Monday, December 19, 2011

Mince Pie Monday

Mince pies are intrinsic to the British Christmas experience. Without them, the Yuletide is just another cold day in December. They exist within the family traditions of some Americans -- especially, I find, Americans raised in the East Coast -- but, for the most part, the fruit-filled pastries are an unknown stateside. Which is kind of strange considering how long they've been around.

According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, the pies date back some 800 years to the days of the Crusades, when returning soldiers would have brought home the various spices that are now standard in almost any mince pie: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, etc. In those awkward days when the slaughtering of Muslims seemed a good idea and bloodletting was a cure for the common cold, mince pies contained actual meat, thus giving them their name. The modern mince pie is far less unappetising. In fact, I've developed quite a fondness for them.

Last year, I spent several weeks sampling mince pies in search of the perfect one and eventually published my findings on my blog a few days before Christmas. But almost immediately after doing so I found myself inundated with suggestions of other brands I should have tried. So, this year I decided to put more effort into it.

Since mid-September, every Monday night, Jenn and I have been sampling various mince pies and scoring them as part of our daily vlog, in a feature called Mince Pie Monday. Ridiculously, this has become the thing people like most about the vlog. And, to be honest, it has become one of our favourite things, too. Now, with Christmas just around the corner, Jenn and I have consumed our final mince pies and I've decided to put all the results up here.

The pies were judged in three categories: pastry, filling and overall experience. And in homage to the glory days of figure skating (Michelle Kwan, I will never stop loving you) the highest score possible in each category is 7. So, that means a perfect score from a single judge would be 21. In this case, of course, there are two judges, so the best possible cumulative score is 42. Only one mince pie acheived that glory: those made by Walkers Shortbread

Here are the scores for all the mince pies, from worst to best. With each one, I have linked to the video of us judging that particular pie and supplied a random quote from said video.

"Release the mongoose."

"I'm slowly losing my sense of taste."

"It was bad in a different way."

"They seem to make a big thing on the packet about the pastry being fluted."

"Fois gras Thursday?"

"I hope there are no Scottish people watching."

"This just in: wine is nice."

"I was rocking out with the kids."

"It's got booze in it."

"Oh, dude. I can taste the booze."

"I like that your fingers get buttery."

Duchy Originals: 41.5
"You're going to ruin Christmas, because you're going to break my face."

"Who do you reckon will last longer: David Attenborough, or the Queen?"

Monday, December 12, 2011

Strictly 11: Poppin' dem 40s

Harry displays one of he new-found facial expressions.
Craig Revel Horwood finally dusted off the 10 paddle this week, which means it must be time for the final. I suspect the CRH may have a personal rule that he will not even consider throwing a 10 until at least eight weeks into the Strictly trek. As such, he always gets a good pop when that moment finally comes. Especially because it almost always means a perfect score is to follow.

I personally feel that flashing the 10 at J-Train was unwarranted, but I always feel that. Way back on the very first week I cottoned to the judges' fondness toward the J-Train and predicted he was on a fast-track to the final. The fact he will be there in Blackpool feels inevitable and exhausting. It's like spending a long time driving to a family Christmas dinner, begrudgingly knowing the whole way that Uncle Kyle will be there and he will shove his damned iPad in your face and insist on showing you pictures of his recent trip to Bangkok. Endless badly framed shots of flowers that some part of you knows were decorating a whorehouse. Uncle Kyle may spend the whole of the Christmas dinner espousing whatever batshit-crazy right-wing views he heard on the radio whilst driving there but in your heart you know those pictures comprise a photo essay that could be titled: "Bangkok, as viewed from the doorways of its brothels."

Still a few hours away from arriving at your sister's house, drinking Starbucks coffee in one of those mega-stops that also feature a Wendy's, a Dairy Queen, an arcade, showers and a convenience store that stocks cowboy hats, all under the same roof, you start to tell yourself that maybe Uncle Kyle won't be there.

"What's my basis for thinking that?" you quietly ask yourself. "Why wouldn't Uncle Kyle be there?"

In truth, the only answer is that you simply wish for him to not be there. So strong is your wish that as you near the state line, you have partially convinced yourself this will be a family get-together that is blissfully sans Uncle Kyle. That will be nice, won't it? You can just position yourself next to Grampa, get him started talking about Korea again, and zone out until it's reasonably acceptable for you to retreat to your room back at the La Quinta.

But then, suddenly, a car comes screaming up close behind you and flashes its obnoxious xenon headlights that are blinding even in daytime. It's fucking Uncle Kyle. Driving that fucking BMW, the car that says: "I"m a douche but can't yet afford a Porsche."

