Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 The Sweet And The Sour

Assessing December

It has been a pretty frigid month. Not Alaska-like frigid but more frigid than it usually is around these parts. I loved every bit of it. Feeding the horses when they look like slow-motioned furry figures in a distance of frosty mist always is a fantastic sight, regardless of how used one may be to it. Spiders must have decamped to warmer climates and have abandoned their pretty mansions by the side of my drive. They may find that a hurricane has taken them down by the time they return, the darn critters.



Work-wise it has been slow, or perhaps I should say dreary. I am writing with a leaded-nibbed pen at the moment, so lamentable, hard and heavy my progress is. What can I say, apparently it is a given of writing life that one’s own last piece is the hardest one to write before the magnum opus is complete. Meanwhile, days have turned into weeks so fast that today is the last day of the month and the last day of the year and I feel like I am hanging by a silvery thread, walking on eggshells while balancing a tray of Bellinis on my egg-shaped head.

So much has happened over the past few months I wouldn’t even know how to resume 2008 and yet I feel obliged to do so, especially as I realised that the greatest thing about keeping a blog this year has been a fabulous diary I can now digitally leaf through, with many events, many very small, some much more important, all available to be juggled in memory at the click of the mouse. Squeak squeak squeak. I will think about 2008 next year. For now it is good-bye to what I proclaimed a ‘life-changing year’ on the first page of my Smythson diary as 2009 approaches through crackling, frosted leaves and a cold, cold night.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Press Pause - Part II

When I wrote this, I was so very keen to stop time words didn’t even come close to expressing it. Now I feel like I always do at this time of year; no matter what happens, or fails to happen, in my life, I am always eager to pause on the Christmas holidays and to live in this slow, not-a-care-in-the-world limbo for ever. And I am not one of those self-righteous, operous people who proclaim that they couldn’t possibly live in a permanent holiday state. I damn well could I am telling you, as there is nothing I enjoy more than feeling delivered by the tyranny of domesticity in all of its annoying guises.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tin Toy

I once read that nostalgia creeps on us around year thirty, when we are old enough to remember childhood with fondness and still close enough to it to clearly recall its tribulations and its happiness. I got a beautiful tin toy for Christmas and even though I never lived in the years of the tin toys (before WWII), nostalgia bells rang loudly in my ears as I edged the rocket ride out of its box. Now I cannot stop looking at it; it is so alluring and comforting in a way I've never known before. It is completely new to me, and yet uncanny in the Freudian sense of the term.



Above and beyond the fuzzy feeling, I got a little miffed as the packaging reads that 'The Schylling Collectors Series Tin Toys are made the same way toys were made almost 100 years ago'. Nothing bad there, right? Yes, but how about the other side of the box that also reads 'WARNING: NOT FOR CHILDREN FOR COLLECTORS ONLY', like it is an unexploded war bomb painted in pure lead?

If this beautiful toy is lovingly made as they used to, when kids only had paper, wood and tin toys to play with, why is it that one of today's kids cannot play with it? Has tin become more dangerous than, say, video-games, Barbie dolls, Big Jims? More dangerous than those annoying mono-skates that infest our pavements everywhere? Methinks this is another case of suing-culture spin... what if an idiot child decided to ingest the whole tin toy? Or maybe just one of the rockets? What if the kid decided to stick it into his eye or perhaps ram his little sister with it? Gosh, perish the thought that this lethal weapon were given as an actual toy to an actual child. Everyone knows that the more evolved we get and the more imbecile our children become. I am just glad I am not a child and can play with this all day, so there, ha ha ha, ho ho ho!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas Wouldn't Be Christmas Without...

Monopoly

I have a love-hate relationship with this game. I cannot quite stand it and yet, come the Yuletide season, an unstoppable urge to play it descends upon me. I don’t play it at any other time of year and every time I get a glimpse of the box in the middle of July, it immediately conjures Crimbo up as much as...




Panettone

I must confess pandoro is my favourite, the tall star sprinkled with impalpable icing sugar, but then the basic version of panettone, the one that only has raisins, is a favourite too. It alone is the only reason I sometimes swap Starbee for Costa; they sell mini panettoni all year round and I just love to eat one, no matter the season.



Presents

Yes, shoot me if you must and then stick your own sense of leftist self-righteousness where the sun doesn’t shine. Doesn’t one of the greatest literary classics begins with ‘Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents’? Much as I hate Little Women, Jo utters one of the greatest truth known to mankind.

Home Alone and Home Alone 2

Kevin’s family, and his parents especially, always irritate me beyond belief, but so long as I close my eyes and grit my teeth when they come on screen, I am sort of ok. I am not shocked that they leave the kid at home you know, but that they cannot see that he is the smartest of the pack and gets bullied for the privilege. A modern classic and my favourite up until...



The Polar Express

Nothing else to say on this one.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Boxing Day Blues





Thursday, December 25, 2008

Cold and Miserable - Part II and III

Well, I thought this cold near enough Christmas to ensure a safe holiday season but, oh no, ho ho ho, would that be the case? Of course not! I am in the midst of some other germ bout, with an open tap in place of a nose and a face as red as Santa’s. Yes, sure, it could be worse but, believe me, it could also be infinitely better. Why is it that of all days in the whole year I have to be poorly today? Why not any other day? Why not next week?

