Monday, May 31, 2010

Abject Stupor

I am sitting cross-legged on my bed, with my usual thick cushion on my lap and my laptop on my cushion. I am in a state of abject stupor, as I’ve just turned the page of my calendar ready for tomorrow and I’ve noted that, yes, it really is going to be June 1. This means that it’s only three months to my birthday, just over four to Rick’s birthday, just under five to Halloween, just over five to Bonfire Night and just over six to Crimbo.

And, my friends, I am typing all of that with a grin stretched across my face because you know how much I love the September-to-February stretch of the year. Heck, I spend the rest of the year hankering after those months. Some of my friends say that I am wishing my life away, and I suppose that’s a way of looking at it (that’s a negative way of looking at it, I say), but in reality this Sacred Call to the time of year when I feel most like me is just damn irresistible.

I spent the long weekend de-weeding my garden (more like, my gardens, front and back actually) and as I was janking the bastards off (they never ever ever ever ever ever die), I was smirking to myself, thinking about the falling leaves of October and the frost that will soon after burn everything in sight. Ah mega-glorious-bliss. It won’t be long and all of this pulling and pushing and planting and shoving won’t be necessary any longer and there will be burnt colours and crackling leaves everywhere.

Other than this, and despite my recently reported shoulder-related incident, I had a great end-of-month, with my writing workshop run more than successfully, and with very happy participants enthusiastically emailing me even before I had made it home. Too bad tomorrow is Tuesday, Rick is back at work and I will have to implement all of the planning we did over the past two days (when not de-weeding the gardens, that is). I may even have to cave in and deface my beautiful red journal with PLANS. And God help me but... how I hate plans! But then, I love outcomes of good plans and so I guess they can be useful sometimes.

In non-related news, I am cupcake-free. My electric beaters leapt off the shelf the other day and landed head-on the floor, quite possibly injuring themselves beyond repair. But at least for this week that’s ok, as I have to go to a christening on Sunday and want to look good in my silk green dress. And we all know that a carbs-and-sugar abstinence, however short-lived, does wonders for one’s figure.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Out Of Body

It’s almost Sunday evening and I am sitting in the garden under the pear tree. Someone is having a barbecue. I am just glad I return to writing after a break that felt bloody eternal.

The past ten days have been very good and very bad. My work has been consistent and very focused and my glorious baking has reached stupendous nigellean heights; but then a shoulder incident stopped all of this. Out of the window went the book launch I was due to attend on Thursday and the concert whose tickets I had won. Right now I am just grateful that both my arms work again without excruciating pain and that, not only can I type away with minimum effort, but I can also dress myself unaided, I can scratch my head with my left hand and I can hold a book with both.

On Thursday evening, as I slowly made my way out of the local Sainsbo where I stopped to collect my multiple prescriptions, I went through an out of body experience as Rick and I walked through the double doors and stepped back into carpark. It was +20C exactly and yet I felt like I was in Cannes, years ago, existing the late-night supermarket with a tub of ice-cream and a stick of bread and feeling the air sucked out of my very lungs as outside it was still +32C, the humidity as suffocating as it had been all day. On Thursday evening it was nothing like this, and yet, it reminded me of it. It felt Summer even though I am certain that the past three days are nothing other than a freak occurrence, as warm weather always is in England, especially if at the end of May.

Ah, wouldn’t you know it? Could I possibly be outside having a good time? On Friday it was pure agony. Saturday felt mildly better. 15 tabs and a bucketful of tears later, I should be able to return to normality, whatever that is, on Tuesday.

The funny thing is, when I was little, I did mind being ill. I detested missing school days, as that translated into the huge burden of catching-up, something that I never liked to do, especially when I hit college and missing a week of philosophy meant doing Aristotle on one’s own, and I don’t recommend that to any fifteen-year old. These days I can be ill all I like, no fear of falling behind and yet, it felt truly awful this time.

Truly damn awful because I lost the use of a limb and even going to the bathroom or brushing my teeth or sticking my head into a hairband required a mega-massive-painful effort that made me question whether I really needed a wee after all. I am relieved the very worst is over and today I managed to take some pics of things I like. After all, you only really need one hand to use the iP anyway.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I have pretty much fallen off the radar. In truth I had been feeling terrible since before Bank Holiday, as I had already mentioned, and for the past week things hadn't much improved. I soldiered on, because I like to think that everything will feel better if I act like nothing is wrong, but I ended up spending all Monday afternoon in bed as I felt like death.

Still, despite all of this, I successfully undertook another baking experiment which yielded toffee cupcakes. They looked and tasted gorgeous, but I am still in the process of tweaking the recipe, so come back soon for an update.

