The Alchemy of Autumn

If you were hanging about Little Wanderings this time last year, or happen to follow me on Instagram – you probably have an inkling that I have a certain fondness for Autumn. It is, without question, my favourite time of year. It feels magic. The reds and golds that blaze through the trees signal a seasonal alchemy that sets my little creative soul alight. 

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Autumn means beautiful, brilliant change. I am so lifted and inspired by this season. Almost too much so! I find myself almost overwhelmed by creative desire at the moment. I want to write. I want to scrapbook all my travel photos. I want to learn how to paint in watercolour. I want to bake delicious new things that make my house smell divine and then curl up on the couch and devour a good book. 

I’m reminded of something that Isobelle Carmody – my favourite author, who I’m lucky enough to have heard speak several times – mentioned during one of her events at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival last year. She said that she sees her creative life as a kind of tapestry. This tapestry is woven with many different creative threads, and she approaches her work by simply pulling on whichever thread will be the most fruitful at the time. This idea really resonated with me, though I think I’m yet to truly develop the intuition – or perhaps discipline – to reach out and run with my own most-fruitful threads. This current burst of Autumnal inspiration has made me realise it’s something I need to work on.

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And follows another piece of Carmody wisdom I seized during the same talk: that there is a time for creative input, and there is a time for creative output. I’d just come back from Europe when I attended this event and was feeling stupidly guilty for not having blogged whilst travelling. This input/output notion hit a nerve, and I brought it up later with Isobelle when I got to the front of the signing line. She urged me not to feel guilty; instead I must surrender to those input periods (in this instance, travelling) in order to truly take everything in – so that later, when the time does come for output, I am truly primed to draw on that experience during the creative process.

Autumn is one grand, tangible transition – and right now I get the feeling that it’s also a transition from a high-input period to a high-output period for me. It does make a natural kind of sense, I suppose. The cooler weather is certainly more conducive to days inside tinkering on little projects than the adventuresome call of summer sunshine. It feels like a kind of reverse hibernation, and I’m excited to wake up and see what I can create. x

Hutchy Kitchen: Mum’s Easter Egg Cake

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This cake came to life many Easters ago, when my mum thought to use up some surplus solid chocolate eggs in a humble little butter cake. Unlike chocolate chips, the chocolate eggs all sank to the bottom of the cake during baking. This was not a bad thing. Turns out those Easter eggs would form a heavenly, chocolate base – a little crisp and caramelised on the very bottom, and still soft and creamy on the inside. It was one of those serendipitous baking moments that changes everything. When I left home and started my own recipe scrapbook, this is the recipe I scribbled on the first page. I titled it, ‘BEST. CAKE. EVER.’

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Mum chose a very good foundation for this baking triumph, to be sure. The original recipe was a chocolate cake from ‘The Royal Children’s Hospital Auxiliary Cookbook’, one of those wonderful old compilations that’s bound with flimsy wire combing, has no pictures and absolutely minimal directions. It seems a lady named Jill Watson, of the Oesophageal Atresia Research Auxiliary, kindly donated her chocolate cake recipe to the tome – and my goodness, am I grateful she did. In her own modest words, “This cake is beautifully moist and keeps for days.”

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I whipped up a couple of these cakes to take to work last week and they disappeared quick as lightning. After five months working at this company, it suddenly occurred to me that Mum’s Easter Egg Cake was the perfect bring-my-baking-to-work debut. Seasonally themed? Check. An unwavering history of deliciousness? Check. So simple that two can be baked on a work night without any hint of a kitchen meltdown? Check. I even sprinkled on some crushed speckled eggs for a little extra Easter goodness. Now counting down the days until I can bake up and devour yet another with my family over the Easter break! x

