Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Post 1000, It's about Cake.

I have a (small) stack of books waiting to be written about, but post number 1000 probably deserves cake, and I'm quietly pleased (delighted, and want to shout about it) that after turning out disappointingly dry Christmas cakes I've managed to come to terms with my newish fan oven and got it right again.

Fruit cake, like marmalade, is something I've only come to really appreciate in the last decade or so, and given the wintery turn the weather has finally taken it doesn't hurt that it pairs as nicely with a modest dram as it does a cup of tea. Facing the rest of February without the prospect of tea AND cake - to miserable to contemplate. I also had quite a lot of dried fruit left over, and it needed using for something.

The cake in question is the caramel fruitcake from Dan Lepard's 'Short and Sweet'. It tastes great (even when it's a bit on the dry side) but just as important is that the fruit doesn't need to be soaked first so it's entirely practical to make it whilst waiting for marmalade to set, and that it's a recipe that allows for plenty of variation.

Weigh out 1150g of dried fruit, it's worth keeping 250g of prunes (chopped) but otherwise whatever is to hand. This one has cranberries, dried cherries, sultanas, and left over candied oranges chopped into it. Add 200g of walnut halves or similar. Line an 18 cm cake tin with 3-4 layers of baking parchment, sides and bottom (another thing I like about this recipe is that it's just the right amount to make two 6 inch cakes or three 5 inch ones, the smaller tins don't seem to need as much lining)

Next measure 200g of caster sugar and 50ml of water, stick them in a heavy based saucepan and boil hard for 5-6 minutes until it's cooked to a dark reddish brown (don't stir, but give the occasional shake), remove from the heat and stir in 150ml of double cream (it boils like crazy, so be careful) then add 100g of mixed black treacle and honey (maple syrup works well as an alternative to the honey I'd just run out of) 4 teaspoons of mixed spice, 100g of butter, and optionally the grated zest of an orange and lemon (always at Christmas). When the butter has melted put the mixture in a bowl, add 250g of plain flour, quarter of a teaspoon of bicarb of soda, and 3 medium eggs, mix well and add the fruit and nuts.

A conventional oven should be 170 degrees C, gas mark 3, a fan oven seems to want to be about 140, the larger cake should take roughly two and a half hours to cook and it's done when a knife comes out basically clean.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Marmalade

It's that time again - Seville oranges are in the shops, and after procrastinating for a couple of weeks I finally engaged in the war of attrition that is making marmalade. For 30 (relatively) trouble free years I was under the impression that I didn't like marmalade, then all of a sudden started thinking how nice some sort of bitter orange jam might be. (It took a while to realise that obviously there is such a thing. Which is mildly embarrassing, but I'm admitting to it anyway.)

Every year about this time I wonder if it would make more sense to just buy it as I needed it, but the discovery of marmalade coincided with the discovery that I love making jam, and home made is better (it is, isn't it?). In the summer when looking for something unrelated I will inevitably find a stash of last years marmalade and realise that I have about 2 dozen jars lurking around the place, I'll then swear I truly won't make another batch next year, but when I see those oranges I just can't resist.

Right this moment however... I prefer the method where you boil the fruit whole for an hour or 2 to soften it then chop it up, I find it easier to get a reasonably fine cut that way, and the pips seem easier to extract. So yesterday that's what I did, but by the time the chopping was done it was later than I thought so I left it until today to boil it up.

After a long day at work it wasn't something that I really wanted to do, but I comforted myself with the promise that the recipe says it should take about 20 minutes after reaching boiling point yo get yo setting point.

It didn't. It took 2 hours. The thermometer promised me I'd reached setting point after *only* an hour and a half, and the wrinkle test was promising, but I realised as I poured it into the jars that it really wasn't right, so back in the pan it went. I'm not sure if I should have re sterilised the jars or not. I didn't so I'm hoping for the best on that. I spent so long waiting for it to boil up that I had time to make a fruit cake (well, what else could I do?). I finally finished my Christmas cake yesterday, and will miss it, dry as it was. The one currently baking is an attempt to try and better understand the oven, as well as a replacement - it's got an interesting mix of fruit in it, but with luck will turn out okay. Much the same as the marmalade really.