Other than this, I've got nothing else to report, if not that I hope to be able to drag myself out of the house tomorrow in order to enjoy the rather brisk weather and maybe I'll try my hand at some really dark chocolate cupcakes this time...

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Success Cupcakes

I am a day later on this one, but, yes, I made it after all! The cupcakes passed the quality control and I am now ready to give you the recipe. I cannot even explain how thrilled I am that they turned out not only normal but, actually, amazing. It is vital that I crystallise the recipe on here, else I will most certainly forget it, and I am happy to share it for your enjoyment as these are particularly soft and moist without having a ton of butter in them, which always guarantees immense culinary delights and very, very hard slogs at the gym.

You'll need:

225g golden caster sugar
2 tablespoons of Golden Syrup
170g flour
1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of salt
2 eggs
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract
100ml of skimmed milk
110g unsalted butter (for the cakes)
110g soft, unsalted butter (for the icing)
110g cream cheese
450g sieved icing sugar
colouring pastes and sprinkles

a 12-hole muffin tin and 12 paper cases

You'll do them like so:

1- Pre-heat the oven to 180C and prepare your muffin tin with the paper cases. Melt the butter and then remove from the heat and set aside.

2- Whisk the golden caster sugar with the eggs for a good five minutes, then add the melted butter and give it a quick (and slow) whisk.

3- Measure the flour, ground cinnamon, salt and baking powder into a bowl and add to the egg mixture you've whisked in 2 above. Whisk it well, then add the skimmed milk, Golden Syrup and vanilla extract. Whisk away until everything is nicely combined and feels soft and, admittedly, just a tad too wet and sloppy. Don't stress though, they will bake just fine.

4- Divide this mixture in the 12 paper cases. You've got enough to fill them by 3/4 or so. Now stick the tin in the oven and bake for 20 minutes.

5- You may want to lick the empty bowl and marvel at the very subtle mix of toffee, spice and caramel at this point.

6- Get the cupcakes out after 20 minutes and use a cake tester, just to make sure they are well cooked inside. They will be a dark golden brown on top (golden, not chargrilled).

7- Leave them in the tin to cool for 10 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack for one hour. As they cool, get the butter and cream cheese for the icing out of the fridge, so that they both come to room temperature while you do something else.

8- Now prepare the icing. Cream the butter with the cheese (use a normal spoon or even the electric whisks) and then add the sieved icing sugar little by little. I must tell you that I hate doing this. I hate sieving and I hate mixing this stuff because I am always afraid that it will be either too hard or too soft and I will end up with a ton of inedible icing. I can tell you, however, that this mixture just works. And if it works for me, it will for you too.

9- As you are finishing adding the sieved icing sugar, get your food colouring (unless you like a creamy whiteness) and add a tiny splash (I prefer liquid colouring when I work with this sort of icing because it makes it infinitely more pliable, something you will appreciate when it goes into the sac à poche). If you taste the icing at this point, and it would be criminal not to, don't get disheartened by its polyfilla-like texture (and, quite frankly, taste, not that I have ever eaten polyfilla but...). It does work very well on the cakes, so spearhead to completion below.

10- Now choose an icing tip of your liking, assemble your kit, stick some of the icing in it and enjoy yourself. I iced from the outside in and then randomly scattered sugar sprinkles and sanding sugar. Naturally, I've used pink liquid colouring. Store these at the bottom of the fridge and don't worry about sticking them in a tin for freshness. They won't last that long.

None Of The Above

As I dropped off my car for the MOT earlier this morning, I found myself killing time on the bus, scrolling through Twitter and actually reading what people had to say, which makes a change. I was amused by the election fever, mostly because I wish there was something in life I felt so utterly and moronically strong about, for not even grammar and violence to the English language would ever prompt me to plant a stick in my garden with It's and its are not the same thing you suckers! After all, we cannot all be David Crystals; I've accepted that a long time ago.

But what struck me was something else, this call to the vote because people before us died in order to give it to us. Wait a second, people died to have the opportunity, the choice, to vote or not to vote. They did not sacrifice themselves in order to oblige later generations to pick a candidate at all costs. I was also reading rabid comments of Labourists who really do hate Conservatives and vice-versa, and of Liberal Democrat supporters who hate both Labourists and Conservatives, naturellement. This is, to me, even more odd. I've got red friends and blue friends and yellow friends and I find them level-headed, intelligent, well-educated, decent people. What's with all of this political hate? Are these people for real?

