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. 

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Haunters At The Hearth - edited by Tanya Kirk

Yes, this is me catching up with my Christmas reading at the end of February. What of it, books are nothing if not for life. It's also part and parcel of working retail that the time to relax and enjoy Christmas things is well after the event, which is how I came to be eating panettone for breakfast yesterday. 

Haunters at the Hearth may be subtitled Eerie Tales for Christmas Nights but genuinely it's not just for Christmas, are particularly Christmas heavy - although the feel of all the stories is distinctly wintery. It's also every bit the excellent selection I've come to rely on from Tanya Kirk (all the BL anthologies with her name on are favourites, and well worth having) who excels at putting together a set of stories that balance the genuinely disturbing with something more light hearted. 

Mildred Clingerman's The Wild Wood for example, really made my skin crawl, but Celia Fremlin's Don't Tell Cissie which finishes off the collection was a delight - mostly funny with a twist at the end that makes it more than just funny. There's a D. H. Lawrence that confirms a 30 year antipathy towards D. H. Lawrence which dates from an A level English teacher telling us that nobody understood women like Lawrence, he absolutely refused to accept that actual women might disagree with his assessment. 

My personal dislike of  D. H. Lawrence aside the whole collection is gem after gem - and again makes me wish that the habit of reading ghost stories aloud on winter nights was still a thing (these need to be available as audio books). Some of these are crying out to be performed. 

Sunday, February 19, 2023

A Table Full of Love - Skye McAlpine

Cookbooks are very much on my mind at the moment. I've got a few of them recently with a few more interesting ones on the horizon. Regula Yswijn's Dark Rye and Honey Cake and Misa Hay's A Year in My Shetland Garden have, between them, shaken me out of a bit of a cooking and writing rut. It's been a while since I've felt any particular enthusiasm for both, but it's coming back in spades.

Another cookbook that's really caught my attention is Skye McAlpine's 'A Table Full of Love'. It's the second of her cookbooks I've got and I wonder if this might be her breakthrough title and lifts her out of the reliable mid-list? 'A Table Full of Love' deserves to make a considerable splash for a few reasons. On a very shallow level it's a particularly pretty book, more importantly, it's full of good things.

I also really like the concept behind it too. It turns out that her doctorate is on ancient love poetry (specifically Ovid) and she has remained interested in the way different kinds of love were defined in the ancient world. This cookbook reflects something similar in that it's divided into recipes to comfort, seduce, nourish, spoil, and cocoon. 

For those of us who use food as a love language, this is a concept that is both seductive and intuitive. What better way to choose what I want to cook than for what I want the dish to convey? It's also great to have whole sections, Seduce, that specifically have you cooking for two, or Cocoon, with recipes for one, and makes it easy to build a menu around that. Good recipes for one or two people are still thin on the ground but for most of our lives, that's what we actually need. 

There's everything in here from pull out all the stops birthday cakes (cakes do feature a lot - which I consider a bonus) to the disarmingly simple. I don't know if anybody has ever collected a good number of recipes which are hardly recipes at all and put them together in a book, but I would buy it if they had. There are a couple of crackers in here - Sourdough toast with chocolate and olive oil sounds heavenly, depending on good quality ingredients to provide a luxurious pick me up, but my favourite has to be for spiced oranges with brandy and sugar,

All you need to do is peel a couple of oranges and remove the pith then slice them into 5mm-1cm thick round, put them in a bowl to macerate with 2 tablespoons of caster sugar, 2 of brandy, and a sprinkling of cinnamon then put in the fridge for anything from an hour to overnight. Use less sugar, a brown sugar, a red wine, a sweet wine, rum, cardamom instead of cinnamon, full-on mulled wine spices, blood oranges, navel oranges, clementines, or mandarins. Have it on its own, with cream, use them to dress up a plain sort of cake - it's hardly a recipe, but it's elegant, adaptable, and easy. A very useful thing to have tucked away at the back of your mind.

And that's the charm of this book in a nutshell - it's full of elegant, adaptable recipes that'll see you through a variety of situations, as good for special occasions as it is for something quick comforting, and everything in between. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

A Year In My Shetland Garden - Misa Hay

Or perhaps more specifically Misa's Ořechová Bábovka (Walnut Bundt Cake) with which I have fallen in love. Fortunately, it's a new found passion that D shares and there's a lot to celebrate with cake in a marriage. 

Once upon a time, my favourite cake would always have been chocolate, but preferences change and now it's whatever has the least icing on it that attracts me (the craze for cupcakes with great big dollops of frosting on top of them did for me). A walnut cake studded with juicy raisins is perfect. This cake turns out to be light, flavoursome, elegant, excellent with coffee, smart enough to serve with dinner, easy to make, and altogether exactly what I want in my repertoire. 

It also nicely sums up how I feel about Misa's book in general. It's full of food that feels contemporary, sounds delicious, and which tells a story. In this case, it's Misa's journey from the Czech republic to making a life and family in Shetland. These are flavours from her childhood, bought back from travels, and homegrown. 

