Sunday, August 31, 2008

Assessing August

I've made it. August is, to me, the longest month of the year. I don't know why, it just feels this way, perhaps because I am always so anxious to get to my birthday, that every day is a slur through life. I was just skimming August's posts and I can see that, somehow, they do not do this momentous month justice. I am stepping into a new decade of my life tomorrow and I am doing so after having received the greatest birthday present ever. I know I said only last month that an agent would have been it; well, I was wrong, or in fact, I was underestimating the joy. Oh no, the best present would be not having to work any longer in my industry.

Wish granted, I am the happiest person on earth right now, I am a lady who lunches, I am walking on (Prada) air. Yet, August was not just waiting for something to happen, it was also Writing Work. So much writing work that I have now completed the full hog consisting of massive book proposal, introduction, opening chapter and epilogue, more than enough for my prospective agent to make her mind up. She did say that she would only be able to get to it by the end of August or beginning of September therefore my friend the time is now. Now, now, now, now. How wonderful to step into autumn, when all new things begin, when nature prepares for the big sleep as people are more active than at any other time of the year. And, I'll tell you what, I cannot wait to enter autumn astronomically; this British summer has been so damn British (i.e., so non-existent), that at least I am now going to be granted proper, wet, miserable, cold, cosy days as the calendar commands. Ah, bliss!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Green Thai Stew

I know, it’s horrible. A blog without pictures is like coffee without caffeine but in my defence I can say that I have been a little absent-minded as of late and so it went that I prepared a decidedly westernised Thai curry, wolfed it down and realised afterwards that I should have really taken a couple of snaps to post. Sorry, I won’t forget again.

Still, the stew was so lovely that it is worthy of getting all typed-up, even though I have no pictorial reference for it. I mentioned only the other day that I am going through an oriental food phase. This curry is a hybrid oriental dish which I put together after a long perusal of my freezer, where scattered, lone fava beans and the occasional empty ice cream tub laid lonely upon a frosty bottom. I did find something I could use though, a sack of petits pois and one of green beans. I just wanted to keep the green curry mostly green you know? Of course, if you have fresh green beans and fresh peas you should decidedly go for them, but if, like me, you are at the hopeless mercy of your own impatience, you can go for the clean frozen version, at the detriment of taste, as is often the case when impatience enters the culinary picture. You’ll need:

200g green beans, frozen
100g petits pois, frozen
200g butternut squash, unpeeled and cut into small pieces
1 tbsp Thai green curry paste
half a can of half-fat coconut milk
a splash of soy sauce
wok oil
sesame oil

Warm a couple of tablespoons of wok oil in a heavy-based saucepan on a high heat. Throw in the green beans and the peas and stir well for a couple of minutes as they begin to defrost. They will steam up and release some liquid which is exactly what you need right now. After a good stir, add a few drops of sesame oil, the splash of soy sauce and continue to stir quickly for another scant five minutes.

Now add the butternut squash, the curry paste and the coconut milk. Stir well, bring to a fast boil and then lower the heat to medium-low, so that you give the frozen veggies time to cook without losing all of the sauce. This will take short of fifteen minutes, when also the butternut squash will be soft and ready, but not so soft that it will turn into a mash.

You can serve this on its own if you are saving calories (hence the half-fat coconut milk of course), but if you can afford the calories, by all means use full fat milk and boil some Jasmine rice to have with the stew.

Friday, August 29, 2008

This Dark Knight Is So Not Serious

As I was perusing cakes at Marks and Spencer early this morning, I came across The Batman who was in store promoting his nightwear range for kids. As I spotted him from a distance I couldn't wait to throw myself at him and have a good feel, except a sign at his feet read that he is 'fragile' and that we should not touch. Fragile, The Batman? The people at Marks do not understand who, or indeed what, they are dealing with.

As I am preparing the last part of a chapter about horror, heroism and the super-human, I read a lovely book that, even though ghastly edited and full of writing clichés, tries to do what philosophy does best; finding deep meaning and sub-text in absolutely everything under, and often above, the sun. This is not a bad thing of course; I am a great advocate of popular culture and the whole of my PhD is dedicated to phenomena, characters and events as varied and interesting as the Manson murders, the Black Dahlia, Spider-man, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Coleridge, Austen, The Vampire Chronicles and indeed the Dark Knight.

It's not all serious work though. When I first wrote about Batman's latest silver screen foray I linked you to its trailer, right here. Now I am going to gift you with another two excellent videos; I've done the legwork (or the mousework) so that you don't have to. The first one is the trailer spoof put together by a group of kids that have gone to great lengths in order to show us that not everything on the internet is pointless and crap (or indeed pointless crap). Watch this and it will restore your faith in the creative capabilities of today's youth.

The next one is my favourite, the Dark Knight Trailer in Lego. It leaves me in stitches every time I watch it, beginning to end. Watch out for the Joker hanging out of the police car, the Batman crushing the SUV and the HGV toppling over in slow motion. Absolutely excellent. It makes me wish for my own set of Batman Lego and I hate Lego.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Happy Happy Happy

I never thought I would have lived to see the day when pushing a trolley around a very quiet branch of B&Q would make me feel productive and serene at the same time. Especially serene. I wrote about it not long ago with a dribble of bile at the corner of my mouth. Yet, today I went with a carefully prepared shopping list and left walking on air, perhaps so by the flapping of £ 63 straight out of my purse. It’s great how it always makes me feel better, regardless of whether things are good or bad.

The bathroom is progressing nicely and should be done before the weekend is out (correction: it will be done before the weekend is out because my birthday is on Monday and I am determined to take a shower in a freshly decorated bathroom). I also picked up a few more pieces in order to make a start on the kitchen. My kitchen is even more of a hole than my bathroom. I know this seems impossible but, trust me, it’s true. This is true also in relative terms; after all, how big do you need a bathroom to be? The kitchen however is another thing entirely; you need space in it, if only in order to be able to chop a leek without the rounds scattering themselves from the non-existent worktop. Well my kitchen is that sort of kitchen. It’s either the toaster or the microwave (it’s the toaster). It’s either the kettle or the KitchenAid (sadly, it’s the kettle). It’s either a sink or a dishwasher (even more sadly, it is the sink).

