Sunday, December 29, 2013

It's almost the end of the year

I've finished work for the year, been to a pantomime today (first time in probably 30 years and I think fair to say better for the children than the adults - still fun though) and am now on holiday for the next week. I will be heading North for the New Year a few books optimistically packed in case I get some reading time, and a few whiskies for the more likely event of not getting any reading time.

I'm planning to be internet free for the next few days so see you when I get back, meanwhile I wish anybody reading this a very happy New Year.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Lost Prince - Frances Hodgson Burnett

'The Lost Prince' is another phone read and another Elaine Random Jottings recommendation. I'm not overly enamoured of reading on my phone but for books which are both very hard to get hold of on paper and free to read electronically it makes sense. When Elaine mentioned 'The Lost Prince' she described it as pure Ruritanian romance which served as a reminder that I'd never actually read 'The Prisoner of Zenda' (something I'm 3/4 of the way to rectifying) but it sounded like just the sort of thing to entertain without to much thought (which is what I've been in the mood for).

It wasn't clear when 'The Lost Prince' was set, it was published in 1915 but as Europe is open to travellers I'm assuming it's set sometime between 1900 - 1910, the atmosphere is indefinably Edwardian rather than Victorian. The hero of the book is Marco Loristan, he's 12 years old when the action opens, and just arriving back in London. He's had an odd upbringing for any boy, he and his father are exiles from Samavia (somewhere the other side of the Alps), and along with an old soldier called Lazarus they have spent all of Marco's life flitting between the great cities of Europe, always living incognito in the shabbier parts of town. Marco has grown up fluent in English, French, German, Russian, and of course Samavian. He's been taught to observe, is familiar with the great Art collections and libraries of every city he's lived in, and is generally not your average child. He's also unusually tall and good looking with a princely sort of bearing (we know where this is going even if Marco doesn't).

Meanwhile somewhere down a back ally Marco meets 'the rat' a crippled boy who has organised a rabble of street boys into a regiment. The rat's father was once a gentleman but is now a violent alcoholic who drinks himself to death in short order. Marco's father, Stefan, takes the rat in who in turn rewards him with the same hero worship Marco does. What follows is a mission across Europe for the two boys as they spread the word that Samovia's lost prince has been found.

The lost prince in question disappeared one morning 500 years previously at the beginning of what turned into a viciously bloody coup, since then a king has been trained and waiting for Samovia's call ever since and of all the possible faults I could find with this book that's the biggest. 500 years simply felt like to long, the secret society business, two young boys trekking across Europe, Burnett's take on Buddhism, and the boys own version of honour and romance I'm fine with.

On the other hand where Burnett really excels are the moments she puts Marco in genuine danger. It's not overdone and is quite honestly terrifying. It's not in the same league as 'A Little Princess' or 'The Secret Garden' but it obviously comes from the same stable and for Burnett fans is certainly worth seeking out (especially as it's available free).    

Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas Books (basically a thank you letter)

Technically one of them is a birthday book but I'm so delighted with it that it clearly needed to be included in the picture. I'll say it again - I love books, and I love getting a well chosen book as a gift. Actually books are a hard present to get wrong if you know somebody reasonably well, but when someone gives you a book you really wanted, or better yet a book you didn't know you really wanted until you see it, it's just heaven. I've done pretty well this year.

My mother picked a bunch off of my wish list without telling me (a very safe way to give books, and much appreciated) the star of them so far is John Sutherland's 'A Little History Of Literature'. I generally enjoy Sutherland's books anyway but this one is a peach. It's a series of essays that deal with different aspects of literature, I've read about half a dozen so far and all of them have been informative and thought provoking. The book itself (published by Yale) is particularly attractive - nice paper, nice type set, and attractive decorations at the head of each chapter. It doesn't need to be read in order and where chapters relate to each other Sutherland mentions it (very handy). This book is a splendid addition to my library. 

Mum also gave me the Private Eye book (entertaining) and most of the paperbacks (hours of fun ahead). 'The Prisoner of Zenda' came from my sister, I started it last night and am enjoying it immensely. So much in fact that I searched town today for 'Rupert of Hentzau' (no success which makes the free ebook version even more tempting). 

'The Oxford Companion to English Literature' was the birthday book and came from my friend L who is an English teacher. I've been flicking through it with great pleasure, it's one of those books I've wanted for ages but never quite got round to getting so it was perfectly picked. 

The new edition of 'The World Atlas of Wine' came from someone I worked with back in Oddbins days and is another book I wanted but hadn't bought myself pre Christmas. It's great to have it so soon and this is a particularly handsome copy (slip cover dontchaknow). It's useful for work but better yet a good read.