Yes, there are annoying traits to all of these; I do not believe that helping the vulnerable should equal helping the slacker and the leech (and it always does according to a leftie government), neither do I believe that a privileged birth makes individuals better than others by default (and it always does according to a right-wing government), but I am also annoyed by the people in the middle who, while picking and choosing from within the best of the rest, end up leaving me under the distinct impression of a lack of decisional backbone. Thus I could not bring myself to vote for these alternatives, for they don't feel to me as such.

On the run up to this day I was extremely amused by Bigotgate; my God, a politician said one thing and thought another one? Who knew those things happened? I was shocked I am telling you, shocked. A few days later I met George Osborne, local Tory representative, and while he blabbed away to the masses, I must confess not to have heard a single thing, so distracted was I by his otherworldly placca face. I don't know about you but I am highly, highly, highly suspicious of a man who goes for the syringe, unless he is Brad Pitt (in fact, I wish Brad reached for it, as he is quickly becoming painful to look at, not something I would have expected of him). But in Cameron's (and Osborne's) case I have to say that just because you can do Botox, it really doesn't mean you should.

I also heard that Britain could descend into anarchy and revolution and, frankly my dear, I don't give a damn. I cannot imagine Britain as Gotham City gripped by the Joker-esque agent of chaos, 'I'll show you, when the chips are down, these people will eat each other'. Can you? Our explosive mix of apathy and calm upper-stiffness should ensure a smooth enough transition into more of the same, as it always does. We ain't Greeks bearing gifts.

Talks of a hung parliament always make think of other 'well hung' things, and then, of course, I also heard that if you don't vote you ain't entitled to complain when things aren't hunky-dory, which is like saying that unless you have kids yourself, you ain't allowed to pass an opinion on others' kids, or if you don't drink coffee, you ain't allowed to voice your views on Starbucks and Costa, or if you don't eat meat, you can't to discuss supermarkets' farming policies, or if you don't reek like a goat, you cannot complain about other people's body odour. How will I live without this wisdom thrown left, right and centre, twenty-four hours a day, every day, my friends? Blimey, I wish there was an election every week! The entertainment would never end.

So did I vote? Sure I did! I always feel important about voting you know, a bit like being able to pay a stack of bills by cheque instead of credit card, a sentiment that hasn't really gone away despite my growing into a spiteful resident who resents Council Tax as much as fly-tipping and egg-throwing. And so I voted as I always vote my friends, none of the above. And if you have voted for anyone else, that's ok by me.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Recipe Of My Own

I am a slave to the recipe. When I bake cakes, cookies and brownies I never ever improvise, for baking is an exact science and one cannot add, increase or remove ingredients and just hope for the best. So today I surprised myself when I started thinking of cupcakes and had a good look at my sugar pantry, where all sorts linger. I wanted to use a pack of golden caster sugar and figured that I may have ended up with a slightly toffee-y cupcake if I tried hard enough. Now they are ready, resplendent in their icing and waiting for quality control. And if it has worked, I am going to tell you how to make them.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Well, I must admit that these three days off haven't been what I had hoped for. Granted, it didn't rain, unlike many other places in England, but it wasn't just all a bit blah because of the cold weather really. I've been feeling under the weather for a couple of days and, wouldn't you know it, those couple of days just happened to be the long weekend. Well, I guess there's another one at the end of May, right?

Yesterday, however, I didn't limit myself to the risotto, for I also made some lemon biscuits which I then turned into small cream cheese bites. These are lethal, for they are very much like shortbread, except for a deceptive lightness. They did not last long but as it is already evening and I must confess to be really tired and deflated, the recipe will have to wait.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Pepper Risotto

If I were to choose my favourite risotto it would be a toss up between saffron and tomato. There is something about primary colours and risotto you see... But this evening I tried something I had in mind for a while, that is a variation of the classic red risotto, for the base was not just celery and onion but pepper too. It was lovely, especially as I did the mantecatura with a nice red yolk, a teaspoon of mascarpone and one of crème fraîche. A great culinary end to an otherwise non descript Bank Holiday Sunday, with clouds low in a sky and a really nippy wind wafting from the north.

You’ll need:

Serves 3-4 or maybe just 2 if very hungry

350g Arborio rice
a fistful of basil leaves
a small red pepper
200g of chopped tomatoes (tinned or in a carton... that sort of thing)
one egg yolk
a teaspoon of mascarpone
a teaspoon of crème fraîche
a small stick of celery
a small onion
sea salt

You’ll do it like so:

Chop the pepper, stick of celery and small onion into tiny pieces and then attack it with the mezzaluna for as long as you can bear. Remember that this is supposed to be the base of your risotto; you ain’t supposed to find big chunks of pepper in it so weild the mezzaluna for a good while. Now add a glug of oil to your pan set on high heat and fry the basil leaves in it.

