Monday, November 30, 2015

Mince pies, Murder, and something nutty

The last day of November is almost done, I've dug out the advent calendar I fell in love with back in October (Angela Harding, very pretty), baked some lebkuchen, and whilst I was at it the first mince pies of the season. The best mince pies in the world are my mothers (best to me at any rate, because a) they're really good, and b) hers being the first I ever had are the benchmark by which all others are judged). It's a most unusual fit of post work enthusiasm.

I was feeling quietly smug about the home made mincemeat earlier until I had a flash back to the first time I tried making it. It was a disaster. I used an Elizabeth David recipe that made kilos of the stuff, it was dry, never ending, and dribbled all over the fridge. Thank god for Fiona Cairns and her altogether more sensible recipe (you will not be eyeing it up at the back of the cupboard for the best part of 5 years before you give in and shamefacedly bin it). Homemade mincemeat is minimal effort (the only bit I find tiresome is chopping the apple) and because it is dryer than shop bought doesn't weld itself to the tin like some sort of red hot superglue (a win).

Despite rarely drinking them, I find liqueurs hard to resist, the more unlikely they are the more appealing they seem. Inevitably it turns out the money would have been better spent on gin which I know I like (in moderation). My bottle of Fratello (like Frangellico, but disappointingly not in a bottle shaped like most of a monk) was bought primarily for cooking but I've had it for a year now and it really needs using up. A good slug of it went in the mincemeat so it seemed reasonable to drink it with a mince pie whilst deciding what the perfect book to finish the scene would be. It tastes like toasted hazelnuts, vanilla, and syrup so it's basically a very acceptable food match.

Book wise it's a bit trickier, Frangellico hasn't really been around that long, though traditional hazelnut liqueurs of some sort must have been. It's tempting to choose Hoffmann's 'The Devil's Elixir' because this isn't really the sort of drink I approve of (to sweet, not gin or whisky) for myself, and then the bottle is shaped like a monk, but it doesn't fit the tone of the book.

Mavis Doriel Hay's 'The Santa Klaus Murder' on the other hand... The British library have just re released this with a smart new jacket to fit in with the rest of the crime classics series. I wrote about it a couple of years ago Here when it first appeared at the begining of the series. Liqueurs like Fratello aren't what I think of as serious drinks, they're fun, designed to go into frivolous cocktails or Nigella style puddings. 'The Santa Klaus Murder' is similarly fun. A puzzle to be solved along with a few hours of escapism into a comfortable 1930's world (murders aside) and who knows, maybe the Melbury's are coffee and liqueur people too.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Mulled wine and cookbooks.

Normally about this time of year I do a top ten titles from the last 12 months post, and I do it in November because December is always crazy at work and I don't have the energy (even if I have the time) to think about much but that and Christmas. This year I thought I'd try and do something different though and mix books with work.

My day job is selling wine (beers and spirits too), and despite this being my 17th Christmas in the trade I still love the stuff, love talking about it, and above all love learning about it. (I'll draw a discreet veil over the bits I don't enjoy so much but cardboard cuts are even worse than paper cuts, and we open a lot of boxes). So between now and Christmas each post should have a drink and my idea of appropriate reading material to go with it, which in my head sounds like a fun idea, we'll see. But first a disclaimer. It's not meant to be prescriptive - the choice of a book is clearly as much a matter of personal taste as the choice of drink to go with it!

That said I have some very strong feelings about mulled wine. I can confidentially expect to sell somewhere between 3 and 4 tonnes of it in the next 3 weeks. Inevitably we will totally run out by the 21st of December, and I will explain to far to many people that making your own is much nicer. They will tell me it's to much trouble (it's not) and there will be a moment of resentful silence all round. Then we'll sell out of the sachets anyway.

Mulled wine is an odd one. The premixed bottles so many people go crazy for (romantically labelled 'aromatic wine based beverage') is made of the cheapest ingredients, is everywhere before Christmas, nowhere after it when the days are just as cold and dark, and always disappoints me. The sachets (either the over priced but pretty things with the whole cinnamon stick, or the functional tea bag affairs) are okay but demand that you make quite a lot. Wine mulling syrup on the other hand is brilliant. You can buy it, but it's also really easy to make.

