Monday, March 27, 2023

Orange Cardamom Upside Down Cake

Sometimes I find myself looking back on lockdown with a certain fondness - right now I need to change my bedclothes and put on a wash, I want to read, knit, and write. I have a couple of hours before bed, so can only really do one of those things justice. I love my job but the thought of a few months not having to juggle everything around it is seductive.

I did make a cake today to use up some on the verge of going over blood oranges - I love blood oranges, the end of their season is one of the regrettable things about the coming of proper spring. I might just get a couple more decent bags of them, but they're losing their sherbety sharp acidity and the colours are going from delightful sunset to something that might be puce. 

The cake is an adaptation of Catherine Phipps recipe for Orange and Cardamom tarte tatin (to be found in Citrus). She suggests using cake as an alternative to pastry, which was exactly what I wanted for the first time I made it - as a cake it goes a lot further, and I've been tinkering with it ever since. I messed up a rhubarb version by adding vanilla - it's a combination I find too sweet and bland, but maybe sometime I'll revisit that with orange bitters instead.

Oranges, and particularly blood oranges look fabulous though and the result is a cake that works brilliantly as a smart dessert with whipped cream and is great for a coffee break too. It's also a recipe that feels endlessly adaptable and which gives me an excuse to use the tarte tatin dish Doug bought me for Christmas quite a long time ago and which I particularly love. It's a cast iron beauty with particularly well-designed handles which make it easy to turn out whatever is in it, and there's nothing quite like the satisfaction of using something that works perfectly for its purpose. 

To make the cake you need an oven proof skillet or dish about 23cm across that can also sit on a hob. Put 2 tablespoons of water and 100g of granulated sugar in it, let the whole lot spread evenly across the pan, and heat until it starts to go golden. No need to stir but you might want to shake it occasionally. When it's a good colour take it off the heat and add 75g of butter, stir in and add the light crushed seeds of 2 teaspoons worth of cardamom pods plus any extra juice or flavourings you might want to add to the caramel. 

Thinly slice 2 oranges and arrange the slices in the bottom of the pan - you'll have more than you need and can decide exactly how much to use based on preference. I've used a basic pound cake recipe for the sponge - 3 eggs, 6 ounces of self raising flour, butter, and sugar, but I could happily add semolina, or ground almonds or walnuts. I like to use a golden or light brown sugar to carry on the caramel flavour, but again that's a matter of preference. I think some rye flour would add something interesting as well - the important thing from my point of view is that these basic quantities gave a good sponge-to-fruit ratio that soaked up excess caramel without becoming soggy. Cover the fruit with the batter.

Bake in a moderate oven (I have no idea anymore, mine runs really hot and I keep having to turn it down well below any recipe recommendation to avoid burning) for about 25 minutes and then check. If a knife comes out of the sponge clean, or it's come away from the sides of the pan, it's done. 

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for a few minutes, and then turn it out onto a plate to cool properly before it can weld itself to whatever you've cooked it in!

Thursday, March 23, 2023

A Table For Friends - Skye McAlpine

This book was, appropriatly, a gift from a friend for Christmas a couple of years back. A Table Full of Love reminded me of it when I was planning food for mothers day last week and so I had a browse through. Everything I did from it proved a massive hit which was extremely gratifying, not least because everything I did from it was really simple - the sort of low effort high reward cooking that's always good to have at the back of your mind. 

It's also further convinced me that somebody really needs to pout  together a collection of not really even recipes (although please for the love of god don't call them hacks) in one handy place. New to my list is the concept of a roasting tin of fruit, in this case grapes, but also mentioned were apples and plums, in the oven with whatever else is cooking to use as an accompniment.

I had grapes, so in they went, and then came out with everything turned up to 11 from the rich purple of their juice to the flavour of a normally not very interesting supermarket bunch. No seasoning necessary, just heat. It's a great alternative to a jelly, much lower in sugar and a happy partner for all sorts of things. Apples (which I've just had with sausages) do the same thing - an excellent stand in for an apple sauce when I wouldn't have bothered to make one, that used up an apple which was on the verge of going wrinkly. 

Another almost none recipe was red onions cut into chunks roasted with olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper. I love onions like this but forget about them as a possible side dish. I won't now. A salad of blood oranges, black olives and red onions dressed in olive oil with a handful of basil torn over it was only marginally more elaborate, and another hit. Fresh, colorful, excellent with the chicken we had. I'd assumed there would have been left overs of it which I'd planned to finish with some feta cheese. No chance. 