On a related note, I was thinking earlier today that if only we ourselves followed our own advice, life would be much easier. Because, you see, we are all great at dispensing advice, but not so good at following our own pearls of wisdom. It’s a case of talking the talk and walking nowhere. When male friends ask for an opinion on what to bestow on their significant others at Christmas, I always say this: ‘Absolutely anything but clothes’. And you know why? Not because clothes aren’t welcome to the female, but because they come in different sizes and females have a distinct tendency for blurting out the size they used to be or the one they wished they were and not the size they are. So absolutely no no no clothes under the tree, even if she begs for a Lanvin dress.

Why oh why did I tell my parents that I would have looooved a certain something to wear but was economic with the truth? Why did I, of all well-adjusted fashionable people, or all switched-on women with great female sensitivity and knowledge of the female mind was conservative on the bit about size? And so part two of the misery is this stinking cold and part three is a fabulous skirt that doesn’t fit me. Or it would have fit me if this had been Crimbo 2006 instead of 2008. And so the misery, and the diet, begins right now. Like today. In fact, it has already begun. That'll teach me.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Market Good-Bye!

And so it's good-bye to the Manchester Christmas Markets for another year! Mum and dad arrived today (and I'm officially on hols) and we zoomed to town, so to be able to catch the last few hours of German-like shopping and a lot of Dutch cheese, Belgian chocolate and macaroons, bird food, pretzels and all the rest of it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Doggy Day Spa

It's time to spruce up house et al for the holidays. Today it was doggy day spa day and it resulted in Victoria looking a bit like a worse-for-wear Slovakian peasant.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Jaffa Loaf Cake

I hate myself when I cook something really good and forget to take pics of it. Yet, it seems to happen more and more these days as this blog becomes a place where I like to rant about the sour in life and I forget about the sweet. But I am going to write about this cake because it would be criminal not to, even though I haven't got a picture for it.

I am going to the yard Crimbo do tomorrow night and I have whipped out two cakes today, one is a simple coffee flourless cake (yes, I will talk about this another time!) and the other is this Grand Marnier loaf cake that really deserves its own post. I started off with the chocolate loaf cake that I posted earlier this year and modified the ingredients as follows:

225g soft unsalted butter
350g dark muscovado sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g dark chocolate, melted
200g flour
1 tsp bicarb of soda
some hot water
2 tbsp orange curd
250ml double cream
90ml Grand Marnier

Loaf tin, lined

Do it like so:

Pre-heat the oven at 180C and stick the lining into your tin.

Cream the butter and sugar, then add the lightly beaten eggs and the vanilla extract. Melt the dark chocolate and set aside. Now add the bicarb of soda to the flour and incorporate into the creamed sugar a bit at a time, helping yourself with the hot water. You don't want anything too dry and crumbly and certainly nothing too watery. So proceed with caution beating well, either by hand or with an electric mixer. Now add the cooled-down melted chocolate and the Grand Marnier. Once this is done, you will be left with a batter that looks reasonably wet. Now pour it into the lined tin and bake for 45 minutes.

Take the cake out and leave it to sink until it is completely cooled. This will take at least three hours but resist overnight if you can. When you're ready to ice the cake add two tablespoons of orange curd to the double cream and whip it until it is of spreadable consistency. Do not over-whip or it will split. Spread over the cake and enjoy a very thick slice with your favourite hot drink.

How to describe this cake? It is damp inside and very moreish without being cloying or rich by any stretch of the imagination. Unlike its cousin, the chocolate loaf cake, the dampness is decidedly alcoholic, even though this is not one of those cakes whose batter is soaked in tipple. I like mine on its own, un-iced, even though I added the jaffa cream on top to add to the sense of Christmas occasion.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A PhD Should Really Be A Secret Lover

Some years back, I found myself talking to Mac, Mac my friend and PhD supervisor, not Mac my computer, lamenting my inability to be able to talk about my PhD to my work colleagues. This was not due, as you may think, to their lack of knowledge in my area of expertise, neither was it down to what I suspected at the time may have been my colleagues’ general disinterest in anything other than Oracle or SAP. No, I had grown increasingly uneasy about a need to keep my research endeavours to myself. ‘I understand’, Mac said ‘your PhD is a bit like a secret lover’.

I don’t think any other definition of a PhD I came across before or after this one (such as, my PhD is a member of my family or my PhD is a part of me or my PhD defines who I am) is any way near as telling or indeed as relevant to my own life and my own PhD. If you’re doing a PhD and you work in a related field at the same time, you will not need to be secretive about one or the other, but try and get yourself a corporate job in, say, information technology while doing a PhD on Anne Rice with a bit of Jacques Lacan and a lot of Spider-man and that’s where the problems begin.