I cannot knock walls down on a whim and when I thought I wouldn’t do it on a whim but with a pro kitchen fitter, his quote of £ 12,000 provided me with enough cold feet to last me a lifetime at the Equator. Bloody hell, I could have a Hermès alligator Kelly bag with gold hardware for that amount of money, fuck the kitchen! And so I have decided to do the very best I can with what I have which, ok, isn’t very much considering I cannot extend my worktops like they are elastic bands. But I can create an impression of space by painting the walls lemon and by sprucing up the cupboards with an equally happy shade of paint. I will have to carefully peel Jovi’s pictures off, which I hate doing mainly because I hate moving thing I love just the way they are, and get cleaning, scrubbing, sanding and painting. Hey, if it works for the people who inhabit quaint tiny cottages in the pages of Period Living, surely it can work for me too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I was leafing through my lovely diary today and my eye fell upon January 1st where I sribbled: ‘This is the first day of a life-changing year!’. Gosh was I positive. And it turns out that I was right also. Much is afoot at present and even though some of the latest developments have thrown me off slightly, I so cannot wait to write the last post of this month, so that I can resume all of the great things that have happened to me. I cannot wait for autumn to set in properly, with all of its arresting golden leaves, crisp walks in cold parks and hacks in lashings of rain (wait a minute, that’s no different from summer actually). Meanwhile, I am picking up the pieces and look to the immediate future with renewed trepidation.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Another Thing Of Beauty

There is this idea in England that those who take good care of themselves, who are always reasonably well groomed and therefore become good-looking are shallow. This is such a preposterous piece of miserable crap that it is not worth addressing in any considerable depth; suffice to say I do not know an English (or indeed British) man who does not admire French women or Italian women or Spanish women for their seemingly innate capability to look reasonably good, no matter what nature bestowed upon them. Do you know why people are attracted to beauty? Because beauty is the promise of happiness. Now do yourself a favour and read the superb The Architecture of Happiness.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Real Cooking

For years I have happily shared my virtual kitchen table with Jamie and Nigella, despite (unfounded) criticism thrown their way. Jamie is too southern and too in your face for some; Nigella is too posh and too very rich for others. Again the class problem washes over us; only in England could people criticise cooks on the basis of how much money they make, do not make, spend, waste, have acquired or indeed keep on acquiring.

What matters to me is that both understand that good cooking is important, if not vital, to a fulfilled life. It’s odd to think that some who describe themselves as fulfilled just because they earn in the many thousands are prepared to eat the same fried rubbish day in, day out. There is much to learn and love about food and cooking. I have now came across Nigel Slater, an oft-heard name that had always permeated my culinary knowledge in a peripheral way, much like I know where Hull is but have no intention nor reason to ever visit it. I picked up Real Cooking a few days ago and have finally settled to read it. It makes me happy, mostly because Nigel is one for simplicity and, if you want to be elegant in every area of life, you really ought to stay simple.

‘You will notice that the recipes use a mixture of definite weights, e.g. 500g, and more relaxed measurements such as ‘a fistful’. This is quite deliberate. I feel it is easier for a cook, particularly an inexperienced one, to start with an exact weight of the main ingredient [...], but then the recipe loosens up a little, allowing cooks to use their instinct and tastebuds rather than blindly follow a recipe as if it were carved in stone. [...]

Last year my phone rang with an enquiry about a recipe. Could I tell the caller whether the two tablespoons of chopped parsley were level or heaped? I was exasperated. What, I thought, have we done to our cooking? We have turned the joy of making something to eat into something approaching a chemistry lesson. As cookery writers, we risk holding the reader’s hand too tightly, thus destroying the trust they they should have in their own judgement. [...] We are not chefs chasing Michelin stars here - we are simply making ourselves something to eat’.

As a cookery writer myself (you’re allowed to snort, yes, but if I write about cooking then I am a cookery writer, so there), I hope that the recipes I detail here allow for the God-given right to experiment a little when you embrace something that perhaps is new to you. Oh, except for cakes. I don’t fiddle with cakes once I get to the right quantities and I think that neither should you.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Birthday Cakes

My birthday is coming up thick and fast. I am always happy around about my birthday and this year I am going to feel especially extra fabulously happy. I just know it. I feel it simmering inside of me, this excitement of entering autumn with the proverbial new lease of life in my cords. It feels amazing. If I were in London, or if I were to go to London, I know what I’d have; a full cake from the Patisserie Valerie and then some macaroons from Ladurée to take home. But I am not going to London (no, I am going to my local IMAX for my third Dark Knight thank you very much) and so I need to make do with whatever cakes I can find around here. Which depresses me slightly because I cannot stand cakes covered in royal icing. I also cannot stand cakes that do not look like cakes at all, cakes that look like plastic castles or play-doh shoes or rubber handbags. Gah, just thinking about sinking my teeth into one of those makes me gag. I love cakes to look like cakes, no matter their simplicity (a chocolate covered Madeira cake for example or a Boston pie) or their elaborate look (a croque en bouche, even better if made of macaroons, even though we cannot define it strictly as a cake).

And so the choice always falls around the same places, with Waitrose struck off the list after I wasted funds in an abysmal chocolate cake a couple of years back and Marks and Spencer which, quite frankly, makes the very best desserts outside of a standard patisserie. Or... or, of course, I could always bake my own. I know this is beyond sad. Who bakes her own birthday cake? But then, if what you bake is so excellent (modesty, modesty, modesty, I know), why spending money on something that will be below-par? I doubt Marks uses Valhrona chocolate. I do and that’s why my brownies are so incredible. Should I go for something like this?

Or this?

Or perhaps this?


