Monday, March 30, 2020

You Let Me In - Camilla Bruce

Because I mostly read older books I forget how difficult it is to write about brand new books without giving spoilers, so bear with me here. 'You Let Me In' is Camilla Bruce's debut novel, and it marks her out as an author to watch. 

The blurb describes two stories and asks which one might be true. The dark fairy story of children lost to the woods and magic, or one of an emotionally and physically abused child. It seems to me that these are only two of the stories hinted at, and that both, or neither might be true. Which is appropriate for any novel narrated by a character called Casandra. 

As with her namesake this Cassandra is destined not to be believed either, her narration not so much unreliable as it is a set of stories or possibilities in which nothing is certain. Not even the basic premise that is the elderly author Cassandra Tipp has disappeared, or that this is the last in a string of family scandals that start with her being a difficult, possibly disturbed child, go through the gruesome death of her husband, and the later murder of her father and suicide of her brother. 

Part of the narrative is Cassie's assumptions about how her niece and nephew will react to the manuscript they're reading, but they're assumptions so the reader has no sense of meeting Janus and Penelope (names further freighted with meaning). That uncertainty is part of the charm of the book, not least because it helps distance the reader from what Cassie is telling us happened to her.

There's a lot here to admire and enjoy in Bruce's handling of the themes she's chosen. I enjoyed her representation of fairies, here they have a vampiric quality, they're dead things that choose a live thing to feed from - everything from trees to little girls. It's a clever mixing of folklore elements that works really well as the book unfolds. I also appreciate the way she alludes to violence and abuse without much detail.

Hints are enough, more than enough to build a picture, and when details do come they're macabre to the point of fantastic, which again helps keep them at a distance - like something out of a fairytale. This uncertainty also allows Bruce to explore the reactions and behaviour of Cassie and her family without having to explicitly judge or explain them, although there are enough implications for the reader to do so.

In this instance the claim on the back of my proof copy that this is about the elusive nature of truth, and offers "an unnerving glimpse of the dark place that might exist between reality and somewhere else entirely" feels entirely justified. Truth is a slippery thing, an interpretation of facts rather than a fact in itself and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Bruce explore that.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Knitting - Halimede and Shetland Wool Week

If nothing else all this time at home has been excellent for knitting, something I find really calming, and which also makes me feel like I've achieved something with my day, so good all round. I knitted Ysolda's Halimede shawl/hap in what is record time for me (10 days rather than a month).

I saw this on Instagram where I instantly fell in love with it. It had been a club pattern, but fortunately for me it was released to buy a few days later. It's taken me a while to get to it, but last week was clearly the right time and I cast on.

It's the first time I'd started a hap using a garter tab, or top down construction, so it was all quite new and exciting to me. Especially the reveal once I'd finally cast off and could properly see what I'd made. I'm more in love with the pattern than ever now, to the point that I think I need to knit it again, immediately, in a colour that will photograph better so I can more easily share that love. I've actually started something else but it's only a matter of time before I come back to this pattern.

Apart from getting my head around the garter tab (bear with me, that final reveal still feels like a bit of a magic trick) there was also the challenge of a new set of instructions. The way patterns are charted is fairly standard, but within that I guess every designer has their quirks. I don't think I'd really noticed that before but it's certainly reminded me that of the value of swatching and taking a moment to really think about what's in front of me.

Beyond that I used Jamieson's spindrift which is a lighter gauge of yarn than the recommended sports weight, but it's what I had and I'm happy with the fabric it's given me. I'm particularly pleased with the span of this hap, even more so for the relatively modest amount of yarn used (150g or 6 balls). I also pinned it out to points rather than gentle scallops along the edge, more or less without thinking, but I'm happy enough with that result too. It's definitely a project I can recommend if you have some yarn stash to get through.