They only begin there because it does get worse, in unimaginable ways. It was necessary to conceal my PhD as I would have concealed a secret, very exciting and very gorgeous, Christian Bale-sque lover, because running on the corporate wheel while attempting to keep some sort of interests outside of the spinning is frowned upon in corpo la-la-land, where people are not explicitly required, but silently expected, to give up their entire life, not just eight daily hours, when they sign on the dotted line.

Tell them that you're doing a PhD, that you'd rather horse ride than playing golf, that you like to read trashy horror rather than subscribe to Oracle Profit and you're not committed enough, you're not to be trusted, you're not capable to play the game. You may as well confess to a penchant for coke, the powder, not the liquid, variety, to set chins wagging just as fast. And I am not being paranoid either; just try it if you don't believe it and you'll see what happens.

And so Mr PhD stayed locked in my mind as working days turned into weeks and weeks into years. Since I left my job, I am a bona fide writing-up PhD student, which means I am about to submit it. And, boy, do I wish I had kept it as secret as I used to in the last few months leading to this post. I am saying this because, as a general rule, one cannot expect others to grasp what a postgraduate degree entails. I mean, why would anyone but someone who is engaged in a PhD know what it is like to write one? How could this anyone know anything more than PhD = Dr, in the grand scheme of academic things? So unless all of your friends are also PhD students, do not expect understanding, empathy, sympathy, interest or any combination thereof. You’re on your own.

Now that’s the great part of it; maybe I told you this before but I am my own favourite company and I cannot think of a more exciting way to enlarge one’s own intellectual boundaries than by undertaking 4+ years worth of isolated research. Yeah, that’s great. But then why, oh why did I so grossly miscalculated when, clearly affected by a bout of verbal diarrhoea, I started talking about it, not just to friends but to acquaintances?

There’s now one of these blasted acquaintances that will not leave me off the hook. I happen to come across him every couple of weeks or so, as I idly run some errands, and he systematically asks how the PhD is, as if he were asking after my lame horse or my poorly dog over the summer. In the beginning, this did not strike me as unusual; I thought he was interested and if not interested, he was at least smart enough to realise that my PhD was now all my life and that demonstrating a form of vague, polite curiosity in it, may make me feel better, somewhat even important.

Well, no my friends, it doesn’t. It doesn’t because this guy has started looking at me as if I were, somehow, dragging my heels, or procrastinating or talking about finishing a PhD I haven’t even started, the Phantom PhD That Doesn’t Even Exist. I can see him looking at me with narrowed eyes, with awkward silences between us interspersed with the thought bubbles above his head going: ‘Yeah, yeah, didn’t you say that two weeks ago?’.

No, I didn’t, fuck it, writing a PhD is not like writing this, or any other, blog. Let me make a relevant example. The piece of my PhD that is becoming a film criticism book is the length of a bona fide MA. And I knocked it out in a few weeks. But does anyone recognise or even know that? Does any Joe Blogg realise that ‘a little book’, as I refer to it, is in fact of MA length and MA depth and breadth? Does he heck.

And so I am fending off Truly Weird Questions that are impossible to answer because even the last twenty pages of a PhD can provide surprises to its author, surprises of re-writing scale, surprises that some person who has never read past The Daily Mail back page cannot fathom. But next time he sees you, he will ask about that PhD and he will say that he thought you were writing about Batman two months ago, did something go wrong? Thing is, you just don’t knock 900 words of a PhD in ten minutes. Do you know how much that is? This post is 900 words long and it took me fifteen minutes to write. But this is nothing of academic standard. If I, or anyone, could write 900 words at PhD level every fifteen minutes for only five days a week, only three hours a day, we would all have PhDs. Multiple PhDs even.

Bloody hell, damn my intellectual vanity, damn my verbal diarrhoea, my enthusiasm and myself. It was much easier when Mr PhD was my lover. Now we’re together full time,the magic’s just gone and everyone and his dog has got advice to dispense, advice which, as per usual, is unwanted, uncalled for and, quite frankly, has to be ignored.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Raveonettes' Christmas Song

And sometimes a really great Christmas song can be very modern in every sense of the term without one slice of cheese in sight. If you've seen Christmas with the Kranks and have been pretty much unable to get the opening credits out of your head, here's the reason.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cheese Please!

I thought I could survive this month without posting this video but I'm afraid resistance is futile. It was playing at the back of my mind all day anyway.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Dark Knight's Agent of Chaos

Just in case you think I've gone all soppy on you, enjoy the agent of chaos while you can.

video

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Polar Express At The IMAX

Christmas movies have never been part of my household’s tradition. You know how some people say that Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without It’s A Wonderful Life or The Wizard of Oz? I never felt that way, even though I must admit that I like re-running Home Alone and Home Alone 2 during the holiday season, as I love to watch The Grinch, whose cartoons were a fixture of my childhood. Then The Polar Express was released in 2004 and I too, like millions of others, found my Christmas movie.



When I first heard of the IMAX Experience concept, back in 2001, I remember thinking that, what’s the point in watching a movie on a screen as tall as an eight-storey building, with the sound of 1000 stereos? I thought, who needs to be so up close? Who can be so hard of hearing? Normal cinema screens seemed perfectly adequate to me. Oh no my friends, the IMAX has changed the cinematic experience forever; there is no going back.