Soon after, add the celery, pepper and onion (which at this point is called the soffritto, if you care to know) and stir with a wooden spoon for a scant minute or so. Add the dry rice, stir quickly, add half a carton of chopped tomatoes and stir again.

Now lower the heat to low (but not so low that it stops simmering...) and add some boiling water. I know that ‘some boiling water’ is hardly descriptive but, really, bear in mind that the rice is supposed to cook slowly for about 20 to 25 minutes. I keep my kettle ready for action as I am stirring and see that the pan is drying out. The point here is, don’t let it dry out, but continue adding boiling water (and check for salt too) every time the rice absorbs it.

After a good 20 minutes the rice will be just about ready. Get your egg yolk into a glass and add the mascarpone and crème fraîche to it. Stir quickly and pour it into the risotto, stirring well and giving it a last blast of heat on the stove. Now serve it in bowls with a dusting of Parmesan and two leaves of basil for a little decorative flair. Done to death, I know, but I love the green-on-red all the same...

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Pick Me Right Up!

It will come as a surprise to read that, before today, I had yet to make a tiramisù. It’s a bit of an oddity because I am extremely well-versed with cakes, sweets, puddings, desserts and even truffles and tiramisù is such a basic super-classic that one would think I have made countless. In truth, I had to resist its appeal for two reasons: Rich doesn’t like coffee and the prospect of eating an entire slab of this dessert, while appealing in principle, would do my waistline no good, and, of course, tiramisù is so simple, so child’s play to make that it has always seemed slightly pointless to be wasting my time on it while I could be trying something complicated and of greater effect.

But then... how can I call this most fabulous dessert pointless? I love tiramisù, because I love coffee and because of the quaint affection for its name. It means ‘pick me up’ not as in ‘a pick me up’ but as in ‘pick me up!’ and there is something so appealing about a dessert that guarantees you an immediate mood lift that finally, today, I caved in and thought, sod it, I’ll eat it all myself.

Before I give you the recipe, let me spare a few words on the sponge fingers you should use. These are no ordinary sponge fingers, they are savoiardi, a very specific type of biscuit that is soft below and sugary and crackly on top. Now the problem with savoiardi here in England is that we can only find them at the supermarket, unlike in Italy, where patisseries make them daily. Of course, you can also buy them at the supermarket there, but you’d be a fool to do so when they are baked fresh every morning. This means that the savoiardi we must make do are stiff and, compared to the fresh variety, stale.

When I indicate below that you should dip them in tepid coffee and arrange them in your serving dish, I mean do so in double-quick time. A second too long and they will become so soggy as to lumber you with a watery tiramisù and you so don’t want that. Equally, dip them too quickly, and you’ll end up with a base that you cannot cut into with a fork, as, in fact, you should be able to do. Therefore proceed swiftly at the dipping stage, but not too swiftly.

You’ll need:

3 large eggs, separated
150g caster sugar
250g mascarpone (which is a cream cheese sold in tubs)
2 packs of savoiardi (the sponge fingers)
500ml of coffee
cocoa for dusting
a serving dish about 30 cm x 23 cm, nicer with glass, although I made do with a baking tray, pah!

You’ll do it like so:

Begin by making the coffee. I use a medium moka, which means I put it on twice in order to yield about 500ml of coffee. Once this is ready, pour it into a shallow dish or bowl or whatever container will make the dipping of the savoiardi easy for you and leave it to cool.

Whip the three egg whites in a bowl until very stiff, then leave aside.

Now whip the three egg yolks with the sugar in another bowl (no need to wash the beaters, yay!) until they have at least tripled in volume and are huge and soft and white and just delicious-looking.

Add the mascarpone to the whipped egg yolks and give it a quick beating. Now leave the beaters aside and fold in the egg whites with a spoon, trying to maintain the volume as much as possible.

Once you’re done with that, spoon some of this cream on the bottom of your dish and then begin dipping the savoiardi one by one in the cooled coffee (yes, quickly but not too quickly!). Arrange on the bottom side by side and fill your dish. Once the first layer is done, spoon more of the cream on top, level it, then continue the dipping of the savoiardi and the layering. Once you’re done with the second layer, spoon the rest of the cream on top, level it nicely, grab a tea strainer and dust with cocoa generously.

Place the dish in the fridge for a good two hours and then enjoy with an espresso or, failing that, a good old cup of tea. Dead easy and it’s taken me longer to type this up than to make it!
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