Mum's Easter Egg Cake
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Ingredients
  1. Cake //
  2. 125g butter
  3. 2 heaped tbsp desiccated coconut
  4. 1 cup white sugar
  5. 1 cup self-raising flour
  6. 2 eggs
  7. 1/2 cup milk
  8. 175g / approx. 25 solid chocolate Easter eggs (if baking out of season, use roughly chopped chocolate chunks or chocolate melts)
  9. Icing //
  10. 1 1/2 cups icing sugar
  11. 1 heaped tbsp cocoa powder
  12. 1 tbsp / 14g butter, melted
  13. 100g speckled eggs, crushed (optional)
Instructions
  1. 1. Preheat oven to 180°C. Line and grease a loaf tin.
  2. 2. Add cake ingredients in listed order to a mixing bowl and combine using an electric mixer for 3-5 minutes.
  3. 3. Pour mixture into loaf tin. Dot the Easter eggs evenly across the top.
  4. 4. Bake at 180°C for 45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
  5. 5. Allow cake to cool completely before icing. Combine icing ingredients in a small bowl, then gradually add and mix in dashes of boiling water until a smooth, spreadable consistency is achieved.
  6. 6. Spread icing evenly over top of cake. Sprinkle the speckled egg pieces over icing.
  7. 7. Enjoy!
Adapted from Jill Watson's Chocolate Cake, 'The Royal Children's Hospital Auxiliary Cookbook'
Adapted from Jill Watson's Chocolate Cake, 'The Royal Children's Hospital Auxiliary Cookbook'
Little Wanderings http://littlewanderings.com/

Road Tripping Europe

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Very early into planning our Europe adventure last year, Mat and I decided we wanted to make it a road trip. I’d done Busabout Europe back in 2010, and was keen to do something different, and we were both eager to travel in a way that gave us the freedom to really do our own thing. And so, we picked up our car on the outskirts of Paris one July morning (okay, yes – it was a hair-raising half hour getting out of that city!) and dropped it off in Amsterdam five weeks later. Everything in between made up our beautiful little European road trip; a travel experience that makes my wanderlusting heart burst with joy to remember. 

I loved cosying into the road trip lifestyle; throwing our bags in the boot, climbing into the passenger seat and crooning a couple of lines (the only ones I know!) of Willie Nelson’s ‘On the Road Again’ to Mat before setting out toward the next adventure. Becoming strangely enamoured by Europe’s Autogrills, those beautiful roadside beacons that put Australia’s service stations to shame. Car snacks with a local twist: one day we might munch on a packet of Haribo lollies, the next on our very own makeshift charcuterie platter assembled entirely from an Autogrill fridge (seriously, Autogrills are fantastic and I adore them). Curating the perfect road trip playlist. The inevitable anthropomorphism of the GPS system (‘Gypsy, you’re crazy, that’s not even a road!‘). And of course, having a giggle over foreign roadsigns…

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Road tripping meant freedom. We travelled on our own schedule, which was utterly delightful and not something I’d really experienced whilst abroad. Coming and going didn’t feel like a chore. One night we stayed up chatting with a few other travellers in the kitchen of our hostel in Bled, Slovenia. One backpacker had set up for the night, checked out of his room but forced to wait out until some ungodly hour of the early morning for his train to Budapest. The unavoidably indirect journey would take him almost ten hours (it would have taken us less than five). Another couple were plotting their own early morning, scheming to cab out to the train stop just before Bled’s main station in the hope of beating the throng to a couple of seats together. Train travel certainly has its place, especially in Europe – but waking up on our own time and taking a mosey down to the local bakery for breakfast before a lazy three-and-a-half-hour drive to the other side of Austria was a very nice way of doing things indeed.

Having a car gave us the freedom to explore all those little detours and day trips with total ease. Our Swiss Airbnb hosts, Sonja and Christophe, were thrilled to be able to send us off through the mountains on a little rainy day road trip to Maison Cailler – a chocolate factory with an all-you-can-eat tasting room, and the nearby town of Gruyères – famous, of course, for the cheese; fondue was most heartily consumed. Obviously, this goes down as one of the greatest days in history. We did drive on the wrong side of the road for a short time that day (it was early in the trip!), but luckily the locals seemed unperturbed!

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We could stop in at the Tower of Pisa on our way from Levanto to Montespertoli, and quickly make haste when the heat and crowds got the better of us. Tuscany itself was a wonder to explore by car. Every little town that dotted the vast, ochre landscape was open to us. From our isolated hilltop Airbnb to a castle-come-winery in the town of Montespertoli, from the walled medieval town of San Gimignano and even to gorgeous Florence itself (tip: nab some of the city’s only free parking and avoid those nasty ZTL areas at Piazzale Michelangelo – very conveniently located for exploring the city, and the best spot you’ll find to catch the sunset!). We even took a forty-five minute drive through the hills one afternoon just to hunt down what what is apparently the best gelato in Chianti.