He pulls alongside you, waves frantically, needing to make sure you know it's him, your Uncle Kyle, in his BMW. Ha, ha. Wasn't that a funny joke, coming up on you at an unsafe speed and driving erratically. Ha, ha. Good times. Uncle Kyle always brings the party.

For a moment you don't look over at him. Despite the fact your window is up and your stereo blaring Antje Duvekot (definitely never mention that to Uncle Kyle) and the both of you travelling at 75 mph, you can somehow hear him shouting: "Hey, big dog. Got some amazing Scotch I want ya to try with me. Cost me $250 a bottle."

Who the fuck goes to Bangkok and comes back with expensive Scotch? Uncle Kyle, that's who. Eventually you give in and look over at him, give him a goofy "Oh, hey, didn't see you there," face and smile. He makes a gun out of his forefinger and thumb, shoots you twice and then roars off ahead of you, compensating for whatever inadequacies were discovered in Bangkok with the power of German engineering, and leaving you with only 45 minutes to decide whether you want to steer your car into a ditch or suffer five hours of Uncle Kyle.

So, the J-Train will be there at Saturday's final, flashing his creepy grin and saying lots of ridiculous things that he hopes will make him appear humble. And with him will be Harry Judd (as I also predicted in week 1) and the unintelligible Hamburglar lovechild, Chelsee Healey. But first, here's a look at how the semi-final went, starting with the two existing couples:

Alex Jones and James Jordan ~ Waltz / Salsa ~ 65:
There is something about Welsh people and Latin rhythm: the two are woefully incompatible. It's like when you were a kid, holding opposite ends of a magnet up against each other. Some invisible, seemingly magical, force ensures the two shall never fit together. They can be forced into proximity but as soon as there is opportunity they will repel from each other.
My point is this: it would have required the Lord God Almighty to alter the very rules which govern our universe for Alex to perform well in that dance. He didn't, and the whole thing looked awkward. There is a reason the Welsh language has no word for "sexy" (a).
Not that James was helping much. According to the great holder of truth that is Wikipedia, James used to teach Latin dance. But this routine was thoroughly uninteresting. The whole thing felt like a comedy routine performed for Ruth Jones' Christmas Cracker.
Their waltz I don't really remember.

Holly Valance and Artem Chigvinstev ~ Argentine Tango / Charleston ~ 70:
That Charleston should have been good. It wasn't, but you could totally tell it should have been. If, say, Kara Tointon had been dancing with Artem it would have been ass-kickery. But she wasn't. Holly was. And Holly looked sleepy. Whatever gains she had made the week previous were lost in that minute and a half. Last week, I envisioned Holly as the cool older sister of a friend. Holding to that idea, I suppose this week was one in which the coolest kid in Burnsville, MN, pairs up with the coolest kid from Brooklyn and finds herself totally outmatched. Artem had come up with a brilliant routine that Holly simply wasn't brilliant enough to perform.

Jason Donovan and Kristina Rihanoff ~ Samba / Argentine Tango ~ 74:
That Argentine tango was all Kristina. Watching it, I was reminded of the Kirby Puckett "climb on my back" speech, when he effectively won game 6 of the World Series singlehandedly. Kristina stormed through that routine, had naughty-glorious sex with every single one of us watching, and Jason was just sort of there. With her legs that could initiate, fight and win wars, she launched herself around the dance floor, occasionally capturing Jason and dragging him along to a perfect score.
Had it not been for that dance, I'm pretty sure J-Train would have switched places with Holly because their samba -- despite Kristina's decision to wear only a child's bathing suit and a bit of chiffon -- was about as exciting as marzipan.

Chelsee Healey and Pasha Kovalev ~ American Smooth / Paso Doble ~ 76:
Chelsee has the ability to dance effortlessly, like she's not even thinking about it. Actually, she probably isn't thinking about it. Her vacuousness remains my greatest complaint about her. I enjoy the way she dances and think perhaps I cheer for her because Pasha seems a nice enough chap. He seems to be generally enjoying the experience and always has a grin of the like I might have if medical science were to discover that, due to a unique quirk in my physiology, it would be extremely nutritious and physically beneficial for me to eat a lot of fudge.
The paso scored highest amongst their two dances but I actually think the American smooth was the stronger dance. Both were good, however, which bodes well for the show dance next week. I'm always hoping for some Derek Hough-style madness but perhaps that's wanting too much. Still, I think Chelsee and Pasha will manage something pretty good.