Still, regardless of the effort, the risk of burns (very real), how sticky everything now is (very sticky), how much long it takes (so long), and an aching shoulder... It still has to be homemade, and tomorrow when I see all those jars lined up at breakfast time it'll all feel worth it (I hope).

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Dr Faustus

Marlowe's 'Dr Faustus' was one of my 'A' level texts, 20 odd years ago (give or take) I knew it back to front, could quote chunks of it, and was probably all to ready to have an earnest discussion about it. I realised as we went into the theatre on Thursday night that I couldn't actually remember with any certainty how it finished...

Never mind, our first RSC trip of the year has fulfilled a 25 year old ambition to actually see the play and I couldn't have been more excited about it. I loved studying this as a teenager, and still find the idea of selling your soul to the devil (an ill advised thing to do) fascinating. What would your own personal price be?

Perhaps sensibly most of the low comedy sections have been ditched for this production, and as there's no interval either, there really are no distractions from the central relationship between Faustus and Mephistopheles. The night we went Faustus was played by Sandy Grierson, with Oliver Ryan as Mephistopheles but I see from the programme that both actors are playing both roles (I'd love to go back and see them switched round, but doubt I'll get the chance) which is intriguing. I like the idea of them being interchangeable, and the pair certainly have a compelling chemistry on stage that contributes to a genuine sense of menace around what's going on.

R's first comment as we came out was that parts of it had been truly frightening, and I quite agree with her. The music did it for me; there is a bit by the composer in the programme where he states that what they were looking for was "a mixture of the seductive and repulsive" something exciting, but also "sleazy, brutal and frightening" and that's what we got.

It's on until August and well worth the trip, it was also worth my personal 25 year wait.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Tale of Two Families - Dodie Smith

I bought this book partly because it had such an awful cover - I've been lucky that way before with Hesperus (the L M Montgomery titles they've published have two of the nastiest covers I've ever seen, both are wonderful books) so it seemed worth taking a chance on this Dodie Smith.

'A Tale of Two Families' was first published in 1970, and as with Stella Gibbons 'Pure Juliet' it took a moment to adjust my expectations - in this case from the world if 'I Capture The Castle', or even '101 Dalmations'. When I had adjusted (it didn't take long) I really enjoyed 'A Tale of Two Families'.

It's an odd little book; two sisters, May, and June, have married two brothers, George, and Robert. George is very successful at something in the city so he and May have plenty of money, Robert is a respected writer and critic but not financially successful. George also has a wondering eye. Fed up of his affairs taking place under her nose, but equally determined not to make a fuss, May has decided it's time to leave London for a house in the country. Having identified a suitable house she also decides that June and Robert should move with them.

For June it's a fraught decision as she's long harboured a crush on George, harmless enough when they don't live to close together, but potentially explosive in this new country set up. Meanwhile the girl's mother, Fran, and the men's father, Baggy also move in and there are further complications caused by their children - a son and daughter each, who are far to close for May's comfort. There is also a dalmation and a crazy maiden aunt...

May and George are almost, or so it seemed to me, oppressively generous, so much so that initially it seemed that would be the real cause of friction within the family, but I was wrong. The situation Smith sets up is a little odd, but not impossible (I know sisters married to brothers) and once in it everyone behaves as they might - apart, perhaps, from the crazy maiden aunt. She's believable but also really disturbing. Otherwise it's a book where the most of the drama centres on small things; a missing dog, too much asparagus, an ageing woman realising she's truly no longer young, and they're all as important and absorbing as the bigger things that happen.

It's not another 'I Capture The Castle' but it is an unexpectedly charming book, or at least for me it's a book that's charming in unexpected ways. Hesperus - don't judge by the cover - and if it a stinker, take a chance on it.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Floral Baker - Frances Bissell

I love the idea of using flowers in cooking, it seems like such a magical thing to do - to capture the colour and scent of something then introduce it quite unexpectedly into a meal. In practice most of my friends and relations are deeply suspicious of any such attempts on my part, considering the garden to be the proper place for flowers, not the kitchen. They are, of course, wrong.