This recipe is from Trine Hahnemann's 'Scandinavian Christmas', an excellent winter cookbook and not just for Christmas. This will make enough to fill 2 x 250ml bottles, each bottle will do 1 quantity (basically a bottle of wine), there's no reason not to make up lots more. You need 200ml black currant juice, 75ml lemon juice, 20 cloves, 10 cardamom pods (lightly crushed) 2 small cinnamon sticks, and 200g of caster sugar. Chuck everything into a pan, cover, bring to a gentle boil, simmer for 30 mins, drain through a sieve to catch the bits, then stick into sterilised bottles. It will keep for months. When it's wanted heat it up with a bottle of cheap but drinkable red with a 150g of raisins and the same of almonds.

If you want to mull cider or white wine use apple juice instead. What I love about this is how versatile it is. It can be thrown into fruit juice (any mix of grape, pomegranate, cranberry - well, anything you like really) for a non alcoholic version. Adjusted with more or less sugar/ spices to suit personal taste, and used to rejuvenate any slightly tired, half drunk, bottle of wine that's hung around for a few days. Make plenty and it's there for you all winter too.

There are no shortage of book recommendations to accompany mulled wine, Dickens in Christmas mood probably drank buckets of something similar, Trollope when he's going on at length about hunting seems like a good bet too, and it probably wouldn't be out of keeping with Chaucer either but I'm going with cookbooks.

This - the begining of advent, is my favourite part of the festive season. It's still calm enough to enjoy making plans and I enjoy sitting with a pile of cookbooks looking for inspiration - not even with any serious intention of making half the things I bookmark. It's the time to check cupboards for ingredients, think about mince pies, candied oranges, gingerbread for the tree, to take pleasure in the prospect of cake to come. Mulled wine (technically Glogg in this case) is the perfect accompaniment; warm and fragrant it takes the sting out of cold, dark, wet, evenings just as the thought of all those other good things to share does.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Murder of a Lady - Anthony Wynne

I do love the British Library Crime Classics series, it feels like it goes from strength to strength, or maybe it's that this years offerings have just been particularly to my taste. Either way I get more and more enthusiastic about them. 'Death of a Lady' has such a splendid title that it would have been hard to resist (the cover is rather lovely too), add to that a Scottish setting (mid Argyle, specifically the loch Fyne area which I know just well enough to have a good visual image whilst reading) and the appeal is complete.

Duchlan castle is a brooding confection of Scottish baronial discomfort on the shores of Loch Fyne, home to the laird, his sister, Mary Gregor, his daughter in law, grandson, and a handful of faithful retainers. When Mary Gregor is found dead by her bed in a locked room, with no sign of a murderer or a weapon the first reaction of the community is shock. Who would do such a thing to a saintly old lady. Inspector Dundas is called in but soon has to admit defeat, it also happens that the eminent Doctor and gifted amateur sleuth, Eustace Hailey, is also on the scene. He has some different ideas to Dundas, but as the inexplicable deaths start to proliferate, he to seems at a loss and it starts to look like there may be something supernatural afoot.

There are times when it all got a little confusing, people popped up in odd places and Edinburgh and Glasgow sometimes seemed interchangeable (for plot purposes here they are) but is a minor quibble. The locked door mystery, and the subsequent murders are all on the face of it equally baffling. For fans of the genre it may be possible, may even be easy, to guess the how, but the who came as a surprise (certainly to me). It turns out that Mary Gregor, far from being a saint was a hard and difficult woman with a personality that allowed her to subjugate her family, only her brother is truly sorry to have lost her, and then because he has no idea how to cope without her.

The how is ingenious, the increasingly hysterical atmosphere which has otherwise sensible people believing in the possibility of a mythical fish creature as a murderer (it's not a huge spoiler, it's on the back blurb) carried me along too. I didn't believe in the killer fish, but the darkening atmosphere was just the right side of a ghost story to hold me in thrall. The other thing that makes this book stand out is the psychological element. The slow unravelling of the Gregor family history is far more horrifying than the fish men, and Mary Gregor a much more convincing monster by the end.

In truth though, it's the puzzle that matters most here, and it's a thoroughly satisfying one. Wynne undoubtedly has fun with it, and there has to be a little suspension of disbelief, but it's a good old fashioned page turner and I loved every moment of it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Not a Christmas cake

The last couple of weeks at work have been so busy that it's sometimes hard to remember that it's still only November (just). All the baking has been Christmas orientated recently as well and it seems like a long time since I've made anything new but this week I've been craving a really good, deep, apple cake and after a bit of browsing I found exactly what I wanted in Anne Shooter's 'Sesame &Spice'.