Meanwhile the new patron for Shetland Wool Week has been announced. Wilma Malcolmson is an amazing designer, her colour combinations exquisite. I've bought quite a few (a lot) of her hats, scarfs, and gloves, over the years because they're irresistible. Her hat patterns is available to download for free, there are going to be knit-a-longs on facebook, and for anyone who wants a good introduction to fair isle knitting it would be an excellent place to start.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Miss Ranskill Comes Home - Barbara Euphan Todd

The last few days have had an oddly dream like quality. Because I'm currently unemployed and live alone I was already quite socially distanced, so this week hasn't been the big adjustment I was expecting. The current restrictions and advice on movement has taken away a lot of the worry I had about what my parents might be doing which is balancing much of the anxiety prompting news, and there's not been any difficulty buying food round here.

More than that, the weather has been magical, and the park on my doorstep fairly empty - certainly empty enough to keep a good 20m away from the half dozen other people who seem to be in it at any one time, so it's felt reasonable to sit there for a while. Most of the students have gone home so the area is almost deserted, the quiet is a bit eerie at times, but also pleasant. I don't know what's coming next, but for now things are okay.

I know they're okay because I can finally concentrate on reading more than a few pages at a time and can lose myself in a book again. I started reading 'Miss Ranskill Comes Home' weeks ago after stumbling on 'Move Over Darling' whilst channel hopping. I had it in my head that the plots were similar. They are not which became obvious immediately. A third of the way through there were things I really liked about the book, but Nona Ranskill was not one of them. I found her continued bemusement hard to swallow.

A month later I doubt I could have found a more apt book to be reading. Miss Ranskill is a well to do member of the gentry, a spinster well on the wrong side of 30 when she falls overboard and gets washed up on a desert island sometime in the summer of 1939. Her only companion is a carpenter washed up some time earlier after a similar accident. Four years later he dies of a heart attack just as the boat they've been building is almost completed. Miss Ranskill, alone, has little choice but to set off in the boat.

She's picked up by a British Convoy and lands back in an England she doesn't in the least understand. It's 1943, she's suddenly in the middle of a war she didn't know existed, and faced with a lot of rules and conventions that seem senseless to someone who has made do with next to nothing for 4 years.

With the last couple of weeks behind us I have to admit that Miss Ranskill's struggle to take in the enormity of war conditions is more or less on the nose, as are the caricatures of deeply patriotic types intent on policing the actions of others.

The plot, such as it is, doesn't really hold up to much scrutiny, but the relationship between Miss Ranskill and the Carpenter is a wonderful celebration of platonic friendship, and the skewering of social mores is elegantly done. The talk about rationing has a particular resonance whilst people still seem to be panic buying, and as someone who has bought their first tin of canned peaches in at least 15 years this particular quote struck home:

" 'But, Edith,' Protested Miss Ranskill, 'in peace-time we never had so much bottled fruit.'
   'In peace-time we could buy all the tinned fruit we wanted'.
   'But we scarcely ever did buy any.' "

Monday, March 23, 2020

Rhabarberstreuselkuchen - Classic German Baking

After what felt like a more or less normal, if quiet, weekend I was expecting the reality of social isolation to really hit home this morning. That's partly because I live above a pub that's now closed, and overlook the car park and offices of what I think is still the finance department of a university.

The pub is closed to customers, but I'm directly above the cellar where quite a bit of work is still going on (I guess they're cleaning lines and shipping out beer, whatever it is involves moving a lot of kegs around and is noisy). The car park, and this surprises me more, is about a third full. Closing down the university clearly doesn't yet extend to administrative staff. All in all it feels like a fairly ordinary Monday from inside my flat.

That it looks so normal makes me want to go out and do normal things - I hope this is where the illusion would end, but as I'm going to stay away from the town centre today I won't find out just yet. I had a decent fruit and veg shop on Friday and Saturday and really don't need anything (although I'm starting to fantasize about an M&S crusty baguette).

One thing I bought in a fit of enthusiasm was quite a lot of forced rhubarb from the market. The stall had six stalks left and I got the lot because I can't judge the weight of rhubarb by eye and it looked so tempting. It turned out to be a kilo and by yesterday was threatening to go limp.

