Helen Stallard Communications is 15 years old today! That’s one and a half decades of solvent self-employment, also known as not having a proper job. The fates have been kind. I really do remember the date 1 April 2005 for it marked the day when I decided to be bold and take a really massive leap into the unknown rather than stick it out in a miserable commute that was too long, a job that seemed ultimately pointless and, most importantly, the ludicrousness of having to spend 8+ hours every day in an office regardless of how much work I actually needed to produce. The world of work, to me, seemed (and still mostly seems) off its rocker. So I “went freelance”, which is what people in the cultural sector say when they don’t really know what they’re going to do with themselves, but it turned out to be absolutely the best choice to me and since then I’ve worked with artists, composers, musicians, dancers, festivals, major events… There have been plenty of downs and uncertainty of course, but ultimately, flexibility and self-direction are the cornerstones to me of gainful employment. That plus the ability to work on worthwhile projects with interesting people. 15 years is quite an achievement and I don’t take it for granted.
I say this now because I wonder if the disruption to the workplace caused by Coronavirus will lead many people to reconsider how they organise their lives. Working from home doesn’t mean slovenliness…far from it, in my experience it leads to greater productivity. Working around caring for children or relatives doesn’t mean that you’re uncommitted, it shows that you have a full life and are adept at juggling responsibilities. Really, it’s about time that the world of work caught up.
I was due to mark today’s anniversary with a day out to London, a trip to the V&A and shopping at the fancy bakeries in Marylebone and Soho. Obviously that plan got scrapped and instead, I stayed home and made a batch of Viennese Fingers from my favourite 1970s cookbook, The Dairy Book of Home Cookery. My mum has this book and I’ve known it all my life, although the copy I use now actually belonged to Matt’s Granny. If you ignore such delights as Sole with Bananas and Potted Kipper Creams, and stick to the basics of cakes, puddings, batter puddings, scones and pastry, then you can’t go wrong.
Viennese fingers are one of my favourite ‘traditional’ bakery items; I still choose them when I go to Cooks Bakery in Upton On Severn. They are a basic butter biscuit dough, which is piped into either a finger or a whirl, depending on how you feel, then sandwiched with buttercream and topped with chocolate. Given that the principle ingredients are butter, sugar, flour and chocolate, this is great store-cupboard cookery, but still feels suitably celebratory. If it wasn’t for the lockdown I would never have dreamt of making these – but I’m glad I did.
Adapted from the Dairy Book of Home Cooking
For the biscuits:
150g softened unsalted butter
50g icing sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
150g plain flour
For the butter icing:
50g softened unsalted butter
50g icing sugar
For the topping:
100g dark chocolate
Preheat the oven to 160c. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.
Beat together the butter, sugar and vanilla until the mixture is incredibly soft and whipped. You may need to zap the lot in the microwave for a few seconds to reach the desired level of softness, but be careful not to let it melt completely. Stir in the flour to make a soft dough.
Using a piping bag with a meringue nozzle, pipe lengths onto the baking paper – mine are about 6cm long – or alternatively you could make whirls. (Ideally you need a star nozzle but I only have a plain one.) Place in the oven and bake until lightly golden brown – between 12-15 minutes, depending on your oven and the size of your biscuits. Check them often to be sure that they do not burn. Remove from oven and leave to sit for five minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool.
For the buttercream, beat the butter and sugar together until very pale and fluffy. For the topping, break the chocolate into chunks and melt in the microwave – I do this by turning the microwave on in 30 second bursts.
To finish the biscuits, match your fingers up so that each pair is roughly the same size. Spread buttercream onto the inside of one biscuit and press the other half on top into a sandwich, then either dip one half in chocolate or drizzle over the top. Place on greaseproof paper to firm.
Makes about 10, depending on how big your piping is!
Also this week:
Garden and allotment: The ‘lockdown’ (does anyone else really LOATHE the lexicon of this pandemic?) means that work continues on the shed, which I am delighted by. Sowed beans, sweetcorn, watercress and delphiniums.
Eating and cooking: Not been shopping for days given the lockdown, which means that eggs and flour have become luxury items. I am still in storecupboard mode. We’ve made some dodgy but edible bread, plus hummus, chicken and ham pie and more muffins. Matt’s had a go at potato farls.
Also: Crafting, farms, trains and play doh with Harry.