'Grandma's Apple Cake' is spectacular with coffee - the idea of cake to go with coffee rather than tea (I'm a tea drinker) 'coffee cakes' feels weirdly exotic to me (I'm not just a tea drinker, I'm also a creature of habit). There's nothing especially exotic about the combination of apples, cinnamon, and cake but it's a classic and the particular joy of this one is its generous dimensions.

Grease and properly line a 20 x 8cm springform or loose bottomed tin. I was lazy, didn't properly line the tin, and caramelised some of the apples.

Measure out 450g of caster sugar (I know it's a lot) and put 5 tablespoons of it in a bowl along with the juice of a lemon and 3 teaspoons of cinnamon. Take 5 eating apples, no need to peel, and cut them into thin slices, removing the cores. Toss them in the sugar mix.

Turn the oven to170 degrees C/ Gas 3 (fan oven 150, which may be why this cake took a really long time to book in my oven)

Take the rest of the sugar and mix it with 4 eggs, a tablespoon of vanilla extract, 250mls of sunflower oil, 60mls of milk, and 60mls of orange juice. Add 375g of plain flour, 1 tablespoon of baking powder, and half a teaspoon of salt. The batter will be runny.

Pour a quarter of the batter into the cake tin, then a third of the apples, continue layering finishing up with batter on top. Bake for roughly an hour and a half or until done (my oven took closer to 2 hours). Leave in the tin for a good ten minutes before turning out (I didn't read that bit properly, the cake was hot as hell, it needs the 10 mins).

Sunday, November 22, 2015

How The Heather Looks - Joan Bodger

I've heard about this book a few times, it's come up on my Amazon recommends list more than once, and it's been at the back of my mind to read it for a while, so I was delighted when it turned up in the last round of a postal book group. Unfortunately I got monumentally stuck on it and it's taken me a good 3 weeks to finally read all of its 225 pages. With a bit of effort (though to be fair there really hasn't been the opportunity) I should have done it in a day.

'How The Heather Looks' is 'a joyous journey to the British sources of children's books' it was first published in 1965 and is the account of the Bodger families summer in Britain (they're American) hunting for the locations immortalised in their favourite children's books. It seems to have quickly gone out of print, but to have made a deep enough impression on those who knew it to not have been quite forgotten and to have been ripe for rediscovery when it finally made it back into print.

It's 1958 and the Bodger's have come into some money, enough that they can make a long dreamed of trip over to the UK. Both Joan and John had British mothers, and both had happy memories of (I presume pre war trips) to England, something they want to share with their own children (Ian, almost 9, and Lucy, 2). The books they are seeking to fall into are family favourites shared between the generations, but I must admit few of them are particularly familiar to me, even if none are precisely unknown either.

There are a few reasons I struggled to get to grips with this book, the first being how overwhelmingly American I found the Bodger's, it's a neat illustration of the point Joan makes about how subtly foreign the UK is to her family despite their connections to it. Still the sense remains that this is a book written primarily for a different audience. It would also help if the books were favourites but for whatever reasons none of them were, not even 'Swallows and Amazons' or 'The Wind in the Willows'. 'Mistress Masham's Repose' is also discussed, and it would have been a favourite but I only read it for the first time this year.

There is also my perennial problem with non fiction - however well it's written, however engaging (and this is an engaging book) without a plot to keep me turning the page I'm very much out of sight out of mind. As interesting as I found 'How The Heather Looks' I'm now really craving an all out page turner that I can't put down.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Good news about bookshops.

It seems that Waterstones has finally turned a profit (article here) and James Daunt is up beat and full of plans. Since the dark days of 4 or 5 years ago when it looked like the business was done for things have got progressively better - at least in the remaining bookshops. Leicester sadly lost the larger branch it had (still really miss it) and is left with a small one which offers limited scope for browsers. Though now that I realise click and collect is an option things are looking up.

In an ideal world the high street would be a haven for good independent bookshops - but it rarely is. A thriving Waterstones is a hopeful sign though. I'm not starry eyed about the realities of bookselling, I know exactly what it's like (not especially glamorous) but actual shops, with people you can speak to are great. Trying to negotiate deliveries around work time through a company that's notoriously poor both in the way it treats its employees and its tax paying habits is problematic.

It's the way employees are treated and the frustration of trying to get my deliveries that make Amazon so hard for me to deal with. Their local courier service actually isn't bad but being able to go to an actual shop (where staff seem reasonably happy) is so much better. Waterstones isn't perfect but knowing that it can be turned round suggests that there's a future not only for them but for well run independents too - which brings me to civilised Saturday...