I could have baked it all, which was the original plan, to have on yoghurt or porridge, but as there was so much of it I made a cake too. The recipe is from Luisa Weiss' 'Classic German Baking', and for a while has been one of many slightly disappointing rhubarb cakes I've made. They're generally wetter than I like and no amount of tinkering has ever got me results I've found really satisfactory.

Yesterday I had a break through. The recipe suggests that you can also add streusel topping. It's a simple cake recipe and the addition of more butter and sugar hadn't really appealed before, but as both the butter I had in the fridge, and almonds in the cupbourd were getting near their best before dates it seemed like a good time to use them. And now I've got a cake which is amazing.

The disappointment with previous cakes was probably a combination of personal preference, the way my oven works (always as personal as preferences) and maybe the exact size of my cake tin. Regardless a slightly crunch topping has made everything good again.

The Mandelstreusel is 100g of plain flour, 50g of ground almonds, 100g of granulated sugar, a 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and 100 g of unsalted butter. Mix in a bowl until bean and pea size bits form. It doesn't need to be to uniform. This quantity will apparently cover an up to 33cm cake tin, but I saw no reason not to use all of it. Luisa says it will also freeze well for up to 3 months. Something worth remembering for if I have left over almonds and butter (after say Christmas baking).

The simple rhubarb cake recipe is 500g of rhubarb trimmed and cut into chunks of roughly a centimetre then tossed in 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar. Pre heat the oven to 180C and line a 25cm springform tin with baking paper letting the sides hang over the edge). Beat 125g of granulated sugar with 100g of unsalted butter until pale and fluffy. Beat in 2 eggs, 1 at a time, add the grated peel of half a lemon, and half a teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Sift together 190g of plain flour, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, and 1/4 of a teaspoon of salt. Add half of this to the butter mix, loosed it with 60ml's of milk, and add the rest of the flour, beating until just combined.

Put the batter in the cake tin, it'll make a very thin layer. Top with the rhubarb which will make quite a thick layer, finish with the Mandelstreusel which should more or less cover the rhubarb. Bake for just over an hour, or until the streusel topping is golden brown. Allow to cool completely before removing from the tin. If you're not using the streusel topping add an extra spoon of sugar to the rhubarb, and it should bake in an hour.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Pride and Pudding - Regula Ysewijn

Turns out it's not just in politics where a week can be a long time, even my ideas about cooking are changing daily as it becomes increasingly clear that some things (flour particularly) are going to be in short supply. Weirdly, whilst I might not be able to bake them for myself, there's no shortage of cakes or biscuits for sale locally, so sweet treats are hardly off the menu, even if they should be.

My current treat of choice is a hot chocolate, made with actual chocolate, and in the morning (I'm drinking one as I write). It's a nice thing to have an hour or two after breakfast especially when the mornings are still cold. It's also a habit that I picked up after reading Sue Quinn's wonderful 'Cocoa' which has a few recipes for really good hot chocolate. It's another cookbook with a lot of reading in it which I think is what we need at the moment.

There are also Kate Young's Little Library Cookbooks which are great companions for anyone stuck at home (she also has a ridiculously decadent hot chocolate recipe - although that's definitely more of a late afternoon affair). Her books are great for recommending novels, and for encouraging the game of picking the perfect food to accompany your reading. There are worse ways to amuse yourself and it's a lot more productive than following threads on twitter about panic buying and the like*.

If you have them this is also probably the moment that Niki Segnit's books are really going to come in useful. Wondering what to make out of the odd collection of ingredients at the backs of cupboard and fridge? A flavour thesaurus won't go amiss for helping put things together. 'Lateral Cooking' is really good for when it comes to having to expand a repertoire of skills and ideas too. 'Lateral Cooking' is another book that makes interesting reading beyond a search for current inspiration, and actually I think I'm going to spend some serious time with it over the next few days.

In the end though it's Regula Ysewijn's 'Pride and Pudding' that's going to be my choice of the day. She has a baking book due out on the second of April which I've been looking forward to for such a long time (Oats in the North, Wheat From the South). I'm hoping it'll be easy enough to get hold of. I'll wait as long as I have to, but it's helpful to have little things like this to anticipate.