I am gonna have to decide soon; as a Virgo I love to forward-plan and when it comes to cakes, it pays in spades to be prepared.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Oriental - Phase I

There’s a bit I particularly love in the Starsky and Hutch movie and that’s where Hutch tells a Chinese guy that ‘you all look the same to us, Orientals’. It makes me laugh every time I see it (and smile every time I think of it) because it is so politically incorrect that I cannot help but loving it. The movie may be as recent as 2004, but it is a part throw-back, part-homage to the seventies where people could refer to others as black or white or indeed Orientals without raising eyebrows all across the room (and the one next door and the one next door to that). Try and do that today and a bloody monsoon of air sucked through gritted teeth will gently waft you all the way to the HR office.

I am going through an Oriental Period. I am mixing Japanese with Chinese with Thai and before someone tells me that they are not all orientals, well, they are all the same to me, as Hutch says. I picked plentiful Japanese books from the library recently and now spend my evenings immersed in talk of sashimi, salmon, fish markets, sushi, tempura and so on. I know it is a little peculiar for someone who is a vegetarian; Japanese cuisine is awash with flapping fish, but equally with soya and I love soya. I love soya beans, I love tofu and I love all declensions in between. As is often the case, I have already plunged purse-first into this new passion. I forked out on a sushi set that should allow me to relatively effortlessly roll cucumber, egg and avocado sushi as the miso soup is steeping away. And now more than ever I wish my Japanese friend still lived with me. Watch this space for recipes to come.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Shape Of New Things

Years ago I read in a book that the English do not have social skills, they have houses and gardens. While other nations work at interpersonal relationships, the English cannot be asked and pour their energies into beautifying their gardens and re-decorating their houses when they are not getting pissed and spend late nights with their heads in the nearest available toilet. I do not know what to make of this statement. Yes, sure it’s true that some love gardens and houses (and animals) more than they love people, but to one like myself, a very sociable person with a very distinct introverted streak, this lack of social interaction is a plus point, not a hinderance (ok, until you see this lack of skills in an office and then it really starts to annoy even me, but now that I do not work in an office anymore, why would I care?).

And so it was that today I started looking around my living space, with the promise that, now I have all this time to myself, I will put my solitary penchant to work. To work in the bathroom to be precise. My bathroom is a hole. I know that many bathrooms are holes, but mine is more of a hole than many others I have ever seen. There is no space for a bidet, no space for cabinets, other than the hanging one I have already, and very near no space to fully open the door. When I went through my Blue Period a few years back, I painted the side wall a deep ocean blue. It was ok at the time, even though the optical effect was one of even greater cramped space. No more so now that I feel like absolutely everything in my life, from house to husband to friends to animals to clothes, shoes and bags should be swapped for something new. If you are one of the above (and Merv, how many times did I tell you not to use the internet in the fields? You’ll wet the keyboard!) do not be offended. This is the expected result now that my job has vaporaised into thin air. It's a life overhaul domino effect.

And so the first casualty was the blue wall in the bathroom, except when you begin with ‘just one wall, it’ll take me no time’ you end up ordering new light fittings, a new toilet seat, tile paint, an orchid pot and much, much more. I am already kicking myself for not having taken any before pic so that I could post it on here. And of course until I’m done with it, there is no point in showing you work-in-progress pics either. Suffice to say it is now getting so bright that every time I open the door I am slapped in the face by the reflected light which, as you can expect, makes me feel very clever, very happy and so very skilled. And who cares if I haven’t talked to anyone in the process!

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Or glassy-eyed. That was me today while drinking my usual at my usual, predominantly staring out of the window and yet, I cannot even tell you what I saw, probably because I saw nothing at all. I was elsewhere, at my induction almost eight years ago, when I thought at around about ten o’clock ‘gosh, this is boring stuff’, at my interview before then, and then at training courses in the States and later on various client sites, learning to use the coffee machine, the only respite from the Daily Chronic Boredom.

I think that the worst thing of all about my ex job (wow, does it feel good to use those two little letters infront of it), and I have plenty of choices on this one, was actually boredom. I am not thinking of the fleeting, passing, necessary, domestic boredom that occasionally skims our days. Sometimes it creeps on me as I am doing the washing up and prompts me to speed up so that I can do something else, something else not boring, that is. Oh no my friend, I am talking about the boredom that poisons your waking (and occasionally sleeping) hours, the boredom that keeps you as much company as the dreaded black dog, the filthy leech that sits on your shoulder and does not budge.

What to do every morning when you know that you are setting off to be bored? Bored, bored, bored to tears, bored, bored, bored into nothingness, bored until your eyes glaze over and water as you squint at the screen talking gibberish. And so today, as I was staring glassy-eyed into nothingness, a small crease of a smile corrugated my lips; it’s a funny one this, because I felt that smile coming from a long way away. The smile of change, of opportunity, of deliverance and of novelty. Perhaps I should also call it the smile of lack of boredom, the smile preculsor of new excitement and new beginning. I almost wish I had taken a picture of whatever was out of that window, to forever freeze in time this moment when I float in the no man’s land of the notice period, the no man’s land of sitting back, breathing in and congratulating myself for not having died of fucking boredom. This alone is an achievement, all the rest of it is bonus.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I feel about as comfortable as Wallace did when his cry to freeeeeedom ripped through the air, every bone and muscle in his body also torn apart. Maybe that's the price to pay for freedom; you always have to feel a little torn, a little disemboweled, a little frazzled when change is imposed upon you, when you are set free from the cage. Today I am travelling back home from London after a seminal meeting that has released me to a land that does not know of meetings, offices, air miles, small-minded middle-managers, back-stabbers, blamestorming, touching base, blue-sky thinking and all that pompous, self-righteous crap. The sky is the customary British Steel Gray set upon a blanket of greenery as my thoughts lie scattered like worried sheep upon sunset.