Good shops add something to the community, good bookshops are certainly bastions of civilisation, Black Friday is, in this country at least (where it makes no bloody sense), not civilised. Civilised Saturday sounds like a much more fun marketing strategy. Kibworth bookshop is also close to me, it's excellent, and I would love to be there next weekend (instead I'll be flogging wine to the masses). I'll just have to settle for doing my bit and buying a book as soon as ever I can.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Perfume A Century of Scent - Lizzie Ostrom

The season for trying to resist new books is here. Amazon might not be good for much but the wish list is really handy for directing family to if they're at a loss for a suitable birthday or Christmas present (and anybody else asking for that matter). At least it would be really handy if I stopped buying things off it the moment I see them in an actual shop.

Lizzie Ostrom's 'Perfume A Century of Scents' is just such a book. It would have made life much easier for my sister if I'd left it on my wish list but I couldn't resist it. I love perfume, I particularly love vintage perfume, or at least the (albeit reworked) classics that have survived. They survive for a reason - because they still capture the imagination.

Lizzie Ostrom's is also Odette Toilette, and she does smell the decade sessions at Les Sentuers. I would love to go along to one of these but the London location is inconvenient (by which I mean the train is prohibitively expensive, damn you East Midland Mainline). Maybe one day.

Meanwhile this book lets me read all about it. The difference between 'A Century of Scents' and other perfume books I've bought over the years is that this one focuses as much, if not more, on the social history as it does the juice in the bottle. There is a scent from every year, not just classics - some are now history, but all with a story to tell. It's by no means an exhaustive list of the centuries scents, there are even a couple of surprising omissions, but it captures what was popular.

It's also a really entertaining book. Previous perfume books I've read have tended to be either over reverential towards the scent, or deliberately snarky about those not destined to be classics. Ostrom doesn't really do either; she's maybe extra enthusiastic about favourites (quite natural) but because of the focus on social history there's more to talk about, more room for humour, and just a lot of enthusiasm for what is a fascinating subject. I love this book.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Private 12768 - John Jackson

I started reading this last November, I really am hopeless at themed reading though, for whatever reason they never are the books for the moment, and by the time I'd finished it, it was Christmas and didn't feel like the book to write about. I bought 'Private 12768' when it came out in 2005  after reading a review of it somewhere. It's the First World War memoir of John Jackson, based on his diaries and written in 1926. As far as I can tell it wasn't published before 2005.

Today of all days is the right time to give John Jackson some thought again though. He isn't precisely the First World War soldier we think of now. He joined up in September 1914, served all through the war with only a small gap for relatively minor injuries. After the war he returned to his job on the railways, married, and seems to have adjusted well to life back out of the army. It may have helped that he had not joined up straight from school. More than that he describes his wartime experience as his great adventure. He's clear enough about how foul it could be in the trenches but he seems to have taken it all in his stride.

So many of the memories or narratives I've read concerning the First World War have been overwhelmingly negative about the experience that Jackson's pride in his regiment, respect for his officers, and belief in the reason for fighting seem almost subversive but his attitude is one that must have been shared by thousands of his comrades. He doesn't romanticise his experience, doesn't glamourise war, and makes quite clear the depth of loss and sacrifice, but he ties bring alive the concept of fighting for king and country and something of what that meant to these men.

Leicester's war memorial is solar aligned so that the sun rises through it on November 11th. It's a Lutyens arch and he chose the site specifically to be able to do this (originally I believe the council had a spot in the city centre in mind). Standing there waiting for the sun to come up on a November morning with only a few dog walkers around to share the moment with is unexpectedly uplifting. It's a touch of optimism, a promise that not only will we remember them, but that we should make sure it wasn't all for nothing.

John Jackson's memoir is worth reading, and should be as well known as 'Goodnye to all That', 'Memoires of a Fox-Hunting Man', or 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. The disillusionment of Graves and Sasoon and their contemporaries is more than understandable but it's only part of the story.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Cotillion - Georgette Heyer

I do love Georgette Heyer, she's the perfect antidote to a crappy day. Her books might not be the deepest or most philosophical on the shelf but they're always reliably entertaining and every time I read one I find something new in it.

Back in my early teens 'Cotillion' wasn't a particular favourite, there are worrying subplots. One character seems likely to be sold into upmarket prostitution for the lack of an eligible husband, and it might be better than the only offer of marriage that she does look likely to get from a much older and distinctly unpleasant man. There's another business like match on the cards between the not very bright Lord Dolphinton (in fear of his mother who controls the money by threatening to have him institutionalised) and Hannah, who doesn't love him but would rather be married than not. The deal she's proposing is a fair one but it certainly underscores how bleak women's lives could be when marriage was basically the only respectable option for a middle class girl.