Shetland is a challenging place to grow things (unless it's rhubarb which does exceptionally well there, and is equally well represented in this book) but not impossible. Over the last couple of decades, a more robust version of a polytunnel has sprung up and it's revolutionised what people can grow. That's really useful in a place where the weather can seriously disrupt supply chains. For those of us not dealing with Shetlands climate though, this is a book full of easy to buy or grow vegetables and that's a definite plus too.

There are so many things I like about this book, but overall I think it's mostly about the attitude. It's a book about the possible, and about roots (in every sense). That walnut bundt cake is one of Misa's childhood favorites which brings its own twist to the Shetland love of baking. I would normally share the recipe here, but on this occasion, I'm going to strongly recommend buying the book - find it here or order from any good bookshop. 

On a side note, I couldn't find my sensible bundt tin - I think it's buried under a lot of jam jars, so used a very posh nordic ware one shaped like snow-covered fir trees that I bought in a fit of enthusiasm with amazon vouchers a couple of years ago and had never used. It was a nightmare to butter, and worse to clean, so that's a lesson learned. I also got distracted by a phone call and should have had the cake out of the oven 5 - 10 minutes before I did, but it was still fine - which is another virtue to award it!

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Peerie Leaves Jumper - Donna Smith

I've had it in mind to make this jumper for a while, so after getting a cone of DK yarn (Dusk from Jamieson's of Shetland) I knew that's what it was going to be for. I started on this between Christmas and new year, so to have finished already is fast for me. 

This is the fourth jumper I've finished and a clear favourite so far despite still coming out a bit bigger than I intended. I did try swatching this time, but either my maths was out, or I radically changed my tension when I started working on a larger scale (probably both happened). At least it's the kind of too big that I can get away with, and next time I knit one (there will be a next time just as soon as I can find another yarn I like as much) it'll be sized down a little. 

Knitting with DK rather than a Shetland jumper weight was a treat - thicker yarn, bigger needles, faster progress, which is very encouraging. I like the fabric it's made as well - chunkier than I'm used too and squishier. It's very pleasing. 

I really liked Donna Smith's pattern which is available on Ravelry, and in the 2020 Shetland Wool Week Annual (volume 6 - it's got some cracking patterns in it). The Peerie Leaves jumper design is well written, easy to follow, doesn't have any nasty surprises in it, and has come up as a useful sort of jumper that I know I'm going to wear a lot (I've been wearing it all day at work already). One small quibble would be over the photographs that go with the pattern - they're beautiful, but they don't give the clearest idea of how the jumper will look - the close up shots have the model in a closer fitting version, the pattern suggests quite a lot of positive ease. 

I added one and a half repeats to get the sort of length I need and made the rib at the bottom a couple of rows longer too. I actually judged this about right for the first time so don't have a jumper that almost hits my knees again - this may be the single thing I'm most pleased about. 

I also kind of wish this had been the first jumper I tried to knit - I think it's an ideal place to start. The speed with which it knits up is great, the lace element is a simple pattern that has a nice rhythm to it, and you can see within a couple of stitches if you've gone wrong which is definitly a bonus. The rest is stocking stitch which is relaxing. The finished jumper feels like more than the sum of it's parts (that's definitely a hallmark of an excellent design). 

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Shadows Between Us - Tricia Levenseller

This is an example of a book where I should have known better, but I didn't, and it disappointed me. I've been intrigued by Trica Levenseller's books for a couple of months - Daughter of the Pirate King and Daughter of the Siran Queen sounded fun, I trust Pushkin press, and there's a lot of positive buzz about these books online. In truth I didn't really finish this one, I read the first 50 pages in growing irritation and then skimmed through the rest of the book, felt it was going even further downhill, and then gave it up as a bad job.

There was a discussion and radio 4's Women's hour earlier this week around a lot of Young Adult fiction being too dark for its intended audience - the postman rang my doorbell halfway through it so I may have missed something crucial, but to me the bigger issue is quality and I don't think that was touched on. 

I'm 30 years past warning to spend a lot of time reading about teenage protagonists, but a good book is a good book and there's some great YA writing out there - none of which is inherently darker than Wuthering Heights, anything by Dostoevsky, or The Picture of Dorian Gray all of which are popular with the youth. There's also the obvious point that being a teen is fairly grim a lot of the time, so you'd want a good choice of books that reflect that and help you work through some of it.

Quality is key though. The Shadows Between Us looks like a fairly typical dark/fantasy romance - a genre where I expect to find more smut than I'm interested in, and where a lot of our customers find exactly the amount of smut they're in the mood for, so that's money well spent. Young adult authors can't rely on smut so I expect decent plots and characters but that's perhaps before the book took started driving sales the way it has. 

The Shadows Between Us starts with a cracking first line; "They never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart." but for me at least it falls off from there. I didn't find any of the characters particularly well drawn, their interactions too often seemed off, the world-building was shoddy, and a cynical woman would end up thinking that this book was snapped up first and foremost to appeal to a trend.

I'll be watching sales with interest, it's quite possible the teens will agree with me. It's just as possible that they'll be oblivious to the things I see as glaring faults or horribly toxic - perhaps these are characters a 14-year-old could love. I mostly hope not because you need this stuff to be done well to better build an understanding of what is and isn't acceptable behavior, not the kind of lazy writing that normalizes the unacceptable.