Saturday 4 February 2017

Of Tweed and Tablet

So... the tweed first. A few years ago I picked up a small bundle of fat quarters of Jamiesons Shetland tweed fabric at the Knitting And Stitching Show. I wasn't sure what to do with them - it was just an impulse fabric purchase. They were plain - one a very dark, lovat green, and the other a soft beige, both quite austere but with that lovely hint of different colours flecking here and there that is characteristic of tweed fabric.

Pondering what I might do with them, I got it into my head that the fabric would make beautiful winter skirts. Of course, that wasn't possible with the very small amounts I had, but Jamiesons were very helpful when I 'phoned their mill and I ordered enough fabric, to make two winter skirts. Slightly nervous, because I had no experience of sewing wool fabrics and wondering how sensible it would be to make something that would need dry-cleaning, I cut and sewed two very simple A-line skirts using the pattern I drew out to make my denim skirt replacement, some years ago. They needed lining, of course, but the pattern was so simple, it wasn't complicated. I just added on a waistband to the original pattern to make affixing the lining easier. I've worn those skirts so much over the subsequent winters it's not true.

The skirts are delicious to wear - because of the warmth of the wool fabric and the easy flow that the lining fabric gives them. I have brushed out the occasional spot of mud and had them dry-cleaned minimally. They look as good as the day they were made. Wool is actually a very forgiving fabric with naturally dirt-repelling characteristics so the skirts have turned out much more user-friendly than I feared. I wouldn't wear them to do anything particularly mucky but for ordinary wear they've been great.

Some of my other winter garments have not held up so well and this year I thought I'd make another couple to replace some skirts that had really got beyond wearing. I duly ordered some samples and chose a plain grey and a subtle dark purple and black check. Not very bright or cheerful, I grant you, but I've found the neutrality of plain and dark is by far more versatile than anything more lively.

I have to wear a lot of black or dark clothes for work and although none of these skirts are actually black, they work very well with it and I've found their soft, nuanced tones very cooperative in going along with a brighter scarf or flamboyant earrings, if I want to jolly things up. So they may be plain but I know I will wear them. A lot. They're warm as toast when it's really cold and they are breathable enough to be comfortable when it's not quite so raw.

In the aftermath of my skirt-making, there were, of course a lot of scraps. The fabric is not cheap and I really wanted to find a good use for them. I made a hot water bottle cover for one friend and a scarf lined with Liberty lawn for another, a while back.

But with these two new skirts, the bag of leftovers was still bulging. Sewing one of the skirt hems, I was struck by just how cosy it was with the skirt lying on my lap and so I thought I might cut the leftovers into squares and make a patchwork blanket with them.

A blanket made solely from my left-over scraps was going to be very sombre. I did wonder about appliquéing some felt shapes in brighter colours onto some of the squares. But in the end I purchased some very small amounts of lighter and brighter Harris tweed from here to mix in some more cheerful colours.

Although the website indicates the minimum length you can order is a metre, in fact, if you 'phone them, they are happy to send as little as a quarter of a metre which was great for my purposes. I think they glow beautifully against the plainer fabrics and although it isn't quite going to be an entirely scrap project, I am hoping the result will be beautiful and frugal enough to be very satisfying.

I haven't quite decided on the assembly process. Whether to use the second method in Kristin's post here and overlap the edges to avoid bulky seam allowances or whether to sew the squares together in the normal way, in which case the blanket will need to be backed. If I go that way, I'll use squares patched together from old shirts, for the backing, I think.

Have you sewn any patchwork with thicker fabrics, like these? I'd be interested to know what you'd advise, if so.

And I'll post about my tweedy progress in due course!

Now for tablet. This is a chequered tale of trial, error and tragedy as well as eventual (sort of) triumph. I am not talking here about your iPad or similar gizmo. I am talking about that peculiarly Scottish confection which is akin to fudge but different. Although made of similar ingredients, tablet, sometimes called "butter tablet" but often just "tablet", is grainy and almost sandy in texture, where fudge is smoother and creamier although some artisan fudges have a texture not dissimilar to tablet. If you are lucky enough to come across this sort of fudge on sale, snap it up, though in my experience, it tends only to be sold in small, expensively priced bags, probably because it's been made by hand. There is nothing to beat real Scottish tablet but it's difficult to obtain outside Scotland. Living a long way south of the border I thought I would make some. I used this recipe which seemed both clear and reasonably simple.

I mean, how hard can it be? It's just sugar, butter and milk (both ordinary and condensed) and a bit of vanilla essence, boiled up, beaten and poured into a tin to set.