Meanwhile our heroine, Kitty, is in love with the dashing Jack. He's handsome, charismatic, wild - a typical romantic hero, but he's also selfish and unreliable. In the other corner is Freddy Standon, he's kind, pleasant, and without any discernible dash of brilliance - unless it's in his skill as a dancer and his generally impeccable manners but he is reliable.

Now, this is one of my favourite Heyer's simply because it does celebrate the reliable man. It feels like she's stuck a metaphorical finger up at the accepted romantic conventions (not to much of a finger, but still...). Beauty isn't necessarily going to be enough for the poor girl, the Earl lacks money and intellect (learning difficulties is, I believe, the current term), the man who looks the part of the hero is a cad, but the reliable man will prevail. He really is reliable too, it's more than being the nice guy or the underdog. He is a nice guy (though not really an underdog) it's the undeniable attraction of a man who won't forget your anniversary, who turns up on time, who knows just how to behave in any situation, and how to keep out of a mess.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Re-posting Puddings and Chutney

Between crazy work, finishing off Christmas cake baking, and all the chopping for making mincemeat I've not spent much time reading this week and none at all today so this is a lazy post but it's just possible someone will find it useful.

Cranberries are on sale again and there's time to make chutney that will be ready for Christmas, and if anyone is half thinking about making Christmas puddings the simple old fashioned one from Dan Lepard's 'Short and Sweet' is brilliant and worth the steaming time.

The Christmas chutney came from Diana Henry's brilliant 'Salt, Sugar, Smoke' - everyone who has tried it has been enthusiastic, two of them have requested the recipe. I can't recommend this book highly enough, it's one I keep going back to - it's not just that everything in it works brilliantly, but everything I've made from it has since been made again and again. The Christmas chutney is filled with fresh and dried cranberries, dried cherries, dates, prunes, raisins, sultanas, cinnamon, mixed spice and other good things. It proved excellent with cheese, pork pies, cold meat and the like. I'd been waiting since late October to try it, it most certainly didn't disappoint.

The thing that had put me off making chutney for so long is the same thing that put me off making Christmas puddings in the past - they take such a long time to cook. With the puddings this feels like even more of a commitment than the chutney because they require hours more boiling again before eating. 

Turns out it's worth it. They're much lighter and juicer than anything I've had that's been through a microwave and now that I've adjusted to the idea of cooking it properly it turns out that sticking something into a pan to simmer isn't really so much effort.

 The winning pudding was the 'Simple Christmas Pudding' based on a 1930's recipe. It may not be the ultimate in puddings but we were all more than impressed with it. It serves 6 -8 and contains 400g of mixed dried fruit including prunes, 75g suet, 200g muscovado sugar, 100g black treacle, 125g breadcrumbs, 50g plain flour, half a teaspoon of baking powder, 2 teaspoons of mixed spice, 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 2 beaten eggs, 50g grated carrot, 100g blanched almonds, zest and juice of a lemon and an orange (unwaxed), and 125mls of stout.

Mix everything together, butter an 18cm diameter pudding basin and place a disc of non stick baking paper in the bottom of it.* Fill the basin and then take large squares of baking paper and foil, place then together, fold a pleat in the middle and with the paper pudding side tie them securely round the lip of the basin with some string, trim the foil so it doesn't come to far down the basin. Either make a handle of string or wrap the whole lot in a square of muslin so you can lift the whole lot in and out of the pan. Find a large enough pan to hold the basin which needs to be placed on a trivet or old upturned saucer, pour water half way up the sides (don't let it touch the foil, it leaves nasty marks on your pan) and simmer for 3 hours. Diverging from Lepard's instructions I uncovered the pudding after cooking and cooling so that it could be fed weekly with a liberal amount of drambuie before covering it with paper and foil again for it's final 3 hours boiling on the day of use.

*18cm diameter makes a big pudding. This year there won't be so many of us so I used smaller bowls to make a medium pudding and a tiny pudding. This seems practical and was easier than scaling down quantities. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Love for Love - William Congreve

It's been a week since we went to see this (where does the time go?) and I'm still telling anyone I can get to sit still for long enough how brilliant it was. It helps that I love The Swan, and that Stratford favoured us with an afternoon of glorious sunshine and general autumn perfection sandwiched in between days of miserable rain, and that The RSC is always reliable - I mean we were always going to enjoy ourselves, but this was still something special.

