake for a further 20 minutes with the lid off. This is how the dough looks when the lid is removed – well risen but pale…

After the second 20 minutes (ie. at the 40 minute mark), the loaves are basically done. I like to take them out of the pots and bake them on the racks for a further 10 minutes at 175C with fan, as I find this helps to them to stay crusty…

Allow the finished loaves to cool on a wire rack. The fine semolina that I used to dust the bench adds a lovely crunchy finish…

Most people don’t have a massive 90cm freestanding oven, so if you’d prefer to bake just a single loaf, simply halve the recipe. Or bake in shifts – shape the first loaf and let it rise, then while it’s baking, shape the second one. This dough would also work well as rolls.

Basic, simple, everyday bread. Just four ingredients, kneaded for about a minute, shaped for maybe three – it doesn’t get much easier than that!

A few snippets from the last couple of weeks – it’s been a busy time!

When Pete’s family were down for our early Christmas get-together, Penny, Ray and I popped into the Sydney Fish Market to buy supplies for lunch. The salmon were so fresh they looked like they were still swimming…

We bought scallops, Coffin Bay oysters, calamari, ocean trout and a kilo and a half of these magnificent tiger prawns…

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We’ve stopped planting squash because a couple seem to come up by themselves every year. And when they grow to this size, a couple is more than anyone needs! For some reason, each year the tromboncino crosses look a bit more risque (sigh)…

Our neighbour Mark’s passionfruit vine is promising a bumper crop this season – there are already half a dozen fruit maturing on our side of the fence…

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Last week, Pete and I lunched with the divine Deb Kolkka at the White Rabbit Gallery. I took a few photos of the current exhibition…

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Small Man is our resident Christmas elf.

Every year he tidies up the living room, moves the furniture, drags the tree out of the cellar, then spends hours meticulously setting it up and arranging the lights. Only then does he call the rest of the family in to hang up decorations!

Half the decorations on the tree are homemade and I have trouble culling any, so the tree just gets fuller each year…

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I was excited to find 5 Stagioni Semola Rimacinata on sale at a local deli when I popped in to pick up a fresh bag of chestnut flour. Bread and chestnut flour brownies are on the list for Christmas…

I tested out the new semolina flour in a batch of overnight sourdough rolls and it was very good. It seems to absorb more water than the other brands, which means I’ll be able to make higher hydration doughs with it…

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Christmas chocolate making this year will involve gorgeous candied orange segments that I found at Johnny’s cheese shop

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My old friend Wendy stopped by yesterday and gave me all her surplus sample bags. It was like receiving a box of treasure! That sorts out Christmas wrapping for me…

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And as for Christmas gift tags – here’s a link to some we made five years ago. I turned them into pdfs in case you’d like to print them out onto card and use them for your kitchen treats…

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Christmas gift tag – with greeting

Christmas gift tag – blank

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What’s been happening at your place this December?

My lovely friend Clare in Geelong is a busy young lady – she’s juggling a new bubba and writing a blog, all while building her first home with her husband J. Clare recently remarked that blogs and social media often show a “prettified” version of our lives, and asked to see our #thisisreal photos. Here are mine!

December in our house is always crazy busy. It’s also the most enjoyable time of the year – Small Man is off school, we’re entertaining family and friends, and I’m manically experimenting with ideas for Christmas gifts. My kitchen seems perpetually messy at the moment…

As a result, I’ll occasionally forget to cook dinner (sigh). Pete walked into the kitchen at 6pm a few weeks ago to find me whisking up Irish cream and tempering chocolate, neither of which counted towards the evening meal. So he came up with these toasted sandwiches – and even though they’re just toasted sandwiches, they were so good and so typical of my engineer husband that we made them again last week so that I could share them with you.

Hmm. Actually, that’s not true. We made them last week because I forgot to cook dinner again on Saturday night. But they really were very good!

We started with thin slices of sourdough bread, ham offcuts from our ever generous friend Johnny, Dorset cheddar, butter and backyard eggs…

The outside of each slice of bread was lightly buttered, then a wall of thick ham pieces was constructed. Make sure the bread doesn’t have any holes in the middle – if it does, cover them up with a thin slice of salami or ham. Note that the bread should be quite thin – what you see in the photo below is both slices stacked up, butter sides together…

Carefully crack the eggs into a bowl, then scoop out a yolk with a little bit of white (my pedantic husband insists that a bit of white is nicer than all yolk, but that a whole egg is too much)…

Carefully place the egg inside the ham walls…

Add a scattering of cheese – not too much, the engineer insists, and none on top of the yolk…

Carefully slide the topped bread onto the flat plate of a preheated sandwich press, then top with the other slice, butter side up…

This is the important bit – set your sandwich press to the widest setting – then carefully lower the top. This stops the egg from being squished out – if your machine can’t do that, then you might need to cook these in a frying pan…

The sandwiches only take a few minutes to toast to golden…

I spent too long taking photos of this first one, so the yolk set a bit more than desired…

…but the second batch were perfect!

I’ve told both boys that when they move out, I’ll be buying them each a sandwich press and a Römertopf. Then I’ll deliver bread and eggs every week and know that they’ll never go hungry!

I hope you’re all having a fabulous December! ♥

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