Well, it just shows how wrong you can be. It turns out to be a rather trickier customer than I anticipated. I am always just a little bit suspicious of recipes, I come across, which tell me they "turn out perfectly every time" and some of the Scottish tablet recipes I found had that weasel phrase in there. The hidden subtext seems to be that there is a hinterland of exasperated experience with recipes, for whatever it is, that have not turned out perfectly every time. And that tells you something.

Anyway, I know my limitations and not having made this before I thought it would be prudent to use my thermo-spatula which is basically a handy silicone spoon with a sugar thermometer insert - bringing the mixture to the boil and the boiling it until it reached 115 C before beating with a wooden spoon and pouring into the tin. This I dutifully did but instead of lovely, set sandy tablet, the tin contained a lava flow of a viscosity that if tipped up would have made a steady, inexorable break for the wild blue yonder. D suggested we might eat it out of the tin with a spoon. A good idea to deploy at the end of a really bad day perhaps but not exactly an ideal solution. The following day I tipped the whole lot back into the pan and this time used the fahrenheit scale to measure the temperature because it turns out that the "soft ball" stage, which is what you are after, is actually 240 F which is nearer to 116 C than 115 C, so the mixture had not been quite hot enough.

I duly reheated it, beat it again and poured into the pan. Bingo! It set! It was slightly darker than if I hadn't had to reboil it, but never mind; it tasted very good and the texture was right.

My father-in-law has been in hospital, still is, in fact, and as my mother-in-law loves all things fudgy, and has been quite down, I took her some. It went down a storm. My brother-in-law hoovered a bag of it and my father-in-law, once permitted to eat anything, also made short work of some. "Would I make some more?", my mother-in-law asked. "Yes, of course", I said, thinking that now I had sussed this temperature thing it would be plain sailing.

Well, it wasn't. I got the mixture to 240F, I beat the heck out of it, poured it into its tin, left it to set and when I came back, well, it hadn't. It was more set than the first version but again it was behaving more like molten lava than sandstone. Cursing somewhat, (OK, quite a lot), I tipped the lava back in the pan and reboiled it, but this time, perhaps because it had been hotter to begin with, the mixture darkened ominously and began to catch and burn. I removed it from the heat, beat it like a mad thing and transferred it back into the tin where it sat, like that coarse rubble that the county council plug pot-holes with, before putting tarmac on top. I tasted a small piece cautiously. Was that the deep aromatic note of vanilla, underlying the sweetness, or was it er, just carbon? Sadly, I had to face the fact that it had more in common with the cinder bucket than fragrant vanilla orchids. And the texture had gone most peculiar to boot. It wasn't lava, but you couldn't cut it into pieces without it totally disintegrating. It was, in other words, a culinary disaster.

With one more tin of condensed milk in the larder, (let's hear it for hoarding!) I braced myself for a final go and this time made sure I did things rather more slowly. Tablet does not like to be hurried either at the heating stage, or the beating one, I gather.

Still the darn thing did not set properly. It came to the correct temperature; I beat it vigorously for a whole eighteen minutes until it was so thick it would barely pour our of the pan, spread it hopefully in my tin and crossed my fingers. H, home for the weekend from uni, tasted a bit and gave it the thumbs up but the texture was oozy and creamy, not sandy and crumbly. You can see in the pic below that although the knife has marked the tablet into squares, the mixture is oozing forth to fill in the gaps already.

Finally victory was achieved by carefully warming the mixture back in a pan just until it was runny enough to whisk and then I whisked it with an electric whisk for five minutes and poured it out again. I am pleased to report that the stuff has now set as it should. You can see in the pic that now the marked out squares stay separate as they're meant to.

And are in an acceptable condition to be given away.

But I don't really understand why it didn't set the first time.

Does anyone out there have any experience of making this and any advice to give? All the recipes indicate that I am going well up to the upper end of cooking times and beating time and I am stirring as vigorously as I can with my wooden spoon. Some recipes do suggest using an electric whisk straight up for the beating but I have been nervous to deploy the electric whisk in a thick sugar mixture that's sitting at 240 F on account of risking serious burns. I may simply have to overcome that, if I'm going to make it again.

On the plus side, success, when it does come, is satisfying. If you have a sweet tooth, you will love it. Yes, of course, it's rich and too many pieces will not be good for your heart or your figure but a small piece now and again is not going to do you any harm and in fact I believe it might cheer your day as it has cheered ours collectively over a difficult couple of weeks. I think it would make the perfect small something to tuck in your pocket, twisted in a square of greaseproof paper, when you go out on a grey and wet February afternoon, for a winter's walk, or at the end of a long day, with may be a wee dram of another Scottish delicacy to go with it. But failing the whisky, I find it goes beautifully with a cup of tea.

If you are a born and bred Scottish lass, making tablet is probably instinctive but for us lesser mortals, it seems to be a bit of an arcane mystery. Any light anyone can shed on what I am doing wrong would be most gratefully received.

E x