Either way, it's finally over, it's over, it's over, it's over and despite the stinging tears, it feels really good. And now I feel like breaking into song; like Michael Caine in Little Voice and then like Michael Bublé in Feeling Good.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Alright For Some

Today I felt like a mum on the first day of primary school, except I haven't got kids and cannot quite know what a mum may feel on such momentous occasions. But, surely, ensuring that Rick's things were all ready and cleaned and pressed and giving him a lift all the day to his new office's door equals being a bit of a mum in some ways? I felt empty at home, as his working life takes the turn he had been chasing for a while, mine stagnates in a swamp infested with leeches. The 'good luck in your new job' cards are cheering. I wonder whether I would get one any time soon. And still, you know what, I don't really want a new job. Perhaps I should just upgrade husband and retire to a life of horsey leisure in the fields, no matter the weather. Now that would be nice.

Monday, August 18, 2008


I spent the last hour tossing and turning and then staring at the black ceiling as my heart skipped around my chest like crazed, leaded marbles. I can say no further right now, especially because I know no further, but I am starting to believe that, every time one part of life starts going ok, another one has to spectacularly fall to pieces.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Confession Time

I have hinted at it on and off on here, even though at work it is like a secret lover nobody must know about. I am doing a PhD. In fact, I often like to say I am finishing a PhD. I am finishing it because there is so little left to do that six weeks straight with no book nor knitting nor horsey distractions would see me cruising through the submission deadline. This deadline is no actual problem at present; it is so far ahead in time that I will probably end up finishing the book and the PhD before the day dawns. But carrying around your PhD all the time, often with envelopes ready to fly off to agents full of hope and hopefully not full of crap, see this

does not equal finishing it. I think I have been finishing this PhD for a year now. Maybe more. There is nothing I envy more than full-time study. If only I were not tossed around more pressing commitments, including those that appear like exit doors from my job into the one I really crave, I'd say that this PhD would have been out of the way two years ago. I'll tell you what, once it is out of the way, and once the book is also, I will write another book, this one: A Part-Time PhD Really Only Takes 18 Months. I am even exaggerating on that one. It probably only takes 12 months straight.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Grilled Sesame Tofu

In the Western world, tofu is still the food of hippies that wear flowers in their hair, do not shave their legs and chant around camp fires until dawn breaks. It's a funny thing because tofu is a staple item of the super-cool Japanese diet which is finally breaking into print these days and nobody imagines the Japanese as hippies with flowers in their hair, chanting around camp fires until dawn. I am sure some of them must have done so in due course but I am equally certain that their legs must have been well shaven. You just cannot imagine the Japanese to be anything less than lacquer-like groomed, like a black, mirror-like rice bowl. I must have been Japanese in another life, not because of the grooming, but because of my passion for tofu which, unsurprisingly, was fired up at university, when I used to live with a Japanese girl.

I am not here to take the violins out and yak about tofu's great culinary merits; at least not today. What I am here for is to give you a super-quick recipe for some fabulous tofu croutons I mentioned in passing some time ago, as I was writing about soup. Bread croutons go soggy, while tofu croutons do not. They are mess-free to make and taste fabulous. You'll need:

one pack of firm tofu (which, in short, means not silken tofu)
sesame oil
soy sauce

Drain the tofu well and press away all water with a tea towel or equivalent. Warm the grill on high as you cut the tofu in strips approximately 5 mm thick. Place all of these on a baking sheet and then proceed to add the sesame oil, one or two drops at a time per piece. Splash soy sauce all over and place under the grill for a good 15 minutes, or until you see the tofu nicely brown and dry. At this stage you will need to check it; tofu as a habit of looking done when it is still moist.

If you intend on eating it like this, switch off and go for it, but if you want it very crisp so that you can add it to your soup as croutons, continue to grill until it dries out completely. You may wish to turn it but it is not necessary because the soy sauce underneath it will coat both sides. If you can peel off the tofu from the baking sheet and it feels and sounds crunchy, it's ready. Leave it to dry out for a good ten minutes and add to the soup when you are ready to serve. Tasty, super-low-fat and not at all drenched in oil like in some Chinese fried dishes. Oh, and not a camp fire on sight either!

Friday, August 15, 2008


I once met a person that scoffed at the proposition of using a library. 'Tsk, I buy books, I do not borrow them', she told me with a very highly arched eyebrow, as if I had just suggested she run around the neighborhood naked to see whether she could elicit a response either than the obvious. 'Tsk, I like to wear clothes thank you very much'.

Yeah, well, she was (and probably is, although I don't see her any more) that sort of upper crust person that would not lower herself to borrow because she can buy. I buy books all the time. Books are the only money-spent indulgence that never ever makes me feel like I should have curbed my enthusiasm and kept the Switch in the purse. I always justify myself with 'so what, I invest on my brain'. Stupid and self-righteous as this sounds, it is the truth. But even I, with my Switch-happy tendency insofar as printed matter is concerned, thought that perhaps it would be a good idea if I borrowed sometimes, instead of placing Amazon orders by the hundreds.

Today I went to the library in Wilmslow and came back home with lots of titles I would probably not have bought. One in particular is about wheat-free cooking. A friend of mine should not eat wheat and I must admit that this culinary restriction really stomps me. I cook with wheat. I do not even give it a second thought. It's like Starbucks or flossing my teeth or styling my hair. I cannot imagine life without these. Or wheat. Now I have a book about it though and I found that restrictions of any sorts force us to be a little bit more inventive. What would life be like if I could not eat, say, carbs? Or if I could not drink caffeine at all? Or if I were allergic to dairy? I am grateful none of these apply to me, but I am on a mini-mission to get a little more creative for my own sake and for my friend's too as well. For the next week, I am planning to go carbs-free. And you'll agree that for a vegetarian, it ain't going to be easy.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


There is a place in the city centre that sports a most peculiar plant sculpture. It is Lincoln Square and the sculpture, in Diana's garden, is one of a bookworm.