There are a few reasons to love Ysewijn's books. There's her meticulous research into the history of what she's looking at, the way she makes food history so immediate coupled with the acknowledgement that you might not want (or be able) to cook everything in a book like 'Pride and Pudding'. It doesn't make it any less interesting to read about. But the real cherry on top is her beautiful photography, especially images inspired by Dutch and Flemish old masters, and in Pride and Pudding, the equally delicious design work by her husband, Bruno Vergauwen. 

I'd really love one of Ysewijn's food photographs in my wall, her work is delightful, and it's more than a bonus in her books. It brings the pleasure of childhood delight in picture books (the really good ones that were considered a bit of a treat to get off the shelf and that you were told to be careful with) 
back to my adult world.

*I'm trying not to get sucked into the negative side of the platform. But for all the downsides it's an excellent place to keep up with bookish news - I'm finding so many recommendations there right now. To chat, and because none of my immediate family are on it, get out some immediate worries about them. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Beyond The North Wind - Darra Goldstein

Yesterday became somewhat overwhelming, so much has changed in a week and I definitely had a wobble. This morning feels more positive. My plan for the weekend is to spend a lot less time on Facebook and Twitter - both have been really good for chatting to people and on Twitter seeing a lot of great book recommendations, but there’s also a lot of conspiracy theories, panic spreading, and lashing out which I’m finding much less helpful.

Whilst I’m in a positive mood the sensible thing to do is to make good use of the mute option. I’ve also been considering how I use Twitter (more likes, less retweets), and the next thing to do is to write some actual letters or postcards to the people in my life who I think might be worst hit by the reality of self isolation (those who don’t routinely use the internet for a start).

I can also do some armchair and kitchen travelling. Cookbooks that blur the lines between travel writing, history, and memoir are not new - it’s more or less what Elizabeth David was doing, it’s a big part of Jane Grigson's charm, and of Claudia Roden’s amongst others. I particularly love Patience Gray’s ‘Honey From a Weed’ too which I’ve pulled off the shelf to dip in and out of again.

Looking at my own shelves though the cookbooks which best mix travel and food have a definite theme. I’m not sure if this particularly reflects my interests, or if it’s irresistible writing sparking an interest but I’m happily following the travels of Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford along the Silk Route in ‘Samerkand’, ‘Black Sea’ which is Eden’s brilliant book that travels and eats its way between Odessa, Istanbul, and Trabzon. Olia Hercules ‘Kaukasis’ is full of love for the places she goes and the people she meets.

I can’t remember if it was via Olia Hercules Instagram or Caroline Eden’s that I saw Irina Georgescu’s ‘Carpathia’, but it’s been a reason to be cheerful this week. It was definitely Caroline Eden who recommended Darra Goldstein’s ‘Beyond The North Wind’ which I’m really enjoying.

‘Beyond The North Wind’ is Russia in Recipes and Lore, and at the moment it’s the lore bit that I’m really enjoying. It’s a book that aims to unearth the most deeply Russian flavours. It goes beyond the Soviet era, and perhaps the best way to sum it up is this from the introduction, “I sought to discover the benefits of austerity rather than its limitations”. That’s an austerity imposed by climate, and soil as much as anything else.

There are things I want to cook in here, things I want to taste whilst I read, but right now I can open a window, sit on the sill with the sun on my back so that I don’t see the car park outside, and lose myself in altogether different places. The wind is even in the east today.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Sour - Mark Diacono

What a difference a week makes. So far Leicester city centre has been reasonably calm and getting fresh food hasn’t been a problem, but panic buying is spreading so that might change. The current situation is not encouraging, and seems designed to promote panic, uncertainty, and anxiety.

Meanwhile there’s rightly a lot about the heroism of NHS staff which is fully deserved, but not quite as much celebration of people working in supermarkets. This was my job for a decade, I know how physically demanding it is, how badly paid, how little respect employees get, and how important for all our comfort and well being.