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Even little excursions, like Vintgar Gorge from Bled, or the Almsee from Grünau, Austria, meant we could spend more time exploring the attraction rather than sweating it out just getting there. We paid a solemn visit to Dachau Concentration Camp on our way from Munich to Nuremberg. The mood was lighter a few days later when we discovered that Legoland Deutschland was but a miniature detour on the way to Stuttgart. 

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Oh – and we got to drive our car onto a train in Switzerland to be transported through the pitch black belly of mountain and on to Italy:

Our European road trip was, quite honestly, a magical adventure, and my most treasured travel experience to date. It took a little bit of planning – but with a GPS and a good travel buddy, I believe anyone can do it. 

(I’m already planning the next one. Iceland 2016, here we come!)

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This post was hurried along by the folks at Land Rover, who were kindly looking to sponsor a piece on road trips. Thanks for kicking my butt into gear on this one, guys!

Books and Baking: Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

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In 2014, my first year of rating books on Goodreads, the highest rating I ever awarded a book was four stars. I enjoy Goodreads’ rating system a lot: ★ – did not like it,  ★★ – it was ok, ★★★ – liked it, ★★★★ – really liked it, and ★★★★★ – it was amazing. I read some wonderful books last year, but nothing that truly earned five stars for me. The thought crossed my mind – was I, perhaps, being a bit picky? Well, it took but the first book of 2015 to assuage those doubts. Five stars must be saved for those rare pieces that strike you deeply; the word ‘amazing’ given in sincerity rather than unimaginative overuse. I’d almost forgotten what that five star feeling was. It was then that I picked up Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

Burial Rites is a fictional telling of the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Sentenced to death for the murder of two men in 1828, she is sent to work on a local family’s farm to wait out the long months before a yet unnamed day of reckoning. As the seasons turn, Agnes’ appointed religious guide, as well as her reluctant guardian family come to know a woman more complex than the savage murderess they’ve been led to believe she is. Peppered with actual government documents from the sentencing, Kent alternatively writes a raw, gripping and utterly moving tale for an otherwise voiceless figure of Icelandic history.

What really drives this novel is Kent’s depiction of the landscape and livelihood of Iceland itself. The author describes Burial Rites as her “‘dark love letter’ to Iceland”, and it is a powerful romance indeed. With even a few pages hungrily devoured on the morning tram, the Nordic country leapt cold and crisp off the page and I felt plunged into Agnes’ world in an instant. Iceland is the beautiful and brutally chilling character motivating every other being in this story. Despite the heavy, haunting nature of Burial Rites, I find myself incredibly compelled to make Iceland my next grand adventure. 

Kent’s own story as a writer is one that both inspires and flusters me (in the best possible way). A young Australian (yes!) writer, she penned Burial Writes as the creative component of her PhD in 2011. It was sparked by her visit to Iceland during high school as a Rotary exchange student, where she first learned of Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s execution. She would later return on a funded research trip in 2010. Kent submitted her draft of Burial Rites to Writing Australia’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011 and won, leading to the publication of her debut novel. It’s gone on to become a bestseller and continued award-winner around the world. 

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The baked companion of Burial Rites came to me almost like a gift. Just days before I finished this book (I eked out the last few pages almost painfully, not wanting it to end), I stumbled across this ‘Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake‘ at The Sugar Hit, a fabulous blog I follow. Now, Agnes’ story hardly involves any happy marriages – in fact, far from it – but the Iceland connection seemed too good to ignore. In any case, the original meaning of the ‘Happy Marriage’ in Iceland’s classic hjónabandssæla (oh, what a delightful language to wrap one’s tongue around!) appears to have been lost. It seems we have to create our own story for this too.

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I’m going to send you over to The Sugar Hit for this recipe, because Sarah’s blog and photography is just too delightful not too share. I urge you to make this ‘cake’ – it’s easy and thoroughly delicious, and truth be told was exactly the baking win I needed (I’ve had a couple of kitchen dramas lately!). I didn’t make the jam filling from scratch, as Sarah does, both because I wanted a quick creation to whip up on a work night, and because I found a a scrumptious-sounding Rhubarb and Red Berry jam from Anathoth Farm at my supermarket. I can wholeheartedly confirm it does the trick!

Sarah also links to a couple of other bloggers’ posts on Icelandic travel, which I highly recommend you take a peek at too. Combine that with Burial Rites and a slice of hjónabandssæla? I’ll see you on the next flight bound for Reykjavík. 

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