The Polar Express is an entirely computer-generated movie and one that takes full advantage of IMAX technology. While it’s true that the images are incredibly sharp, the most exciting development is that this movie plays in 3D and there is (at the time of writing) nothing quite like 3D computer generated imagery on an IMAX screen. And I really mean nothing like it.

All the clichés are true: images so real you will want to reach out and touch them. There are so many incredible scenes in The Polar Express that it’s difficult to single one out, but I must admit that the snowflakes falling down on the entire movie theatre and Santa’s flight on his sleigh are magnificent examples of creative vision combined with state-of-the-art technology. I saw The Polar Express multiple times since it came out three years ago but when news reached me that it was back at the IMAX I just couldn’t resist it.

The movie is taken from Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book which narrates the fantastical journey of the boy protagonist to the North Pole. The action takes place on Christmas Eve and resolves itself on Christmas morning. The moral of the story is one of belief against all odds, even though the premise is that, for some, only seeing is believing. I am partial to this tale, for I am one of those people who don’t need to see in order to believe, mainly because I think that if you only believe when you see, then that’s not really believing, for its essence is trust and faith and neither of these hinge upon a necessity to see first-hand.



Luckily for me, my parents believed in the fantastical nature of Santa and so I was not robbed of the only magic to be had in life. Being almost unable to sleep on Christmas Eve, getting up at the crack of dawn (or before) on Christmas morning, my heart skipping a full set of beats at the sight of Santa’s glass and plate cleared of their contents... I can assure you that nothing else in my life ever comes (or ever came) close to those memories by any stretch of the imagination (mine or anyone’s). Blimey, even typing it all up makes my eyes fill with tears, in a queer mix of great joy and deep nostalgia.

And so watching The Polar Express is like being faced with a blast from the past, even though it wasn’t around when I was a child. But I am the black girl in the movie you see, the one who looks forward to Christmas every year because it is the time when family and friends are together and decorations are hung up around the house; the girl that believes she knows the way and, in fact, she really does. But you know something else? It’s easy for me to say all of these things, easy for me to feel the butterflies in my stomach as Santa disappears in a streak of light in order to start his round. It’s easy because I’ve always really understood Roald Dahl’s adage: those who don’t believe in magic, will never find it. And good luck to them.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Great Bread

I know I am under the spell of a very retro domestic drive not when the urge of baking cakes descends upon me, nor when I feel like buying tins of paint and play Michelangelo on the ceiling of the study. Oh no, it is when I give in to the urge of baking bread that I am defeated by the strongest 1950s soul chains of honey I’m home persuasions. But do you know something? Baking bread is not at all taxing nor time-consuming. I realise that it ain't easy to persuade people to make something which is a commodity that can be acquired practically everywhere at any time of day or night, but if you have one hour to spare on a rainy and very cold Saturday afternoon, get your hands into some dough and enjoy the smell of yeast pervading the house as the bread rises. This is all the persuasion you need really; don’t knock it ‘til you try it.


I do it like this:

500g of strong white flour
7g of dried yeast
warm water
1 tbsp table salt

Place the flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl and give it a quick whirr with an electric hook as you start adding the warm water. I like to do this because I detest to get sticky hands so early on in the game. As you continue with the electric beater (well, not the beater, the hook as I said, but you know what I mean...) and add more water, the flour starts looking less floury and more like a sticky mess. All good. Stick your hands in, tip it all onto a working surface and knead away until you have an elastic, soft, warm mass. Form into a ball, cover with tea towels and put to rise in a warm place (mine is near the radiator in the lounge, locked away from prying dogs) for a couple of hours or longer if you can resist the urge to bake bake bake right now.

Once you uncover it, you’ll see that the dough will have at the very least doubled in size. Punch it down, tip it back from the bowl onto the working surface and knead for another five minutes as you warm the oven up to a scant 200C. Finish by giving your dough the shape you prefer (I like a very elongated, fattish one, a bit like myself really) and leave it to rise on the baking tray for another fifteen minutes or so as the oven warms up. Dust lightly with flour and bake for a good 40-45 minutes. Leave undisturbed until at least 35 minutes have elapsed. Do not be impatient and do not open the oven’s door unnecessarily (read: not unless you smell something burning and can see that the cat is not on the bed after all).

Oh and you know that you can tell great bread by its sound and not its looks yes? Knock on it when you take it out; if it sounds nice and hollow and crackly, it’s ready!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Christmas Songs

Not long ago I heard somewhere that Last Christmas by Wham! is the UK’s most popular Christmas song. Well, they should really call it a Christmas anthem, not a song, as it proves the point I was making a few days ago when I wrote about Music and Lyrics and cheesy 1980s pop songs. Today I sorted out this year’s Christmas compilation, a conglomerate of over one hundred jazzy pieces, classic carols, country versions, lounge remixes and, yes, cheesy ones as well.