I don’t really know what to do at the moment. For now I have the luxury of being able to stay at home, my redundancy payment will see me through for a while yet, and I’m diabetic which makes me vulnerable to this virus. On the other hand I could probably walk into a job in Tesco round the corner for the next few months which would be a financial relief because once that redundancy has gone I have nothing and long term the job situation is looking - well who knows, but it’s hard to be optimistic.

The supermarkets are recruiting like mad, and as far as I can see the people who will take those jobs are either doing it because they want to help the rest of us get food on the table, or because they have no choice but to put themselves in a role that will make social distancing really hard. All for something close to minimum wage. I think this is a fairly big deal which deserves even more attention than it’s getting.

And now to ‘Sour’. Mark Diacono is a brilliant food writer - warm, engaging, interesting, and inspiring in equal measure. Reading ‘Sour’ has been a pleasure, never mind cooking from it. It’s another book that’s been great at expanding my idea of what I might want to cook and eat. It’s also got a lot of information about fermenting and pickling in it.

That’s a whole lot of help in how to make the best of the food you have and cut down on waste. It’s also the chance to master what would be a new kitchen skill for me (fermenting) which is something I  can look forward too. Which I need right now in the interests of good mental health, and I assume there’s quite a lot of us in the same boat.

Perhaps even more than the practical elements of the book though is it’s tone. Reading it feels like having a friend in the room with you. It’s full of funny anecdotes about more or less everyday things and memories. Fiction is great to get lost in, but books like this are company in an entirely different, and very helpful, way.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Bread - Daniel Stevens

Bread baking is the perfect occupation for people spending more time at home. It doesn’t demand any sustained effort from the baker but it will punctuate a good few hours of your day, and it’s a particularly satisfying thing to make.

There are no shortage of books* on the subject, but this River Cottage Handbook by Daniel Stevens is my personal favourite. It’s not the first bread book I had - that was a Ballymaloe one, but I never really clicked with it beyond making soda bread. I also have an Elizabeth David book on English Bread and Yeast cookery, but it’s out of reach on the top shelf in the kitchen and I don’t think I’ve ever properly read it (the spine certainly looks un cracked  or creased from my position some feet below it).

When I bought this book back in 2009 finally learning how to bake a decent loaf was a mission, and it absolutely got me doing that. The instructions are clear, the science is explained, and there’s a great range of recipes to get started on. These include some nice things to do with left overs (bread and butter pudding is surely the food of the Gods) as well as oatcakes, scones, shortbread and similar. It’s everything the beginner needs.

It’s been a long time since I made much bread, back in November when I finished work it was something I really looked forward to doing again, and then found I’d lost the knack of. At the risk of sounding overdramatic I felt like I’d lost something really important. A couple of loaves later I had the touch back - and that in turn is deeply satisfying.

I have always loved the rhythm of bread making - a few minutes of activity followed by longish waits as it proves. Knocking back the dough during the proving process takes about as long as it does to make a tea or coffee. I really love the way the dough is so clearly a living thing and the way you quickly learn how to feel when it’s right. The scent of it is pretty good too.

I might even get another sourdough starter underway - although sourdough isn’t perfect for a household of one. It’s amazing if you can reliably get through a loaf every day or two though, and is a delightful thing to make. For near instant results soda bread is perfect, and then there’s a whole world of muffins, crumpets, buns and other treats to be explored.

It’s also worth considering that whilst industrially produced bread might not particularly agree with you, home made bread might. That’s certainly been my experience. The extra time that hand made bread gets is one part of why, as is the lack of chemical additives designed to prolong shelf life. And again, I find the process of making bread good for my state of mind as well as being good to eat.

*A lot of general baking books will also cover bread, as will a good few general cookbooks, there is also the Internet. I’ve not bought any more specialist bread books, tempting as they are, because this one more than covers all my bread making needs.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Solo - Signe Johansen

Today’s cookbook for strange times is ‘Solo, the Joy of Cooking for One’. I don’t know if it’s the best solo cookbook out there, but it’s the me I have, and I like it. I do wish there were more cooking for one books around though, they really need to be more of a thing.