There are much more formal recipes in McAlpine's books, lots of things I want to make and eat, but what's really caught my imagination is her genius for these really simple extras. I've just had a quick look online at her Venice book and see that she does an excellent looking cheat version of an almond croissant with ready to roll puff pastry, which again sounds perfect for anyone who doesn't have the time to make croissants from scratch (instructions for those also given in another recipe) or who doesn't have enough people to feed to make the effort worthwhile. Obviously I'll be buying tat book tomorrow.  

Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Luminaries - Susan Dennard

I bought this book almost entirely because I loved it's sprayed edge decoration, and a little bit because it always seems like a good idea to sometimes step out of my normal reading choices into a genre I wouldn't normally bother with. In this case, I thought I was getting Sci-Fi/Fantasy but was actually getting young adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy. 

Either category come under the general heading of not my normal reading, and I see now that on  Waterstones and Amazon's websites, this is listed as both, but it was in the adult part of the shop where I bought it and I'm vaguely annoyed about it. 

It's an enjoyable book, a bit formulaic (a young girl whose family is outcast from their community has to overcome almost unbeatable odds to be the next super warrior kind of thing) but the main character is reasonably engaging and the logic behind the monsters she has to fight is believable. I will happily recommend it to teen readers looking for a decent fantasy to get stuck into. But what is it ever doing in the not teen section?

I've been unlucky on this front - almost every fantasy type of book I've read over the last decade from Naomi Novik's Uprooted, through to this has honestly been teen fiction however it's actually classified and I'm a little bit over it. With the single exception of Tricia Levenseller's The Shadows Between Us, they've been good, but they've all lacked the emotional maturity and complexity that I actually wanted. Holly Black's 'Book of Night' convincingly made the leap from young adult to adult writing, and I suppose my sample size is too small to be really meaningful, but honestly, we need to better define what these categories mean.

In the world of the luminaries, spirits live in 14 sites around the world, they create living nightmares with their dreams, and each spirit's nightmares evolve independently. America's spirit appeared around 1902 and is still exceptionally young. It's the job of the luminary clans to hunt down the nightmares and kill them before they can hurt the rest of us. There's a werewolf who we can all guess the identity of with no problem whatsoever, and an ex best friend who's got some big red flags going on too. The luminaries sworn enemies are the Diana's - witches, and our heroines father turned out to be one which left the whole family outcast. Winnie needs to survive a series of hunter trials to change that - but will the prize be worth winning?

It's all done fairly well, a second instalment drops in November, and if you're looking for a good series for a younger reader I'd absolutely have a look at it. If you wanted something undemanding that rattles along quickly enough it's okay too. 

Thursday, March 9, 2023

The Stranger Times - C. K. McDonnell

 I found my glasses, they were right behind their case - I had looked in it, but apparently not near it. I really do need to make that appointment. Otherwise, it's been a hectic couple of weeks, full on at work as we get ready for a stock count and a quick visit to see family in Scotland. I returned with treasure - images of which I'll share in due course.

In terms of reading, I've mostly been knitting and listening to audiobooks. This has been a combination of Georgette Heyer who I know so well I can listen, relisten, and not worry if I miss bits - but cannot reasonably keep writing about here, and a couple of C. K. McDonnell books which are outside of my normal reading, but which I've enjoyed enormously. 

I'm on and off with audible, it took me a while to discover how it best worked for me. I like it for funny books and books I know well and am comforted by but have found it unsatisfactory for new literary fiction. The biggest issue is probably how uneven narration can be, one of the Heyer's I listened to recently was fairly bad, but Brendan McDonald did The Stranger Times, and This Charming Man, proud. 

I suspect I probably enjoyed listening to The Stranger Times more than I would have enjoyed reading it, just as I enjoyed the Terry Pratchett audiobooks I listened to last year more than the books I re-read. It's plot that makes me read; much as I enjoy the jokes I'm easily distracted from them. We had a little rush on C. K. McDonnell at work and the titles along with the Manchester setting appealed to me. A colleague who had read him encouraged me and now I'm a fan. 