I thought it was very appropriate indeed when I walked past it after I posted my further book sample to my potential agent. I secretly kissed the envelope before I passed it over for stamping and it is true that, no matter how much or how often I tell myself that I should not think about it, actually, I do. I hope The Bookworm will bring good luck. It would be so funny to be able to tell one day that I stood infront of him after posting a seminal envelope to a seminal person. I so hope the seminal day was today.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Satellite Of Love

William had his stitches taken out the other day but he is still going around the house with a cone. This cone:

I thought I would post this ridiculous pic of him because people who have never had a reasonably large dog with a cone around a reasonably small home just do not know what it is like to expect a canine UFO to blast into the room trailing a crooked door frame with him. I half expect him to take the whole place down any moment and I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward for him not to wear this any longer. It will also reduce the number of bruises on the back of my legs since he really cannot keep a safe distance.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Saffron Nectarines

I knew it. I knew that this saffron abstinence could not last for very long. As I was perusing the meagre content of my store cupboard only ten minutes ago, my eye was drawn to the magic red powder. Coming across a set of eggs that really ought to be eaten soon spurred me onto a foray of yellow meringues, not something I would have thought appealing. I always bake pink meringues but that’s just because I like meringues to look pink, just as I like my bra, knickers, tights, shoes, pashmina, gloves, coat and whip to be pink.

There is something magical though about seeing the egg whites turning yellow as you add a red powder to them and you keep whisking. Gosh, it made me smile and made me feel oh so very clever for rustling up something out of nowhere, that I never tried before and that I think tastes fantastic, hence posting it on here. I must warn you though; saffron meringues do not stay yellow upon cooking. If you want yellow meringues, add a few drops of liquid dye.

6 well ripe nectarines
100g caster sugar
1 sachet of powder saffron
2 egg whites
maple syrup

Line a tray with baking parchment and warm the oven at 170C as you cut the nectarines in two, snap them open and place them cut side up on the tray. I specify that you need well ripe nectarines because, as you will note, they snap open so easily when they are well red (and of course taste so much better too).

Drop a teaspoon of maple syrup in each hollow and set to work on the egg whites. The secret to fab meringues is not a secret at all, but something obvious: the bowl where you do the whipping must be cold and completely grease-free. Start whizzing away; once soft peaks form, begin adding the sugar, to which you will have added the powder saffron, one tablespoon at a time. Watch the egg whites going yellow, it really is fun!

Once you have stiff peaks, drop one tablespoon at a time on each nectarine half and then place in the oven for 20 minutes. Resist the temptation to crank up the heat (as I always do... I’ll never learn) towards the end of the cooking, else you’ll get meringues like mine, brown on top. And you know something about meringues, once they go brown on top, they end up tasting brown. Patience is your (and my) friend, my friend.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Four Ps Of Chocolate

The more I look at this pic and the more I keep racking my brains as to what recipe I used for it. After I posted it a couple of days ago, I convinced myself that it was a Nigella recipe through and through. Except I have had a flick through her books and I cannot find it at all. So it must have been my own hybrid creation if it did not come from Nigella because, as I said before on the subject of Madeira cake, I tend to use some of her recipes as a blueprint for classics until I am confident enough I can develop my own versions. Now I am looking at those three meringue discs (you can barely see under all of that ganache, but I assure you it's three layers of meringues), and I cannot remember for the life of me how many egg whites I used and how much cocoa I added in order to turn these into cocoa meringue discs. Still, the more I look at the pic and the more I think of ganache.

Instead of giving you a recipe (which I don't remember anyway), today I decided to write a few lines about ganache. This is a post I've felt coming for a while as it stems from my visceral love for cocoa and chocolate. You know how some people (men) think about sex every three minutes? I think about chocolate all the time. My experience has taught me that to work with chocolate you need to get well acquainted with the four Ps of chocolate: passion, perseverance, practice and patience. I am putting passion first because, if you've got a passion for chocolate, in time you will learn to persevere as you practice and as you become more patient. Being in a hurry is the greatest single crime of the chocolatier; chocolate just cannot be hurried. Or, it can, and then you'll throw everything down the sink. Been there, done that my friend.

So ganache. Ganache is a complex emulsion of chocolate, cream and butter and when I say complex I do not mean complicated to make, I mean complex in the chemical sense. What you need to grasp to produce professional-like ganache is that temperature, glucose and mixing are the three elements that will give you fantastic ganache each and every time.

Dark chocolate must be melted and heated at 46C, as must the cream. The butter must be very soft, but not melted, at 23C. Then you need invert sugar, which is a blend of glucose and fructose, which are the two elements that constitute sugar as we know it. You can separate these by warming the sugar or (easier) just go and buy it. Invert sugar is vital because it stabilises ganache (read: it makes it smooth) and it allows it to hold shape. A hand-held blender is ideal for mixing ganache. You should continue mixing until you reach the correct emulsification, that is, when you have a beautifully glossy dark cream as opposed to a grainy, and split, mix. And now... I feel some ganache practice coming up...

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Only someone not particularly acquainted with the English way of life would think that the most polarising English dichotomy is Labour vs. Conservative. If you live in England for any amount of time, it will soon become apparent that two other items for discussion are more likely to inflame the spirits of the indigenous population: IKEA and Marmite.

IKEA is loved and hated with peculiar passion, with plenty of people loving its associations with early student days, when a trip was a necessity prior to being shipped to university, or to first setting up home as a couple, when even the purchase of the most pointless piece of oil cloth had to be pondered upon as a pair. Others hate the places in principle and would not be seen dead (or indeed alive) in them if they were paid to do so. I harbour no strong feelings either way about IKEA, but I will go as far as to say that, while not entirely disliking the place in principle, I can think of another ten stores off the top of my head where I would prefer to spend one hour or less of my time. Enough said.

As for Marmite, much as the ‘love it or hate it’ slogan seems as old as Marmite itself, I have yet to find someone that sits on the ‘hate it’ bench. I love Marmite and try to put it everywhere. I drop it in soup when handfuls of sea salt do not cut it (or I’ve run out of soy sauce) and I absolutely love to create hybrid spreads with it. And this is what Philma is. Philma is a combination of Philadelphia cheese and Marmite, two parts of cheese to one of Marmite. Combine well and spread on toast or stick it in a sarnie. This is particularly good with sliced tomatoes in ciabatta bread. In fact, if you will excuse me...