I have Bissell's earlier book on cooking with flowers 'The Scented Kitchen', which if nothing else has made me plant all sorts of things in D's garden (frustratingly I never seem to be there when whatever it is finally flowers). I wish I had more success with pinks - I love their clove scent, but they won't thrive for me. I haven't used it as much as I might, but there are some really lovely jams in there, and I seem to remember the macaroon recipe being a winner. 'The Floral Baker' was a (much hinted for) Christmas present from my sister - who must have bought it through gritted teeth, as she certainly disapproves of flowers in food.

The flower that features most prominently is lavender (I counted 36 recipes in the index, which puts it well ahead of any if the others), this makes sense. Used in moderation lavender has a subtle smokey flavour that compliments all sorts of things both sweet and savoury. It's reasonably main stream now. Waitrose sells lavender shortbread, along with jars of lavender flowers in the herb and spice section. It works especially well with chocolate or lemon, and there's no shortage of inspiration here.

Apple and rose petal scones sound like the perfect thing for any girly tea party (at least I hope it's the sort of thing that small girls would still be charmed by). Sloe gin cake - a proper fruit cake scented by rose water and rose sugar, then fortified by sloe gin sounds like an altogether more grown up treat and is something I'll make as soon as my Christmas cake is finished (so not this week at least). The idea of using jasmine in baking strikes me as pure Arabian nights (come the summer...). There are also all sorts of things with saffron including chorizo, saffron, and manchego muffins, and saffron cider bread, both of which sound rather more earthy (maybe even macho) than the other recipes I've tagged to make so far, and will surely win over a few flower sceptics.

I know from experience that Bissell's recipes are reliable, and that her flavour combinations work. There are no colour illustrations in this book, no illustrations of the finished results at all, but nonetheless my favourite thing about it is how it feeds my imagination with all the colour and scent of a summer garden. As I said; magical

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Weekend Plans

After a Saturday spent out in deepest Rutland doing a bit of research, or more specifically, searching for something to finish off a project I'm quite excited about the rest of my weekend - or at least the rest of Saturday is going to involve these... A knitting project that I've been ignoring for months, but just needs I final push to get it finished. The final push is taking some effort. After 4 solid hours I managed to knit about an inch more.

When the knitting gets a bit too exhausting I've got Zola to turn to. I didn't get round to him at all last year, but 'The Conquest of Plassans' had me from the first page. It's good to be back in Plassans.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Death on the Riviera - John Bude

Just the cover of 'Death on the Riviera' was enough to recommend it as a winter read - it would be wonderful to swap today's grey sky for a blue one, golden sand and a couple of palm trees wouldn't go amiss either. 

'Death on the Riviera' sees Detective Inspector Meredith and acting sergeant, Strang, dispatched from the gloom of London in February, to the glamour of the Riviera to work with the French police in tracking down a counterfeiter. All agree it's nice work if you can get it. Meredith and Strang have a perfectly nice time working out how the racket is being run and rounding up the perpetrators, and in the process keep running into the occupants of the Villa Paloma. 

The Villa is the property of Nesta Hedderwick, a wealthy widow who likes to surround herself with handsome young men. Unfortunately for Nesta the sort of young men who are happy to live off of wealthy widows are perhaps not the sort you should have in the house and it's soon clear that at least two of them are a fairly bad lot. 

The actual murder comes late in the book, is ingenious - I thought the murderer should have got away with it - and easily might not have happened at all (which is a nice touch). Beyond that there's not much I can say without giving far to much plot away - which would be a shame.

The charm of the book is in its setting, Bude takes a real joy in mentioning the food, the wine, the sun, the sea - the whole package, and all he needs to do to underline the contrast between the south of France and the UK is mention that it's February a couple of times, it's more than enough. The plot might not bare to much prodding, but it's entertaining - which is what matters to me in a book like this when I'm more interested in how, than who, dunnit

Altogether I really enjoyed this one, it's another worthy addition to the British Library crime classics series, and just the thing to escape into when outside looks like this... 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Road To The Harbour - Susan Pleydell.

I loved this book! It was one of those that once I started reading it I didn't want to stop, was frankly resentful of anything and anyone that did make me stop, and didn't want it to end either.