Naturally, I’ve got Last Christmas too which, together with Hilary Duff’s (no less) Jingle Bells Rock, is one of those favourites that always prompts my own renditions belted out as soon as iTunes transmits the first two notes. For a while, Victoria used to walk up to me wagging her tail every time Jingle Bells Rock started; now she stares in disbelief as I persist to broadcast it in a loop, sometimes as many as twenty times an hour.

Of course iTunes has made the scouring for songs (Christmas or otherwise, if truth be told) as easy as getting a parking ticket; type in Winter Wonderland and 150 versions will fill up your screen ready to be tried and tested before you buy. I haven’t got all 150 versions but I have nine, for this is one of my favourite songs, as is Please Come Home For Christmas, which even Bon Jovi recorded many years ago, when Cindy Crawford was still a model and not the semi-retired mum she plays at these days.



I am also big on Blue Christmas (four versions), which for a time I referred to as my favourite Christmas song, and Let It Snow! (five versions) which always makes me think of New York in the middle of 2003’s blizzard, even thought that came in February. Above and beyond the classics that every Christmas compilation should include (by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra), you must get:

Michael Bublé Let It Snow Let It Snow Let It Snow from the mini-album of the same name which also includes one of the most under-rated Christmas songs of all times, Grown-up Christmas List;

Kenny G’s Miracles: The Holiday Album and Wishes: A Holiday Album, fabulous jazzy songs from the guy who makes his sax sing, very grown-up Christmas music especially good for dinner parties (if you've got the space and stamina for those);

John Williams’s Home Alone Soundtrack, which includes the superb Somewhere In My Memory (you should also get the version in Sally Harmon’s A Cozy Christmas of course);

Putumayo New Orleans Christmas, the ultimate Christmas album from the Big Easy, it’ll make you wanna move there; and

Oh Holy Night which, no matter who sings it, is always an emotional affair.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Perfect Day

Perfect Days are like Awful Days: they catch us unaware like unexpected guests whose memories linger long after they've left. We all have a tendency to remember Awful Days above and beyond Perfect Days because they adhere to the rule spelt out by the media: only bad news is news. Yet, it never takes me longer than one minute to roll out my own Perfect Days, even when they happened eons ago.



Rich hopes that my writing work will sell well so that he can retire. When I protest that I want to retire too, he says that I've already done because I do not consider writing as work (while, in my view, it can't be considered work until I see payment for it, but that's another story). In the grand scheme of work-and-life things he is right; I am having a ball, as they say, and I've been having a ball since September and this full immersion into what I love officially began.



And so today I was telling a friend of mine that I am leading the Perfect Life and that I do not want to work ever again. I want to be a housewife, I want to be free to enjoy all I like to do without the sword of Damocles hovering above my head. Except for writing and academia of course, now, those wouldn't be swords, nor thundering clouds. We met for coffee(s), run a few errands, stopped by at her place, chatted some more, then I went home to tend to the guys, I got changed and headed downtown for a spot of Christmas Markets browsing. How I love these, let me count the ways! I know that German markets never have anything suitable for vegetarians (unless you're a bird) but I love them all the same. I am not one of those people who is only happy if she eats (but very nearly so).



The minor snag is that I do not want to do anything other than walking around and browsing, even when I have stuff to finish and I really ought to finish it right now. Still, there's always tomorrow, right? Or the weekend. Although I heard that The Polar Express is back at the IMAX and now that may take a whole day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Miracle Dress

My Christmas Dress isn’t a Christmas dress at all, it' a miracle. It ain’t edged in crackling tinsel and it isn’t a dress I exclusively wear at Christmas, yet, I began to call it such a couple of years after I bought it, when I figured out that its sole presence in my wardrobe prevented many pointless shopping sprees just before a party. This is because there is just no other dress as good as this one. This isn’t a dress, it’s liposuction on a hanger, it takes one size off me every time I funnel myself into it. It is a Rolls Royce-like dress, the ultimate dress, a proper, bona-fide high fashion Vogue dress. It is a Tom Ford for YSL Rive Gauche little black dress from the 2002-3 autumn/winter collection that holds everything and its uncle in, it hikes everything into its rightful place without the need for sausage-like, ugly underwear of Spanx sort.

Oh no, this dress is the reason why dresses that cost ££££ are (usually) worth their weight in diamonds. Tom Ford knows female bodies pretty damn well, for with this piece he created fabric sculpting long before Hervé Léger rolled out his elastic band abominations. This one is made of two layers of black silk, has a silk lining (stitched to the dress itself, not hiked up underneath it), has a powerful back zipper and a long velvet ribbon that acts as the strap of a bra, for it allows its ample neckline to be open and lifted at the same time, with no need for any lingerie whatsoever. Its long fluted sleeves are a plus point as well, for they conceal one of my weak points, what I regard as my fat arms. See this one?



Those ruched cuffs are actually detachable. My dress doesn't have these but it is otherwise very like the one in this pic; the cuffs flare out above my hand and give me a properly long sleeve, something I always struggle to find, even though I don't regard myself as a woman with excessively long arms (and in case you're wondering, of course I don't look as GOOD as Carmen Kass does here, but still..!).