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Stacked Up

Some people go a bit cold at the mention of meringues. Perhaps that’s because meringues are so simple to make and require next to zero dexterity that presenting a meringue-based pudding does not acquire a particular leap of faith in the cook. Meringues, so what, you can buy them in packs in the supermarkets. Yes, sure, but if you’ve ever bought those and then went through the trouble of making some yourself, you will know that they just do not compare. I do not go as far as making my own hot cross buns, mainly because Marks’s are so fabulous, but I do take the trouble to make my own meringues because they are the best. And for those who think that you cannot make anything with wow effect if it’s meringue based, I would like to show this:

Tune in soon for the recipe of these stacked meringues... I made this cake only once and who knows where I put the recipe?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Happy Things

I already told you that I am one pretty much against minimalism. To some this may seem silly, since minimalism indicates being in tune with the times. And you know something? I hate to be in tune with the times. My (small) house is full of pointless knick-knacks and I much prefer it this way than 'minimalist'. What's the advantage of just having clear surfaces if you cannot put anything on them anyway? Heck, what's the point of a house if it needs to stay empty?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

News Flash! Idiot Spotted At Work!

I just read in the news that some moron that teaches at some university (why him and not me? He isn't even a doctor, I've almost finished my PhD!) has suggested in the THE to accept some common spelling mistakes as variant spellings. Mr Ken Smith, you're an illiterate moron. I suggest you stick to criminology and leave writing, reading and spelling to those who understand that grunting to one another isn't a viable communicative option. You don't deserve to teach anything at all.

Quite Literally

Entertaining as my rantings about the state of the writing nation may be, I can assure you they are not fun to write. They often leave me with a metallic taste in my mouth and a sense of hopelessness that I cannot shake off easily. It usually takes a good sleep and then it all floods back when I re-read the blog. Something else I would like to write about is the misuse of literally, except I do not need to write about it myself, because someone has done so already.

"Literally features in all style and usage guides. Don't use it when you don't mean it, they say. 'He literally exploded with anger' is absurd. But do use it if you need to make clear that a stale metaphor is, for once, an accurate statement. 'He literally died laughing' could be true. Most published uses of literally fail the test:

In the Austenian economy, a woman's face is literally her fortune.

(Naomi Wolf, Sunday Times)

Eyewitness accounts of this practice are literally blood-curling.


The more satire there is, the less effect it has. We are all literally deafened.

(Libby Purves, Times)

Kate's tummy has been literally sliced off, leaving her looking positively concave.

(The Daily Mail describes the retouching of a photograph of Kate Winslet)

Some people are aware of the problem. As Zadie Smith has one of her characters say: 'Only idiots use the word "literally" in conversation'. Others seem to think that by putting 'almost' in front of 'literally' they can make it work:

The people of the rebuilt Oradour lived, almost literally, within this history.

(Adam Nossiter)

The network was making so much money that it almost literally didn't know what to do with it.

(Mark Lawson)

Rock stars and actors - the people we rely on to flout convention on principle - get married every day. Some of them almost literally everyday.


Aunt Rose has a body almost literally eaten into by history.

(James Wood)

But how can something be 'almost literally' true? Either it is true or it ain't. And the same applies to 'more or less':

I grew up in a church that more or less literally invented the mea culpa.

(New York Times)

At first glance Salman Rushdie has a case for 'perhaps' in:

Bronislawa had exhausted three judges and four lawyers. Of this she had become (perhaps literally) insanely proud.

But the character is either insane or not: 'perhaps literally' is a pointless parenthesis which reminds us that 'insanely proud' is usually a metaphor. Because literally is so generally misused, some people feel that they have to add an intensifier like 'quite' - to say 'I really mean it':

Conformity was encouraged by uniformity - quite literally, in the manner of dress.

(Sunday Times)

Those Englishmen in the year 1000 who believed quite literally in the little people, the fairies, trolls and elves.

(Tom Wolfe)

In turn 'quite literally' becomes the standard phrase:

Clinton was quite literally too clever by half.

(Sunday Times)

This is where you go quite literally mad with grief.

(Magazine editor Lindsay Nicholson)

And so for people who want to say 'I really mean it', a further intensifier is needed. Both examples come from The Guardian:

Lee Westwood has backed himself to win the Sun City Golf Challenge after an abysmal year by his standards. Quite literally, in fact. The Workshop player put a sizeable wager on himself.

In Sicily one Vittorio Greco has gone to his grave. Quite literally, in fact: Vittorio was checking progress on a family tomb when he slipped, struck his head and died on the spot.

Quite literally, in fact - or literally, literally, literally. Why not give this word a rest?"

Why indeed my friends... Quite Literally by Wynford Hicks.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Mr Frosty

I received plenty of hate mail as of late, all to do with having dropped recipes from the blog in favour of talking about my nearly dying dog or illiterate writers. To make it up to those of you who have patiently waded through the crap waiting for better posting days to come, I decided to write about the very best cupcake frosting I've ever made. Look at this:

I am a sucker for cupcakes in general. When in New York, I trail entire neighborhoods hoping to come across some dinky, undiscovered place that whips out Alice In Wonderland-like cupcakes. I am not one to snort at one pound of buttercream plonked on top of my cupcake (hello Magnolia Bakery), neither am I watching it when teeth-shattering sugar is concerned (hello Cupcake Café). Today, as I was trailing Harvey Nichols after my dentist appointment (I look like Barbie now, with the exception of the body, the hair, the fame and the bank account), I stood enchanted at their cupcakes and thought that £ 1.50 each seemed sort of really good value. I once calculated that my own chocolate-covered cupcakes should retail at £ 4.00 each to make me break even; that's what you get for using Valrhona chocolate.