Scaling recipes up is a lot easier than scaling them down, there’s a lot of us who live alone, or cook alone, or who are living in couples, but most recipes I have feed 4, 6, 8... which is a lot of left overs to get through. I’m not a huge fan of batch cooking either - cooking double for a family of 4 makes sense, 8 portions for 1 person isn’t something I find particularly tempting (unless it’s a really good cake, but that won’t keep and isn’t good for me). I find a freezer full of last weeks meals quite a dispiriting prospect.

I’m much more enthusiastic about cooking a biggish bit of salmon (one of Johansen’s suggestions) that can then be used in a number of other things over a couple of days. I’m also really lucky in Leicester in that we have an excellent meat and fish market where it’s easy to buy small quantities - only want a couple of slices of bacon, or a single chop - no problem, not much packaging, and no premium pricing. The quality is good and the prices very reasonable. So obviously the market is almost deserted at the moment.

I really hope it doesn’t close, it’s a much nicer environment to shop in than a supermarket, and reassuringly right now the only person handling what you buy is yourself and the butcher/fishmonger.  The choice is better too.

Meanwhile with so many of us stuck at home alone it’s important to establish routines, especially around food - it’s too easy to fall into the habit of living of biscuits and sandwiches (at least I find it so) when days are all more or less the same and there’s nobody to judge you. A book that covers everything from yes, things on toast, through to lazy weekend projects, taking in things to make ahead and some batch cooking along the way is always going to be useful.

Signe Johansen’s Scandi food sensibility (lots of fruit, veg, and fish in here) informs this book, but it’s influences also come from much further afield - it means there’s something for every mood. What I really like about this book though is that it understands the temptation to not really bother, and politely but firmly tells me whilst that’s okay occasionally it really isn’t good enough long term. It’s a reminder a periodically need.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

From the Oven to the Table - Diana Henry

I got a smart meter fitted last year, and seeing what having the heating on cost me day by day* (and on one terrifying occasion what baking a loaf of bread did) really curbed my oven use. The heating is off now though and the oven back in action and I’m finally been using Diana Henry’s ‘From the Oven to the Table’ a lot. Everything I’ve cooked so far has been a hit, and I’m finding it a great book to be stuck at home with so I’m recommending it here again.

This one came out a couple of months before I was made redundant and so I had bought various store cupboard ingredients in anticipation. The nice thing about this is that despite the ingredient lists looking quite long next to each recipe when I actually come to read through them it turns out that I need chicken thighs and peppers, or a large bunch of dill etc - but I’m sorted for all the other bits.

What I like about Diana Henry’s books generally is that she’s big on flavour with a minimum of fuss. This book is more or less one pot (or baking tray) cooking which needs a minimum of attention once it’s gone in the oven which is an approach I like on principle even when I’m not short of time to fuss around.

That’s partly because there’s a difference between having time on your hands, and being in the mood to make food that’s a major production. Sometimes I like to cook as a distraction from stress, but there are other times when it’s really tempting to live off toast for a week because it’s all a bit much, I can only imagine how that goes if you have a family to feed.

In this book I’m finding a balance that encourages me to make good food. That in turn is mood enhancing, and generally makes everything feel a bit less grim**,which makes good self care easier - a nicely virtuous circle. I’m also going to give Diana’s chicken book, ‘A Bird in the Hand’ a shout out too (and really all her books) as a great way of making those packs of frozen chicken thighs at the back of the freezer look more tempting.

More than that, after success with lamb chops sweet potatoes, peppers and mojo verde (I don’t view sweet potatoes with much enthusiasm, and actively dislike coriander leaf most of the time) I’m almost convinced it’s time to overcome a deep rooted conviction that I don’t like cauliflower. It’s good to broaden my ideas.

*unemployed life
**seeing much less of family and friends, unsure when I’ll get to see dad again (due to distance rather than pessimism) - small and necessary sacrifices under the circumstances, but they still get me down.