Perhaps the best book though came from my friend R - best because I was basically unaware of it's existence until I unwrapped it. It's 'Scottish Books The Penguin History of Scottish Literature' which makes it not just a book that I'm going to be interested in but is perfect to come from R because she's a reference book goddess. 

So there you go - I had to share, I hope you all got great books for Christmas too.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas

I've finally finished work for another Christmas (and basically for another year) so have a couple of hours to try and unwind and scrub the dirt off before proper celebrations begin. I don't much enjoy working Christmas Eve (hate it), far to many customers seemed to have forgotten that the true spirit of Christmas is goodwill (and not, as you might think from the fuss created when they found we'd sold out, Limoncello). But Christmas should be about goodwill so I'm doing my best to put the stress of the last few days behind me (I sold 6 tonnes of wine beer and spirits yesterday and have the bruises to prove it) and enjoy the next few days. I hope everybody reading this has something nice to look forward to and enjoy.

Happy Christmas!   

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Whisky Galore - drinking song

Whisky Galore is on at the moment, it's one of my favourite films (and a very good book too) it's making me feel thoroughly seasonal (I'm about two minutes away from pouring a large dram and cutting a slice of cake) so thought I'd share one of my favourite scenes... 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

More Christmas Cakes

Christmas madness is in full swing at work (bless my father for asking if things were beginning to wind down now - they're not) it's also in full swing at home. Christmas biscuits are made, Christmas fudge is made, oranges have been candied and dipped in chocolate, I finally found some reasonably priced figs with which to make fig and pomegranate jam,  Fiona Cairns Fig and Almond mince meat has been tested in a mince pie and found extremely satisfactory, cards are written and posted and finally all the cakes have been decorated. 

I guess it's obvious that I love baking (I really do) so the chance to bake for others is one of the things I like most about Christmas. If I had more time (or was more organised) I would do a lot more of it, there were a whole stack of recipes in Annie Rigg's 'Sweet Things' I wanted to have a go at but haven't quite gotten round to (cherry and kirsch fudge is cooling as I type though) and there should be plenty of time in the new year to play in the kitchen so for now the cakes are an end to it all. 

There have been a few cakes this year and I've been reasonably pleased with all of them, working out decorative ideas and trying to make them work is another Christmas pleasure. The one with the sugar paste wreath was going to have a simple but elegant ivy leaf design but it became clear that sometimes more is better in that the more I piled on the better it looked. It's the first time I've tried colouring sugar paste so I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it turned out to be. 

The cake with the stag on is for new year and will be travelling so I thought a flat design would be better, I've had some gold leaf hanging around for a while so it seemed like a good time to use it. There must be a right way to apply gold leaf to things but I have no idea what it is. I bought a quantity of it a couple of Christmases ago with the idea of covering gingerbread for presents, one failed biscuit suggested it might be an expensive error of judgement. Further experiments haven't made me like working with it any more. I find it sticks to everything you don't want it to (brushes, fingers, tweezers, the packaging it came in) but absolutely doesn't want to stick to what you want it on. It blows about on the faintest draft or breath, jumps about with static, rips, or sticks to itself, rubs off whatever you're putting it on with the lightest of pressure - and generally makes you feel like the best option would have been to stick it altogether in one lump and sell it for scrap value. Plan 'A' had been for something a bit neater, plan 'B' for a less uniform more ragged effect came into play with the first leaf. It will be interesting to see how much remains on the cake as opposed to the side of the cake tin by the time we want to eat it. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Friday was my birthday - I'm now 40 which I hadn't really been looking forward to but now it's happened turns out it's not so bad. This is entirely due (and forgive me being slushy here) to wonderful friends and family (so yes, lots of amazing and presents). I find it very easy at this time of year to get bogged down on the stress and exhausting hard graft that is retail at Christmas (yesterday our goods lifts both broke down - storeroom upstairs shop floor downstairs - it's really not the ideal situation) so the good thing about a December birthday is that it distracts me from the chaos for a day and has left me counting blessings and
generally feeling very spoilt.

Both my mother and sister made me things and I'm so impressed by them that I can't help but share here. Thirty six years ago mum made me a red white and blue patchwork blanket to celebrate the Queens silver jubilee. I still have it (a little faded and worn now) so last year she meant to make me another one to commemorate the diamond jubilee. It didn't quite happen on time but after q deal of blood sweat and tears (if she's to be believed) she finished this very warm tweed blanket just in time for the cold weather.