Anyhow, the frosting, yes. You can all probably pull off a decent enough sugary/buttery frosting, but do you know how to produce home-made Mr Whippy-like frosting? I do not recall where or when I managed to pull this off and I badly wish that I recorded my culinary exploits as they happen so that I would not have to rack my brains every time I want to crystallise knowledge into words (see below). So, who knows how I came to this Mr Frosty... but why should you care? All you need is:

4 tbsp Golden Syrup
2 egg whites
100g caster sugar
pinch of salt
pinch of cream of tartar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Whisk all of your ingredients in a double-boiler over a medium heat. You want these to grow gleaming white, very thick and soft while holding some amazing peaks (see above!). You achieve this by being very patient and possibly by wearing a set of earplugs. I don't know about you but I often start hearing things when my beaters have been whizzing for a while. With this Mr Frosty you'll probably end up hearing bagpipes, phone ringing and children laughing because it does take a good while to go really thick. But go for it anyway. Once the mixture is very meringue-like, remove it from the heat and keep on whisking some more; you want to let it cool while you continue.

whisk whisk whisk whisk
whrrrrr whrrrrr whrrrrr

Now that the mixture has cooled down, either spoon it into an icing bag and get to work on your cakes or drop it in spoonfuls as I do. You need to work quickly with this stuff because it does set remarkably fast which, in my book, is a great advantage since I hate to clock-watch over runny icing. If you are using sprinklers or the like, put them on after you drop the icing on each little cake. Oh and obviously, if you want a pinky tinge like the one I am showing here, add some liquid colouring just before you've finished whipping.

It is not at all too sweet, looks awesome, sets in no time and gives the cakes that fake look which I am all for. You know how it goes, sometimes you want stuff to look almost... unreal.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Vogue Truffles Part II

As they say, I am a man of my worrrrd.

490g dark chocolate
225ml single cream
3tsp Grand Marnier
50g cocoa

Melt 390g of dark chocolate, with the cream, in a double-boiler or in the microwave. Remove from the heat once melted and add the liquor. Leave it to cool, then cover with cling film and place in the fridge to set completely.

Line a baking tray with baking parchment. Remove the truffle mixture from the fridge and, by using a teaspoon, scrape a small amount of it, roll it into your hands to form some sort of ball and place on the baking tray. Continue until you have used all of the mixture. Return the truffles to the fridge to allow them to set again. This will take another hour or so.

Meanwhile, melt the remaining 100g of dark chocolate and leave to cool. Make sure you do not let it cool completely; if your house is cold enough, the chocolate will return to solid state and you do not want this to happen. Get the truffles out of the fridge and quickly dip them one by one in the melted chocolate. Roll them into the cocoa before placing them in little paper cups like the ones I used. Store all of these in an airtight container at the bottom of the fridge.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Vogue Truffles

Do you know what these are?

Home-made chocolate truffles of course. I haven't made these in just over four years. As I was leafing through my digital pics today, I realised that I do not even remember how to make them and that I quite possibly may have misplaced (read: lost!) the recipe. There is something really good about these truffles because, unlike many of Delia's recipes for example, they do not call for dates or raisins. Not that there is anything wrong with adding either of those to your truffles, but the above are only made with dark chocolate, double cream and vanilla extract. And maybe something else which I can't remember, but definitely not dates nor raisins.

These are the most delicious truffles I ever made and I am now on a mission to retrieve the recipe and to get melting. If I am not mistaken, the basic recipe came from an old Vogue which, you will agree, is rather mystifying. I do not associate Vogue with food in general and certainly not with chocolate, no more than I associate ethical eating or tofu with MacDonald's or Tesco. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that 'Vogue food' is a bit of an oxymoron, unless we consider wheatgrass juice and the white line as food. When I eat, and it could be anything from a slice of cake to one of pizza, and I am on my own, I love to leaf through recipe books. It sorts of really inspires me to eat. Vogue is not something that I like to look at while I tuck into anything other than a glass of still water. Yet, I can assure you that they did publish chocolate recipes at some point in the past and that I will find them. Just watch this space.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


The garden continues to amaze me. I told you before that among the weed-fest I keep on finding new interesting things that defy my gardening incompetence. Today I am going to show you some more.

I believe this to be a lily of some sort. I find it quite creepy, especially so in real life. Is it because of the slightly curly petals, because of its depth, because of its spider-like shape? I don't know, but this is certainly one flower in my garden which I wish stopped blossoming.

Next up, I have two bushes of these red beauties:

Their shapes also creep me out. What does not creep me out, however, are butterflies and moths and this is one of the greatest paradoxes of my life. I start to cold-sweat at the thought of spiders, no matter how small, yet, I have no probs in trying to catch moths when I find them. Except I never make it. They remind me of the dragonflies I run after when I used to go fishing with my dad, when I was a kid. I would mostly sit around and then try to grab (unsuccessfully) the dragonflies by the lake. And so when I see a butterfly or a moth I think of dragonflies. And I also think of dragonflies when I see helicopters. You wouldn't believe how alike they are in close-up.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

In Actual Fact, The Fact Of The Matter Is The Fact That

Only ten minutes ago I was immersed in a pleasant book about quilting, until I hit a reading block that propelled me off the bed as if nails had sprung up underneath me. I was in the middle of a pleasant enough sentence soiled by the fact that.

the fact that the fact that the fact that

These hateful three little words are the equivalent of four-letter words vulgarity in writing. Like all forms of vulgarity, the fact that pops up absolutely everywhere. It lurks in the news, it sits in the broadsheets, it nests in otherwise perfectly acceptable blogs, it comes up in craft books, it infects novels, it infiltrates newsletters, it dumbs down reviews, it spits venom in recipe books, it plagues all sorts of writing. And I hate it with a passion I never knew I had.

You will be excused to think that this post may have been thoroughly researched, so that I could prove my point by blasting you with numerous examples I have picked through months worth of research. Not so my dear readers. While it is true that the fact that has perturbed me on many occasions so much so as to think of writing about it, it was only yesterday afternoon that I decided that the time had come.