Harry Judd and Aliona Vilani ~ Charleston / Viennese Waltz ~ 78:
I am additionally looking forward to Harry's show dance. Aliona has a fondness for working wrestling-style spots into her routines, so expect her to perform at least one trick that would kill a person if done wrong. That's what it's all about, bitches. You want the glitter-ball trophy, you gotta be willing to die for it.
Harry and Aliona's (under-marked) Charleston was their best dance of the night, if not the best of all that evening's dances. Aliona's outfit, consisting of just enough fabric to make a sock, was also a highlight. I'm reminded of the Zac Brown line: "She'll make a train take a dirt road." Jenn was even perving on her. I'm pretty sure the only reason the Charleston wasn't given a perfect score is that it had the misfortune of being the first dance of the evening.
Boding well for Harry's chances in the final is the fact this week he seemed to discover two more facial expressions. He has spent the whole season generally looking stern but this week managed to gives us "zany" and "cheerful." He's got to win it now!

  • I find it interesting that all three professional dancers in the final are Russian. Indeed, when the final is broadcast next week from Blackpool, the self-proclaimed home of ballroom dancing, it might be interesting to reflect on how few Britain-born dancers are in the show: Anton Du Beke (Kent), James Jordan (Kent) and Robin Windsor (Suffolk).
  • This really should be Brendan's final year on Strictly, methinks. Dancing with Natalie on the results show he just looked sort of sad. I would have far preferred to see Natalie just twirling around Aloe Blacc rather than watch Brendan try and fail to look cool in an ill-fitting shirt and hat at a jaunty angle.

Harry will win. He has both the actual ability and the ridiculously faithful fan base to do so. I suspect Chelsee will be runner-up.

(a) Using "rhywiol" does not count; there is a difference between sexy and sexual. Also, use of "secsi" is just embarrassing for the person using it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Strictly week 10: Holly's weekend

Holly's like a friend's cool older sister. You know, the kind of girl who comes home from college on the Christmas break and only half-remembers your name even though you and her little brother have been hanging out playing Dungeons and Dragons in the basement for years. Her prettiness and coolness are beyond your realm of understanding; you cannot imagine what it is like to be her, or to fit into her world.

Running around the house, getting ready to go out to see her friends from high school who have all, like Holly, returned from top-level universities in exotic places, she bumps into you in the kitchen and offers a laid-back hello. Leaning against a counter and quickly consuming a breakfast bar and some orange juice she asks you about the one piece of information she has retained about you, usually information that is incorrect.

"You still working at Smoothie King?" she asks.
"No. It was Jamba Juice. But I got fired because I made a Darth Vader costume out of the cups."
"Cool beans."

Then, she pats you on the shoulder, says goodbye in some weird slang way she picked up from her group of friends at Cornell, and flies out the door amid a flurry of coat and scarf and jangling keys.

Walking back from the kitchen with a bag of Cheetos and a two-litre bottle of Mountain Dew you pass by her room, see the door slightly ajar and see her clothes strewn out across her bed -- she has simply dumped the contents of her luggage for the sake of quickly finding an outfit. You see her clothes, her things, her underwear, her bras, and for a moment some part of you starts to ponder these things: their feel, what they must smell like, their fit on Holly's body and the smoothness of the parts of her they conceal. Then your head snaps away, almost causing whiplash, and the thought is pushed from your mind. In part because you are naturally prudent to an almost comical level, but more so because some part of you is afraid Holly is so cool she can read your mind.

Back in Strictly world, I think it's been difficult for the audience to connect with Holly and that's why she's found herself in the bottom two in previous weeks. They don't feel they can relate to her, so they don't vote for her. 

Week 10, then, was Holly's. In the video package before the dance we saw her getting teary-eyed, then she came out and performed amazingly. Chelsee Healey finished at the top of the leader board, Robbie Savage was eliminated and the J-Train's journey came close to being cancelled but the weekend belonged to Holly. 

Here, though, is a look at the rest of the show:

Robbie Savage and Ola Jordan ~ Quickstep ~ 30:
It was a rough week for Robbie. Correctly, I feel, there was no mention of Gary Speed's suicide on Strictly. People who kill themselves should not be lifted as heroes. In the week after Speed's death, however, it felt too few media bodies were recognising that fact. Strictly simply chose not to mention it. But just because an action is selfish and wrong that doesn't mean it's not tragic, it doesn't mean that Speed's friend, Robbie, shouldn't be affected. He was; that showed in his face on the show. Glittery ridiculous celebrity dance shows mean nothing in the face of actual tragedy, so how Robbie performed is irrelevant. 