My sister, who doesn't exercise her creative talents nearly enough, made me a tea cosy (I may have hinted heavily about how she could do this for me for a good 6 months beforehand). It's her own design of cosy shape made to measure for a very particular tea pot (cornishware so please appreciate the tea pot detail) as I gave her the measurements I'm very relieved that it fits. I think you'll agree it's a magnificent achievement especially from someone who hasn't knitted Fair Isle patterns for well over twenty years.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Lady of Quality - Frances Hodgeson Burnett

I've never really got the point of Kindles and the like - I can't imagine wanting a book that's reliant on batteries or spending the best part of £100 on something that will be obsolete before I know it (I have some Penguin paperbacks bought for pence and still in good reading order after 50 years, I doubt that I would be able to say the same of an ebook in another 50 years time) but a while back I shelved my disapproval for long enough to put a kindle app on my phone. It was free as have been any of the books I've put on it -a couple of obscure Wilkie Collins titles probably destined to remain unread and now some FHB (as a side issue amazon's willingness to do things for no profit are far more worrying than their unwillingness to pay tax or a living wage).

The Frances Hodgeson Burnett choices came after a conversation with Elaine from Random Jottings reminded me that most of her titles were free to download, I don't much like reading on my phone but for odd out of print old books like this it's far preferable to seeking out second hand copies. I chose 'A Lady of Quality' because it reminded me of a Heyer title and I thought it might be fun. It was fun though is by no means amongst Burnett's better books - in fact absolutely not the sort of thing you would want to spend good money on. There will be spoilers...

The lady of quality on question is Clorinda Wildairs. She's born in 1690, the  ninth child of a mother who promptly dies whilst cursing her new daughter for her misfortune of being born a girl and trying to end the babies life by smothering her. Fortunately Clorinda is a strong child who manages to wriggle free of her dead mother. She grows up wild and wilful not meeting her father until she's 6 years old. When she does meet him she attacks him for riding her favourite horse from the stables, his response is to make a pet of her and dress her in boys clothes as it suits him. Clorinda grows up strong, fearless, and exceedingly lovely. At 15 she decides to marry money and a title after seemingly spurning youth and beauty in the form of Sir John Oxen. Sir John it transpires is a rogue. 

Clorinda is first a countess and then when husband number one dies about to become a duchess when Sir John tries to black mail her into giving up her duke. The duke is the first man who Clorinda has ever really loved so she's not best pleased about this, an argument with Sir John turns so nasty that she accidentally kills him with a weighted riding crop, promptly hides the body under a sofa before afternoon callers arrive and then bricks him up in a celler. She marries her duke, devotes her life to good and worthy deeds and basically lives happily ever after. 

It would be a terrible book if Burnett didn't play with a couple of interesting ideas. The first is when Clorinda marries her aged Earl. She talks about the nature of marriage as a bargain and determines to keep her end of it. The marriage is happy enough and I rather liked the defence of women who marry for gain. The second is the murder - now we know Sir John's a rotter, just how much of a rotter becomes increasingly clear after his death but Clorinda's issue with him is that he seduced her as a girl and then abandoned her, coming back when he realised he hadn't broken her spirit. His death is probably manslaughter rather than murder but still it must be unusual for a book like this (romance) to allow the heroine to get away with killing a man in such a way. In the end it turns out that Clorinda's sister had been a witness, but from her death bed she tells Clorinda that it was all right and she needn't confess to anybody. I understand that Burnett was unhappily married, had I been her husband I think this book would have worried me.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Pepper Biscuits

Last night I took myself off to bed with every Scandinavian inspired (and one Viennese) cookbook I could find on my shelf (5) in an effort to define what a pepperkaker might be and how it differs from lebkuchen. As far as I can tell pepperkaker (google translate tells me it's a ginger biscuit) should have pepper and ginger where as lebkuchen don't. Otherwise there seems to be a lot of crossover.

I was curious because - well because that's the sort of thing that interests me these days - and I wanted to investigate the provenance of Nigella's Christmas decoration biscuits in 'How To Be A Domestic Goddess' (still my favourite and most used baking book). They don't have ginger, though they could if you wanted them too, but they do have pepper so Pepper Biscuits it is (Christmas decorations don't sound edible and these are delicious).

For the last few years I haven't bothered with a Christmas tree due to never being around to look at one and really hating taking them down - January needs sparkle even more than December does. This year though I have my hazel twig which I feel I can leave out a long as I like (the biscuits will be binned in a timely fashion though).

Nigella's Christmas biscuits

300g plain flour, a pinch of salt, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, 1/2 a teaspoon of mixed spice, 1/2 a teaspoon of cinnamon (or add some ginger), a teaspoon of freshly ground pepper, 100g unsalted butter, 100g of dark muscovado sugar, 2 eggs and up to 4 table spoons of runny honey.