I sat down in Starbucks post-horsey jaunt, with that satisfactory glow to my mind (and my slightly cracked face) that only a good horse groom in high winds can give. I flapped open a book and before I could finish the caramel macchiato, I came across four the fact that. Disgusted, I ditched the book and moved to a magazine. Within ten pages, I came across another two. When I returned home and scoured the news I found another one. I have just come across a recipe that has one, as does the book I was reading before I sat down to write this. And of course when the writer of the book or article uses the fact that once, make no mistake, s/he will do it again. And again and again. It is the unavoidable plague of pseudo-intellectuals who lace up their sentences with what is the most redundant turn of phrase in existence. I am unfazed by the f-word in print and certainly so by the c-word (Vogue had a fantastic article about it not long ago, I wish it had been my idea). Yet, throw the fact that in what I read and I hit the good writing fan.

On many occasions, it can be lifted out of the sentence. This is when the fact is a parenthetic object (it), that is, it would fit between brackets, and when that becomes a conjunction. See this:

‘I loved the fact that we all agreed’, which should read: ‘I loved it that we all agreed’.

‘I love the fact that the city allows you to walk’, which should read: ‘I love it that the city allows you to walk’.

Just as simple is the straightening of the following crap:

‘He also criticised the fact that the three non-commissioned officers were placed in the dock while their commander was not’, which should read: ‘He also criticised the three non-commissioned officers being placed in the dock while their commander was not'.

Similar in construction is this other abomination:

‘He was aided by the fact that fashion in portraiture and clothing was increasingly informal’, which should read: ‘He was aided by fashion in both portraiture and clothing growing informal’.

I am taking 'increasingly' out of that sentence because it is always better to streamline the message if you can (unless you’re Dickens or Tolkien, in which case you can use three thousand words where really good writers only use three hundred): instead of writing ‘clothing being increasingly informal’, I use ‘growing’ which implies incremental increase, hence making 'increasingly' redundant.

I then found this:

‘I have been surprised by the fact that I haven’t made dozens of friends’.

What’s wrong with: ‘I have been surprised by not having made dozens of friends’?

In some instances, the fact that is a cop-out for those really simple-minded writers who think it presents the only meaningful method to express a slightly more complex sentiment. Listen to this for example:

‘I think about the fact that food is no longer about food in the world’s best restaurants’.

This is not that hard to fix either: ‘It is no longer about food in the world’s best restaurants’. I can take this leap here because, in the context of this book, the writer is writing in first person throughout and does not need to re-iterate about it here with yet another ‘I think’.

'Not to mention the fact that the words had dribbled so far down the napkin they’ve run off onto a soggy coaster'.

This is another blasted favourite, mostly because I abhor 'not to mention', in writing and in speaking as well. If there is no point in mentioning it, then why continue? The above can be salvaged like so: 'And the words had dribbled so far down the napkin anyway that they had run off onto a soggy coaster'.

This next, very painful, stilted example can also be changed into something far more pleasing to the ears and eyes. It simply requires a periphrasis, which is, in simple terms, some shuffling of words, until it reads like decent English:

‘The unique quality of the pictures comes from the fact that, being French, Patrick wasn’t synchopatic’.

Here it goes: ‘The unique quality of the picture is down to Patrick not being synchopatic, as he is French’.

Very simple to salvage is also this pathetic sentence:

‘The fact that you could easily get twelve slices out of this is another reason why it comes in useful when you’ve got people coming for dinner’, which can be turned into: ‘Being able to easily get twelve slices out of this is another reason why it comes in useful when you’ve got people coming for dinner’.

As is often the case, it is good to keep the very best for last. In here, we’re got two the fact that in the same sentence. Beat it if you can, but don't show it to me if you give it a try:

‘I have always been intrigued by the fact that some people send out extremely expensive invitations on thick card with gilt edging to announce the fact that they will be 'at home'’. This is so dumb, it is the easiest of all to fix: ‘I have always been intrigued by some people sending out extremely expensive invitations on thick card with gilt edging in order to announce that they will be 'at home'’.

Voilà! No space in writing for the heinous the fact that. It can always, under all circumstances, be removed and replaced with something far less awful. I know that some will tell me that, hey Steph, it's everywhere, everyone's using it! And you know what? Just because so many are doing crack cocaine doesn't mean you or I should as well.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Caramel Apples

When worried or unhappy, most people aren't hungry. I am one of those that cannot be asked to cook at the best of times, let alone the worst. Yet, I have a tendency for indulging when times are particularly sombre. After a week of living on coffee, tonight seemed like a good time to re-introduce cooking smells into the house and while I am always one to indulge in chocolate (or chocolate and butter, a lethal paring, see brownies), caramel comes a close second. I am not one that likes to spoil good fruit with unnecessary sugar or fat but sometimes my friends... needs must.

4 red apples, peeled and cut into chunks or wedges, as you prefer
100g dark muscovado sugar
80g unsalted butter
4 tbsp Golden Syrup

Place a heavy-based saucepan on medium heat and melt the sugar, butter and Golden Syrup. Help yourself with a whip if you must. As the mixture begins to bubble, drop in the apples and cook for a couple of minutes.

Now lower the heat and continue cooking for another five minutes, or until the apples feel tender. The timing will depend on how ripe and how big the pieces are to begin with.

Spoon onto a plate, drop a scoop of vanilla ice-cream and drizzle the caramel on top. They are to die for if you like caramel and can lift the sourest times to the sweetest. Go for it.

And The Addis Go To...

... Adrienne from California! Congratulations Adrienne! Do not forget to email me your postal address so that the lace needles and the buttons can be sent your way. As you can see, it was such a highly technical job...

... that next time I will have to make provisions for printing the names and folding all of those little wretched tickets. It wasn't as fun as I had expected it to be. Thanks to everyone who entered the give-away and to all of those that sent well-wishes to Willo.

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