It's the second sort of crime novel I've read by Susan Pleydell, and it's even better than 'The Glenvarroch Gathering'* that I enjoyed so much last year. Briefly, 'The Road to the Harbour', originally published in 1966, tells the story of Anthea Logan. She's in her late 20's, is as conventionally attractive as the heroine of a romance should be, and has had a fairly rough time of it. Seven years before the book starts she had a promising career as a journalist and was falling in love with a colleague by the name of Jock.

Unfortunately the love affair didn't work out so well, and her career takes a nose dive when her brother is found guilty of selling secrets to (presumably) the Russians. He goes to prison and she's left to deal with the repercussions it has within her immediate family - as is often the lot of women.

Seven years later her parents have both died, and Anthea is ready to start again. She heads to Balgarvie, a Scottish fishing village she fell in love with as a teenager, and which seems like just the place for a second chance. She books into its famous sporting hotel, where she's the subject of much speculation (sporting hotels are not normally the first choice of glamorous, young, single, women), and then things start to go wrong. (There may be spoilers ahead).

There's a waiter who comes on a bit to strong and resents being knocked back, a cousin who decides to dislike her, the ex has bought the house she had her eye on, and then a document goes missing and the scandal with her brother comes back to haunt her.

I think it works so well because nothing really terrible happens to Anthea, but it's all so believably grim. Of course she gives up her life in London to support her parents, because they clearly need the support and it's what a good daughter would do - as well as offering an escape from the publicity of the situation. Men making inappropriate passes at women aren't unusual either, and the vindictive reaction of this one seems entirely likely. The disturbing presence of the ex makes sense as well, and the business with the missing document is a reminder that mud sticks.

Pleydell does an excellent job of taking these elements and really ratcheting up the tension. Its not life and death, which made for a nice change of pace after all the murder mystery's I've been reading, but they're still things that matter, that would matter if they happened to us, and are not so far from the things that do happen to us. It puts me in mind of Trollope and all the trouble over misplaced cheques and promissory notes, and how absorbing that becomes.

* Both have come from Greyladies and in due course I'll be ordering the rest of the Pleydell's they have in print.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

My Top Ten Books of 2015

Rather a late top ten this time (normally I do this in late November), and I had thought about skipping it altogether this time. 2015 had its good moments, but on the whole I'm glad to see the back of it, it's a year where everything got on top of me and I didn't always handle it very well. I didn't read as much as I would have liked either so I wasn't sure how good a top ten I could come up with.

Looking back through a years worth of blog posts though I see some really got d books - I may not have read so many but at least the ones I did manage had lots to recommend them, so here we go (in no particular order).

Ruth Ball's 'Rebellious Spirits' is a terrific book. It gets the mix between entertainment and information spot on and gave me a whole new interest in something I work with everyday (booze). There are quite a few not great books about spirits out there, so finding a good one, and one with good jokes too, is something to celebrate. My copy has been borrowed (I should get it back before it's gone forever).

And whilst I'm on the subject of booze - a new edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine is guaranteed a place on any years top ten. It's an indispensable book for anyone with an interest in wine. It's authorititive - as you would expect, but also full of articles that pull me in, and lead into unexpected corners. It's just great.

Rumer Godden's The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is an emotional roller coaster of a book (at least it was for me). Apparently it got Godden into a bit of trouble in Hollywood circles for bearing more than a passing resemblance to a certain scandal. It's the story of three children who won't accept their parents divorce, and choices for a new life. Instead they persue their mother to Italy, insert themselves into that new life and, without altogether understanding what the consequences might be, rip it apart. Godden is superb at this sort of thing, and this one is a masterpiece.

2015 was the year that I finally took the plunge and bought some Greyladies titles. The real discovery was Susan Pleydell, I really liked The Glenvarroch Gathering (I like 'The Road To The Harbour' even more, but I've only just read it, it'll probably be on this years list) partly because it's good to find a mystery that doesn't have a murder attached, but also because in a quiet (and quintessentially middlebrow) way she's really compelling.