Alex Jones and James Jordan ~ American Smooth ~ 34:
Next Friday I'll be part of a television programme set to air 30 December on Welsh-language channel S4C, which will look back on the events of 2011. The programme will be hosted by Huw Edwards, BBC presenter, Welsh-speaking icon and the man behind the voice that was broadcast, God-like, across Hyde Park and the whole of Britain during the royal wedding
On that day, the BBC rolled out just about every one of its presenters to report on every tiny aspect of the wedding and from every tiny corner of Her Majesty's United Kingdom. Amongst them was Alex Jones, also a Welsh speaker, who will be a guest of Huw's on the end-of-year programme. This, of course, allows for a tenuous link to "Strictly Come Dancing" and somewhere in the middle is where I come in. As one of the few Welsh speakers willing to admit a fondness for the royal family (anti-royalism is the fashion in Welsh-language society, as is conforming to what other Welsh speakers espouse), and a ridiculous fan of Strictly Come Dancing, I will be there to express an opinion on both.
The programme is being filmed on Friday evening in Cardiff. The very next day, Alex will be in Blackpool as part of the Strictly final, regardless of whether she is competing because all the eliminated celebrities are brought back for the final show. As such, I am guessing her contribution to Huw Edwards' programme will be taped at a different time and she won't actually be there in the same studio as me.
But I don't know for sure.
And in light of that uncertainty, I now find my usual catty-pervy attitude toward Alex crumbling under the fear of possibly having to speak to her face to face and her knowing that I totally want to put my face between her boobs and recite Tynged yr Iaith. Not because it necessarily means anything to me but just that the lecture would take a long time recite.
So, here's what I have to say about her quickstep: lovely. She didn't look wobbly and confused through much of the dance. Not at all. Not even a little. 
OK, maybe just a little.

Harry Judd and Aliona Vilani ~ Rumba ~ 36:
The rumba is never an easy dance for the fellas. Sometimes I think it's part of the Strictly repertoire solely for the purpose of making guys look like fools. Usually, the very best one can hope for is a rumba that isn't painful to watch. With that in mind, I think Harry did quite well. It wasn't sweet, sweet white chocolate lovin' on the dance floor but I'm pretty sure it was the best male celebrity rumba since the days of Ricky Whittle. Yes, you're right: being the best anything since Ricky Whittle is hardly an accomplishment. I personally feel the dance would have been much better had Aliona not been wearing so many clothes.

Jason Donovan and Kristina Rihanoff ~ American smooth ~ 37:
"Jason Donovan loves Jason Donovan," quipped Jenn's aunt when we were down in Devon last week.
There's something about the fella that puts me off oh-so-slightly and I am happy to learn I'm not the only one. I wonder if perhaps it's that J-Train has not properly made the transition from stage to small screen, in the sense that his facial expressions are frustratingly overdone. This would work if the audience is sitting 20 to 100 feet away, but when it can get in close via the camera lens it just makes him look kind of creepy.
Additionally weird this week was the lift in which J-Train picked up Kristina and then appeared to be displaying her foot for all to see. This is the sort of thing we would expect from creepy Jason: a foot fetish.
The routine ended with J-Train opening an umbrella, which we all know is bad luck indoors. That is why he ended up in the bottom two.

Holly Valance and Artem Chigvinstev ~ Paso doble ~ 38:
The only drawback to this whole routine was the fact that Artem, wearing what was supposed to have been a bespangled Zorro mask, looked just a little too much like Super Grover. That said, he was kicking around and throwing shapes to such an extent that the first time I watched the performance I was watching him more than Holly. On consecutive viewings I saw that Holly was awesome, as well, and perhaps this was part of why I had first been paying attention to Artem. She was performing so well that you stopped looking at her and could take in the performance as a whole.
This all said, I'm not sure it will be enough to reverse her path toward being eliminated before the final. She will have to be amazing in the semi-final to be able to get through.

Chelsee Healey and Pasha Kovalev ~ Jive ~ 39:

  • I had hoped to work in an obscure reference to Mantaur this week, but never really found a way to do so.
  • Who the hell was that opera guy in the results show? He looked like Al Borland. His standing there, flanked by frightening female dancers doing that predatory sexy thing whilst he belted out a medley of James Bond theme songs in operatic style was easily one of the most surreal televisions experiences I've had in a while.

  • Two are set to go this week, so I predict it will be Holly and Alex, leaving the final to be fought out between Harry, Chelsee and the J-Train. Though I would prefer the J-Train and Holly switch places, I think it is unlikely.
  • I am still predicting Harry to win. I hope he does; I've put a £5 bet on him; Papa needs a new pair of socks.