The Stranger Times is a newspaper that reports the supernatural, at first under the assumption that it's all nonsense, albeit nonsense that some people believe. Increasingly odd things are happening though and eventually, the staff is forced to accept that some of it might be true. Which is a lot to take on board. 

There's a decent ensemble cast of characters and the focus on them changes a little between the two books I've listened to so far. This bodes well for future books in the series, as does McDonnell's obvious affection for his creations - they're easy to like and stay the right side of parody. I have an affection for Manchester too, based mostly on the kindness of some random people on a bus there who not only made sure I found my stop but accompanied me to the street I was looking for once I'd got off at it. 

I'd been at a Bowmore whisky training and tasting session for the day, I absolutely wasn't drunk, but in a pre-smartphone world it wasn't so easy to navigate strange cities and I was definitely in a mellow enough state to forget instructions. My next visit to Manchester involved meeting an unexpected fisherman from Shetland in a pub. Months later he bumped into my father in a local shop and really put the wind up him*. McDonnell's Manchester, supernatural entities aside, sounds a lot like the city as I've seen it. 

I currently have 1 audible credit remaining and a little bit of a dilemma as to how to use it. The weather says go for something cosy, but I'm also thinking it's a great way to explore genre's I might not normally spend much time on. I wondered about Samantha Shannon's Priory of the Orange Tree which is too long to appeal as a novel, but would probably see me through the next jumper I want to knit - but the reviews all make the same complaint about terrible narration. Is this the time to start on a Jodi Taylor?

*Dad swears he doesn't remember this, but he called me, deeply suspicious, to ask what the hell I'd been up to. I'd been playing pool, badly, in the Peveril of the Peak pub when I recognised the accent of the next person who wanted the table. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Death of an Author - E.C.R. Lorac

Somewhere in my flat my are my glasses, I don't know where which is becoming increasingly annoying. I can't remember exactly when I last wore them either (they're more or less just for reading and sewing in ends on knitting - or picking up tiny stitches, I couldn't find them last night, but they might have had a good 48 hours to get lost in before that). I hope they haven't been through the washing machine. I check my pockets, but given how frequently a tissue gets through that process, it's not impossible that I've washed them. It's even possible that they've got into the duvet cover. It's all upsettingly middle-aged. 

I'm at the point of frustration over the missing glasses that I feel solving a murder would be easy by comparison, even one as fiendishly involved as in 'Death of an Author' where the exact identity of the victim is as big a mystery as that of the murderer. 

Originally published in 1935 and out of print until now there's something unexpectedly current about the plotting here - it hinges on the identity of a reclusive author, Vivian Lestrange, who so jealously defends their privacy they send their secretary to masquerade as them to their publishers. It's such a successful ruse that the police aren't entirely convinced that Eleanor really isn't Vivian.

In an online world where it's remarkably easy to build whatever identity we wish for ourselves and to have everything we need bought to our doors without so much as having to visit a bank for cash the concept of a celebrity that nobody has seen isn't much of a stretch. As anybody who has ever had to deal with identity theft will tell you, proving who you are isn't that easy either. This is Elanor's problem as she tries to prove there's both a case to investigate and that she's innocent of any wrong doing.

E.C.R. Lorac was a pen name for Edith Caroline Rivett, she also wrote as Carol Carnac so it's interesting to see how she talks about the differences between male and female writers. A recurring theme throughout the book is could Vivian Lestrange's novels have been written by a woman? All the men think not - I did make a pencil annotation of a passage where a list of women writers are given (definitely Dorothy L. Sayers and F. Tennyson Jesse get a mention, but apparently without my glasses I can't find it again).

I wonder how tongue-in-cheek Lorac's comments are as I don't think anybody would ever think that Sayers's Gaudy Night was written by a man, and F. Tennyson Jesse's sympathy for her female characters - especially in A Pin To See The Peepshow also seems specifically female. Lorac's insistence that you can't tell the difference also marks her out as a woman writer - though it's the idea of feminine that she seems to particularly object to, and I certainly wouldn't describe her so. 

Altogether this is my favourite Lorac so far (though as Carol Carnac 'Crossed Skis' is stiff competition). It's a view of 1930's literary London that I found particularly appealing, even more so than 'These Names Make Clues'. Without giving spoilers the motivation for the murder is particularly strong here and all things considered, the ending is particularly satisfying if you feel as I did about the characters involved.