2015 was also the year I finally managed to read a Daphne Du Maurier all the way through. My form with this writer has previously been poor- the new cover on the Virago edition helped (it certainly helped me open the book, I loved the cover) and this year I'm ready to try her again. Jamaica Inn is so well known I really don't need to say anything about it, but for anyone else who has struggled with Du Maurier I will say - persevere. It was worth the wait.

Mellisa Harrison's At Hawthorn Time is one of the few contemporary books I read last year, and in the process she's become one of the relatively few contemporary authors I'm really interested in following. For me it was particularly the way she writes about nature, weaving it into her narrative, me making a book that felt like much more than the sum of its parts in the process.

I've had a soft spot for Sir Walter Scott for a while now, and consider it a great shame he's not better loved. I quite understand why people aren't initially overly keen to tackle him - it was a visit to his house at Abbotsford that finally gave me the push. There are so many reasons to read Scott (he's important, and endlessly inventive) but the best one is that he's entertaining. I liked Waverley so much I posted about it 4 times, something no other book has ever yet got me to do. There's so much in it, and it's exciting. Give Scott a go!

Gin and Murder is another Greyladies title, this time by Josaphine Pullien-Thompson better known for horsey children's books (terrible summery, I'm sorry). 'Gin and Murder' deserves a prize for best title of the year (ever - it's a fabulous title) but it's much more than that. It's a brilliant portrait of a hard drinking hunting set in the 1950's. The murder is tragic - sometimes the victim doesn't get much compassion, but this one does, and it underlines other tragedies in the victims life. It's also an unflinching look at alcoholism and the effect that has on a marriage and a family - but maybe more fun than I've made it sound.

I read a lot of the British Library's Crime Classics last year and thoroughly enjoyed all of them, I'm choosing Captital Crimes, the short story collection with London as its unifying theme, because I really love a good collection of short stories (which this is) and because it sums up the joy of this series of books for me.

Finally it's got to be L M Montgomery's A Tangled Web. Rediscovering her, and exploring beyond Anne of Green Gables has been a revelation (she really makes me want to visit Prince Edward Island specifically, and Canada generally). It's a light book, mostly funny, but with bitter moments. Montgomery does such a good job of describing the life of large families and small communities that I really feel I'm there, finishing one of her books is a sadly disorientating experience- I don't want to leave them. She's a wonderful comfort read, but there's more to her than that. Ignore the awful cover.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Literary Knits - Nikol Lohr

My knitting progress stalled a bit at the end of last year, but now I feel like I've got a bit more time (and it's finally turned cold) I've been eyeing up my yarn stash again. It won't currently all fit in the drawer set aside for it, and as I know I'll buy more the next time I'm in Shetland (and who knows, maybe before) I really need to use some of it. 

I've also got the inspiration of 'Literary Knits' in front of me, this was a Christmas present from my mother (great choice mum). It's an American book which is mostly significant for the number of knits inspired by American classics (I feel quite ignorant for not being familiar with 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn') but it's also possible that there will be the same sort of unexpected differences I find between British and American cookbooks. I'm not an experienced or knowledgable enough knitter to know yet.

Like every book of patterns I've ever picked up it also has a fair share of knits I could never imagine anyone wearing - I'm thinking very specifically of the Katie Rommely Gaiters. They're sort of lacy, flared, and have pom-poms, and I just don't get them. Never mind. I have my doubts about a knitted Elizabeth Bennet top and a Galadriel hooded dress too, but again, each to their own. 

On the other hand there's a very attractive looking pattern for fingerless gloves (which I'm really keen to make, and one for mittens which I'm starting to come round to as well, they'd certainly be easier to knit than gloves (with fingers) and possibly just the job for dog walking too. For some future date when I have a lot more patience there are some very attractive shawls (the Emma, for Emma Bovary, has particularly caught my eye, the Jane Eyre shawl is a close second) and a couple of jumpers I really like the look of. 

Altogether it's an inspiring collection, the literary connections are a nice touch, and there's recommendations for iPad knitting apps, along with the usual guide to techniques and so on, that as a novice knitter I'm happy to be pointed towards. There are sections on knitting for women, for men, and for children, so there really is something for everybody and the whole thing has me itching to pick up some needles and get going.