The last RSC outing was for Henry V which was an altogether more serious affair - thought provoking but not really about the laughs - this was all about the laughs. In all honesty Shakespeare generally leaves me a little cold, the language is so dense I find it hard to fall into his world, and the low humour is lower than I like, so it's been a surprise over the last couple of seasons to find how much I've enjoyed his contemporaries.

When it comes to restoration comedy I already have a very soft spot for Vanbrugh (soldier, spy, architect, play-write - like a cooler 17th century Version of Bond) so the chance to see something by Congreve was definitely to be jumped at. Even with all those stars aligned this was just so much more than we expected - it was that good.

The plot is simple enough, Valentine loves Angelica but he's run out of money. To keep his creditors at bay he agrees to sign over his inheritance to his younger brother for a cash settlement from his father, but he's still determined to try and secure that inheritance by the simple measure of not signing the final paperwork. Meanwhile Angelica avoids making her feelings known, she has money and marrying will be an end to independence so she needs to be sure that the man she chooses is sincere in his love. Sir Sampson Legend, Valentine's father, is determined to exact total obedience from his sons, he also entertains designs on Angelica amongst other sub plots.

The plot isn't overly important (though the end is satisfyingly romantic) in the wider scheme of things it's the chance to share joke after joke. First nights have a specific atmosphere anyway (we've been to a few for a combination of cheaper tickets, and early finishes from work) there will be the odd fluffed line or similar mishap and it breaks down the barrier between the actors and the audience, it's an atmosphere I've come to love. In this production the fourth wall is thoroughly demolished, the audience are acknowledged throughout so there was a real sense of taking part in something.

We also loved the way the action started before the play did, with the cast all on stage - the idea is that they're a group of strolling players setting up for a performance somewhere - throwing props around and playing with ropes. The same sort of thing happens in the interval and it was delightful. Tom Turner who plays Valentine has a proper comedy back ground which tells because he made it look effortless (he's really good in this) but the whole cast were excellent (I really hope they were having as much fun as it looked).

It's a bright, light, colourful, funny, romp of a play, we enjoyed it so much that both of us would go again (I'm seriously considering it). It runs until the 22nd of January and is the perfect antidote to winter blues

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sunday - baking and books

So much for Halloween, I did briefly consider posting a picture of all the appropriate books I didn't get round to reading but I'm feeling something of a reaction to how much of a thing, and especially how much of a retail thing, it's become so I didn't. Instead on the warmest November day since records began (it really was glorious) when it didn't feel terribly seasonal to be making Christmas puddings, that's what I've been doing. That and baking a couple of Christmas cakes, buying some Christmas decorations, and generally bargain hunting around town. I hope it's not to soon to mention Christmas...

This bit, the time for making and baking, is my favourite part of Christmas. I find when it actually arrives I'm to exhausted by work to really care about what's going on around me, that and after what amounts to a quarter of the year spent preparing for little else the tinsel has really lost its sparkle. Now though, when there's still plenty of time, and the long baking or steaming hours that cake and pudding demand impose a dawdling pace to the day, I can enjoy the moment. It's a process of collecting together good things which makes me relish the thought of winter cold and dark nights to come too.

Those long cooking hours also meant a couple of hours free to sneak into town whilst the cake did its thing. I, in turn, did mine and got carried away in The Works (bargain book chain for non UK readers). They have some excellent cookbooks at the moment, almost all of which I paid full price for not so long ago. I did pick up Tamasin Day-Lewis' 'Food You Can't Say No To' after it passed the flick test in style by offering up a recipe for Torta Della Nonna. Someone fed me this a couple of years ago, it was wonderfully good, and I've wanted to make it ever since. This is clearly a hint to get on with it, and there are other good looking things in here too. For a mere £5 it was a proper bargain.

Mima Sinclair's 'Gingerbread Wonderland' was another bargain at £3. I picked it up with the intention of giving it to a friend, but think I'll have to get her another copy. It's a cute little thing with some nice ideas in it, not a book I'd have bought full price, but for not much more than a cup of coffee it's worth having.

I also bought Magnus Nilsson's monumental 'The Nordic Cookbook' (from Waterstones this time, and with the aid of loyalty points). I should probably have left this on my wish list until after Christmas (or begged my sister for it) but I didn't have the patience. It's such a beautiful thing, and promises to be a thoroughly interesting book to read, that I had to have it today. It's just a shame that I'm back at work tomorrow when staying at home to read and cook is so much more attractive.