When I trail the shops and think that, hey, I’d look great in that dress, I should buy it, my Tom Ford miracle invariably materialises itself in front of me and, nah, nothing quite compares. That’s what I call an investment buy you see; not simply something that pays for itself but something that prevents you from dropping cash on crap you don’t really need.

But I think I forgot the point of this post to begin with... ah yes, I didn’t forget after all. The news is, my Christmas Dress still fits! Despite a year-worth of slacking, I can still do the zip up effortlessly! Of course, sitting in it is a different matter but it wasn’t easy at the best of times anyway.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dad's Nativity (Some Of)



Monday, December 8, 2008

Linzer Torte from Ripailles

Remember when I told you I got Ripailles? It’s a book as good as it looks and it looks very, very good. My first attempt from this tome was a Linzer Torte, or jam tart, something I’ve never done before, mainly because, when I decide to get baking, I think that only chocolate is worth the effort. But then I tried this little tart today and it too is worth it. It’s especially good because the shortcrust pastry recipe, also from the same book, calls for cinnamon and the extra cinnamon added as below makes this tart a suitably Christmassy one without even trying.


You’ll need:

200g rich shortcrust pastry
50g ground almonds
4 tsps ground cinnamon
100g jam (I used the superb Little Scarlet by Tiptree)

Mix the pastry dough with the cinnamon and almonds.

Roll out two-thirds of the dough to make a tart base and cover with the jam.

Roll out the remaining dough, cut into 1 cm wide strips and lay them over the tart in a lattice pattern.

Bake for 20 minutes at 180C; the jam must be starting to caramelise.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sicketly-Sick

Good grief I’ve been so mega-ill last night I was unable to sleep until 5 am. 5 am, can you imagine? Not even a double espresso on a drip would lift me up today. I’ll spend the rest of the day sleeping.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Christmas Time

I’ve finally had the time to put my Christmas decorations up. I am not like a British supermarket and do not tend to deck the halls at the end of August, but I must admit that, once Bonfire Night is out of the way, I am really itching to do so. It’s because I love this time of year so much you see. Christmas decorations make me happy; they remind me of a time in my life when everything was simpler and happier and, quite frankly, nothing ever compared to getting up at some ungodly hour on Christmas Day to check whether Santa had been or not.



Recalling that excitement and my heart skipping in my chest as I found presents under the tree or in front of the nativity makes me smile and yet, makes me faintly sad. I suppose it’s not quite sadness but nostalgia which, like icing sugar, falls upon me every year at this time.


Friday, December 5, 2008

Low-Waged, High-Skilled Economy

Only yesterday I was reflecting upon the pointlessness of degrees and today I saw this article in the Times Higher Education essentially proclaiming that university education’s return on investment is very small. I won’t go into great detail, not because I am cagey about it but because analysing the financial aspect of my own educational path is the stuff of hair-raising nightmares, especially when the opposite end of the scales currently shows a salary of exactly zero pounds per year.

But it’s not just me you know? I don’t understand why the THE went to ask some expert about the graduate situation because if they had only asked me, or any of my friends, we could have made one hundred first-hand examples of graduates that live in poverty or next to it. For argument’s sake, I’ll only make five examples.

My friend Paula (class of 1998) is a receptionist and earns a pittance; Jane (also class of 1998) is a teacher who also earns a pittance while dealing with brats (if that isn’t enough to slit one’s wrists, I don’t know what is); Alex (class of 1999) works as an office admin, something that anyone who ever used a computer for any purpose can do, spelling and grammar are entirely optional; Charlotte (class of 1999) is a PA who could have saved herself £ 25,000 if only she had gone into PA at 15 instead of ten years later, after a BA and an MA, while John still has to finish paying his student debt 12 years after graduating. Do you know what this means? It means that he is earning less than £ 2,100 a month, the threashold whereby student loans have to be re-paid to the company that supplied them. John is 34. He makes little more than a supermarket shelf-stacker but spent £ 20,000 to get there. Shame that there is really nowhere.

I’ll stop here with the examples because I don’t want to depress myself, or indeed others, any further. I still have a stinking cold and I don’t want to add weeping hysterics to my poorly nose. Thanks to the THE for talking about something that all graduates three years after graduation realise with the proverbial sinking feeling in their hearts. Wonder what took them so long?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Chocolate Truffle Cake

Right then, the chocolate truffle cake I made for my friend’s birthday... First of all I should apologise for the lack of pictorial reference. If you're at all like me, you'll skip the recipe altogether on these grounds, yet, I must ask you do not, for this is a fantastic, patisserie-like cake that is extremely easy to make, gluten-free, flour-free and egg-free. Unlike most other gluten-free, flour-free and egg-free foods, this one is not also taste-free.

What you lose in the above you gain in calories because this is made with 500ml of double cream and 400g of dark chocolate so feel free to suck air through your teeth at this point but, believe you me, even knowing its calorific content isn’t likely to stop you eating it. All the better I say.