Mix all the dry ingredients together then add the butter and blitz, chuck in the eggs and a couple of spoons of honey, if the mix binds nicely there's no need to add more honey, if it's still a bit dry then do. Chill for at least half an hour then roll out quite thin. Heat the oven to gas 3 or 170 degrees C. Cut out shapes (not forgetting to poke holes if they're going to be threaded) and bake for about 15 mins. Cool and decorate. What I'd forgotten about biscuit decorations is how amazing they smell.  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

So much to do...

And so little time on which to do it. Yet again I'm struggling with internet connection, this time even my phone is playing up. After a trouble free weekend in deepest Derbyshire I suspect it's some sort of local issue - whatever it is it's annoying as well as being yet another reminder as to how dependent I've become on internet access for entertainment.

Meanwhile Derbyshire was marvellous - the scenery is considerably more picturesque than can be found in the middle of Leicester, we went to an excellent bargain book shop and my friends mum gave me a lovely nranch of twisted hazel. It's acting as my Christmas tree and I've made it some spicy pepper biscuits. It might not smell of pine but the biscuits are scenting the room in a very acceptable manner.

The biscuit recipe is from Nigella (to complicated to try and find the link tonight via a phone that keeps losing signal but I will post it in due course because they're delicious). Meanwhile I have a ton of things to do pre birthday ans Christmas with an ever diminishing number of hours to acheive everything in so I suppose I should stop procrastinating and get on with it...

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Painting Cakes

My first real ambition was to be an artist, it was an urge that failed to survive an art 'A' level (although A levels were where I discovered History of Art so it wasn't an entirely wasted two years) and now the desire to create things is mostly channelled into baking. The thing I really love about Christmas cake is the chance to decorate it and this year I'm really indulging that. These are two small cakes that have been given as presents, the painting is inspired by Fiona Cairns 'Seasonal Baking'. 

I've used the really concentrated food colouring pastes exactly like watercolours and am reasonably pleased with the results. I think the pomegranate design probably worked better than my attempt at an orthodox icon (the gold leaf doesn't look great in the picture but is rather more convincing on the cake and I added some silver balls too...) but it's by no means a disaster.

To get a good painting surface it's better to ice the cake a day before to let it dry a bit first and you really need to dilute the colour or it won't dry for days. Mistakes can be sponged of reasonably easily when the colour is quite dilute and generally the whole process is quite simple if a little sticky. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

December is here...

It might not look that good but it looks so much better than the last lot
And I'm having another go at making my own mincemeat. I last had a go back in 2009, it wasn't really a success - the recipe was an Elizabeth David one which turned out to use such vast quantities of ingredients it overflowed from the largest mixing bowl I could find. After that it sat in jars looking immensely unappetizing and sort of oozing a bit (and I think we can all agree that oozing isn't really a good look). Unfortunately it didn't actually go bad so I've been dutifully using it (mixed with far more appealing shop bought mincemeat) ever since, there's still a jar left but after 4 years I think I can bin it with a clear conscience.

The recipe I tried today is from Fiona Cairns 'Seasonal Baking' it undoubtedly looks and smells better than the Elizabeth David version and is measured in much more manageable quantities, it's fig and almond so will be a little bit different. I'm hopeful that it'll turn out well but I have a large jar of Waitrose's most reliable to see me through just in case.

December is an odd time of the year in so many ways. Working in retail makes it quite stressful - it only takes one rude customer to ruin a day and if you only get one you're doing well. Sadly only one pleasant customer doesn't have the same effect - though happily there are dozens more nice people than nasty. It also shocks me how much people spend, the more so this year because we're organising a food bank later in the month. That food banks should be necessary in a country as rich as the UK is frankly disgusting, and though it puts my own problems into some sort of perspective - well sometimes you just don't want that much perspective do you.

On a happier note it's been one of those beautiful blue and gold winter days when it's impossible to feel
anything but festive. My friend R and I ventured out into the villages in search of craft fairs and bric-a-brac. We did well finding lots of good stuff including Elaine of Random Jottings, a conversation with Elaine is always a joy and today I'm very grateful that she reminded me that Frances Hodgeson Burnett's works are mostly free for kindles. I don't have a kindle but I do have an app on my phone and now I have what I hope will be some fun light reading for the next few weeks. The day also yielded some fantastic Christmassy tea towels from good old M&S and the first batch of mince pies of the season (shame on me though, I bought shortcrust pastry which feels quite odd compared to my home made sort). Now the next challenge will be to make myself write Christmas cards (love getting them, don't exactly love writing them, but feel strongly that it's a tradition that should be kept alive.)

Finally keep an eye on Reading Matters who's running a book bloggers advent calender - there will be lots of bookish inspiration.