You’ll need:

1 egg white
50g sugar
25g cocoa
400g dark chocolate
500ml double cream
60ml Golden Syrup
60ml spirit (spiced rum, Grand Marnier, Baileys, Tia Maria)

Warm the oven at 170C, beat the egg white with an electric mixer until soft peaks form and then start adding the sugar and cocoa very slowly, so to obtain a very glossy meringue that you will spread on the bottom of your round cake tin (I use a 20cm). Stick in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes. Take out and set aside to cool.

Now melt the chocolate in a double boiler. As it is melting, add the Golden Syrup (do not stir!) and the spirit (do not stir!). You need to ensure that the chocolate is melting at a low temperature (i.e., not above some roaring, boiling water), else the addition of the spirit may result in some freakish problem, namely the burning of the chocolate itself. Chocolate is extremely volatile at the best of times, even more so when combined with spirits. The higher the alcohol content and the more difficult it is to work, so bear this in mind.

Once the chocolate has melted, you can give it a quick stir, but don’t beat it in any way. Just incorporate the Golden Syrup and the liquor and set it aside to cool.

Now start beating the double cream in another bowl. Beat away until it starts to become well aerated and has almost doubled in volume. At this stage add it to the chocolate and continue beating in order to incorporate one into the other perfectly. Depending on which liquor you’ve used (and how cool the chocolate mixture is at this stage), different chemical reactions will take place. In some instances I saw chocolate re-solidifying itself into chips only to re-melt into the cream within a minute or so. Others have given me an aerated mousse-like mixture (no good, you’re not making mousse here) that eventually returned to creamy. In certain cases the mixture trebled in volume and was enough for two, not one, cake, in others it sort of deflated slightly but had a perfect consistency once refrigerated.

Am I saying all of this just to scare you? No, I am warning you not to chuck anything down the sink until you’ve beaten the cream into the chocolate well, even if you see the latter losing its glossy and perfectly smooth appearance in favour of something else entirely. Also, do not overbeat! If you do, cream and chocolate will eventually split and then, yes, you’ll have to pour it all in the sink. Beat until it looks like chocolaty whipped cream, and stop as soon as it does.

Pour the mixture onto the meringue base (which will have deflated slightly by now), cover tightly with cling film and refrigerate for at least 12 hours, 24 is better. When you’re ready to serve, take the cake out of its tin and dust it with cocoa (yeah, and remove the clingfilm as well, right?). Imagine eating the inside of a chocolate truffle in cake-slice-size. This is the stuff of dreams... of 10,000,0000 calories-dreams mind you but, hey, there’s a catch even in dreams.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Deviated

I am very grateful I’ve only got a cold and not the dreaded flu, yet, as the proud owner of a deviated nasal septum, I cannot say that a cold is just a cold. In simple terms, a deviated nasal septum means that the cartilage inside the nose is screwed and does not allow its owner to breathe through both nostrils. Contrary to popular belief, this is a wide-spread ailment. It can be rectified with an operation that takes the excess cartilage out, that straightens the one that is left and that corrects the shape of the nose in case this collapses slightly following internal adjustments.

As one is born with such affliction, I’ve been struggling with my nose ever since I can remember, with colds lasting a good couple of weeks when lucky, with hay fever being light and yet incredibly persistent and with a voice permanently stuck up my forehead, as I can feel my nose’s insides popping and moving around, closing one nostril and opening the other in turn.

Three of my friends had this problem corrected and they all proclaim the usual: I wish I had done it sooner. I was this close to it when I was fifteen and was suffering from a permanently blocked nose that had me gasping for air at night, as if I had been sleeping under water. But no, I chickened out at the last second because of my great fear of being put to sleep.

Fast-forward by fifteen years and I am struggling as much as ever, with a cold never being just a cold. If only I were not so scared of needles and general anaesthetics... if only I could be a normal person in that sense at least. But then, were it not for this built-in terror of all things hospital-related, I wouldn’t just have a normal working nose but also some great tits, a tucked tummy and a very, very small bottom.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cold and Miserable

Oh no, I'm off the radar, struck down by a very potent, very miserable-making cold. And to think I would have posted the recipe for the truffle cake I made for a friend's birthday! Maybe tomorrow...

Monday, December 1, 2008

1 Dec

Yes well, what an inventive title for the first day of the month, right? I couldn't think of anything more fitting seeing that I went to feed the horses at -5C earlier this morning and that the fields looked like the Norwegian tundra.

And thanks to my girlfriend Tess for supervising the feeding of the horses in the bottom field. She walked all the way around following me, just to make sure I did the right thing with those buckets you know...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Assessing November

I am finally getting to the end of this series of posts. I swear I won't use this stupid title in the year. What was I thinking when I started? Why assessing month x, as if I were writing a damn report? You all know by now that the most notable thing about November is that I finished my book and I sent it to the publisher for editing and that's all there is to say for a month that was, with the exception of the past few days, intense writing only. Now back to London...



Liberty is one of my favourite places, especially so at Christmas because the selection of decorations is always slightly different from the usual suspects found across the nation from John Lewis to Harrods. But this is not all. I've often walked its wooden boards dreaming of living there, not in the shop itself, but in the house that it looks it could have been in the distant past. Yet, despite its mock-Tudor look, both inside and outside, Liberty was always a shop. Its current premises were in fact built at the beginning of the 20th century and have as much to do with the Tudors as I have with a size 6. I bought some vintage-inspired glass ornaments and spent quite some times in haberdashery, where I fantasised about quilting now that I have finally figured out how to use my sewing machine.

There was more to London this weekend than just shopping or indeed eating (at Laduree of course, but also at the Patisserie Valerie, at Zia Teresa, at Fortnum's Parlour and others). There was also this:



But if you too have seen The Mousetrap, you will know that I cannot reveal who has done it after all...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Christmas Windows

I have a very soft spot for two very specific types of mail that come through my letterbox: the Studio Catalogue and the Harrods Magazine. When I mention this to anyone willing to listen, this anyone is baffled, if not shocked, by this coupling, for Studio and Harrods could not be more different if they tried.



The former is the purveyor of all throw-away cheap and nasty tack, Christmassy or otherwise, including revolting boiled sweets of the basest sort and vulgar willie-and-tits-shaped chocolates, while the latter sells everything for everyone everywhere, provided this everyone has a job trading commodities such as oil (the black, not the olive, sort) or weapons and can therefore afford essentials such as £1m snooker tables or £ 18,000 Swarovski-encrusted table footballs.

Still, Harrods is one of my favourite places and the one that has the very best sale in town if not in the world. Having shopped at Saks, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Harvey, Selfridges and everywhere else all the way down to Lord and Taylor, John Lewis and Macy’s, and having read the past ten years of French, British, American and Italian Vogues, I really do know my market. This year, the Christmas windows pay homage to the latest Bond, James Bond outing in Quantum of Solace (nice title by the way, not that it means anything to me), with glamourous Bond girls languidly draped over desirable objects, wearing very gorgeous dresses, among typical Harrods super-lux settings.






Yet, for all of its refined bling (a bit of an oxymoron this one, but not quite if you know Harrods), my personal award of Best Christmas Windows in London goes, yet again, to Fortnum and Mason. Fortnum has a real knack for creating magical displays that tell a story. I recall their fabulous Alice in Wonderland windows for example, but this year they have surpassed their own greatness, with an icy take on the Snow Queen having children and adults alike stopping agog, ooohing and aahing with their mouths open. And I’ll tell you something else... I wasn’t the only one taking pics of these.





Friday, November 28, 2008

And So To London...

Finally, not a tacky shop in sight, at least not in Knightsbridge anyway.




Latest Loot

When I feel a little hard-done by for whatever reason, I buy books. And also when I do not feel hard-done by, I buy books anyway. Seeing that I am going to London this afternoon, I thought that an Amazon order was due and so here's this week's picks:



Now that my book is finished, I've already started thinking about what to write next, provided my first oeuvre doesn't tank with a bang. You may not know of Watchmen unless you are, at least in passing, into graphic novels, but the movie adaptation is finally coming next year and I have an inkling that I may be able to squeeze some book-worthy ideas out of both graphic novel and movie itself. You'll hear a lot more about this book in the coming months so brace yourself.

Ripailles is a fantastic book about classic French cuisine and one that, like many other books, I was inclined to judge by its very thick padded cover and thick mat pages. I know that French cuisine isn't exactly vegetarian-friendly but I can safely state that I do not care. I have plenty of books about cooking that are not vegetarian books and I am all the better for them. Widen your horizons, that's what I say.

Vampire Knight is the first in a series of Japanese manga picture novels, something that reminds me of the fantastic manga cartoons I used to watch as a child. And considering that the conclusion of my PhD is still sort of absent without leave, I am certain that this little volume and many similar others will come in handy. That's how I justify its price anyway.

The Second Sex needs no introduction, nor stilted paragraph. I need it for something else I'm writing and I think that it will go very well indeed with What Is A Woman? by Toril Moi, some other excellent text I am using for work.

Yet, for all of the shrieking excitement at the delivery of the parcel only yesterday, I am actually taking Christmas Stories to London with me. It has the most lovely robin on the cover, a silk red bookmark, looks intelligent, doesn't weight a ton and feels great in my hands. Not that I would dream of judging a book by these attributes mind you...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Nightcap

Although I do not dislike it, I think that Horlicks is for wusses and honey and hot milk for Goldilocks. The Ultimate Nightcap is the one that follows, so fabulous and grown-up it could be mistaken for a cocktail. But then again, cocktails too are for wusses, aren't they? I am a neat kind of gal.



1 shot Tia Maria
1 shot Baileys Irish Cream (do not bother with imitations!)
150ml hot chocolate
half a tsp Golden Syrup

I am not going to discuss the hot chocolate topic this time, even though it is important to note that you really ought to do justice to the spirits by using the very best hot chocolate you can find, by which I do not mean some poxy powder but one made of chocolate itself. How to thicken it with cornflour is also for another time, but if you have access to Ciobar, you won't need the flour at all. What else can I say? Spirits at bottom of cup, hot chocolate with Golden Syrup (or partially inverted sugar, if you haven't got the Golden Syrup) on top and so to bed.
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