Friday, December 31, 2021

Rounding off the Edges

 I joked earlier this year that insomnia, of which I have suffered with regularly, was the gift of time. Except for this week as it appears to have morphed into the gift of "eating toast at 5am, then falling asleep again at 7, only to wake at 8.30 feeling like you've been hit with a sledgehammer, one that leaves toast crumbs in the bed". 

Part of this recent bout I can lay at the door of my foolish decision to watch the Mark Gatiss adaptation of MR James' The Mezzotint. It was early evening, I was surrounded by people I love, I thought it would be fine. Except that, 4 nights later, I'm still campaigning for the light to be left on overnight and hiding my head under the duvet so I can't see the fingers lifting the window. 

None of our windows lift up, but there we have the rationale of my brain. 

Part of the insomnia is, no doubt, also due to the lack of Fresh Air and Exercise. Not necessarily my fault - every time I've set foot outside the skies have darkened and the rain has hurled itself at me like an overexcited puppy. "Oh aces, you're here! Let's play! Look, look, I did a massive wee on you!" Splendid.  

This also means I haven't set foot in a shop beyond our corner shop for weeks. Not a disaster, you might think, but I am out of nail varnish remover and about to enter 2022 with chipped navy blue nails. This is probably a metaphor for the year or something. 

Speaking of foot, I have just brought myself a pair of orthopaedic trainers, for I am having the foot bones of a 70 year old and up with stylish trainers they will not put. I need supported arches, comfortable soles and flexible uppers, not jazzy laces, flat uncushioned soles and a natty little logo. Do the young people say "jazzy" these days? See? I even have the language of a 70 year old.

I may make "supportive, comfortable and flexible" our new family motto. 

I have vowed (but not made a resolution because, ugh) to get out more from henceforth, but it was felt by both N and me, that a period of quiet reflection and retreat and (in my case) work, was needed after this year. It has been a lot, this 2021. But I'm not subscribing to this general mood of "2022 WILL be better!"

That's too much pressure to put on an innocent new year. It will be different, that's all. 

Still haven't chosen my word of the year. The workbooks and exercises I usually go through to find it have remained dusty and unused. I'll come to it eventually, or maybe not at all. I am trying to find my ease in the world, after a long time of trying to force myself into situations that made me feel like the proverbial square peg. 

This world needs more rounded edges. 

Something brave that I did do was sign up for a writers course. I am scared just putting that much information in the world, so I'll end here. Thank you all for stopping by here as often as you do. I shouldn't measure my life in Google Analytics, but when you put stuff out there, you really want to know someone is reading. Vanity, vanity, all is Google Analytics. 

Wishing you all a different, healthy, rounded 2022. Make space for yourself and repeat after me: "supportive, comfortable and flexible"

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Tales from the Pudding Front

How it should have been...

First of all, a word of advice. Do not attempt the making of this dessert whilst 3 baileys/beers/glasses of wine/[insert drink of choice] to the better on Christmas Eve. If you’re sober and ready, then we’ll begin. 

First, the meringue. Separate egg whites from yolks. You’ll need only 6 but will actually use 8 as at least 2 of them will scramble during the separating process. Add sugar and whisk until stiff peaks. Do not attempt to do this by hand. Use electric whisk or spend Christmas Day asking passers by to cut up your food because your wrists have given up. 

Split the mix into 2, creating a sort of indent on one of them which will form a space for the creams and whatnot, and bake at 100 (electric fan oven). You have successfully completed the easy bit. Go and lie down while it bakes. Have another drink. Well done you. 

Now, raise yourself from the sofa and sift the cocoa powder into the double cream. Watch it drift and settle over every surface. Congratulations! You now have a brown kitchen and a speckled Baileys. Add the sugar and whisk in. 

Stop! Not that much. Now you have curdled chocolate cream. Start again. 

This next step calls for ground hazelnuts except you couldn’t find ground hazelnuts and the man in the shop thought you were mad asking for it: “Ground hazelnuts? Do people want ground hazelnuts? Nah. Ground almonds though.”

Sigh and buy the chopped hazelnuts, figuring you can grind them yourself with a rolling pin. This you can now do. At some point your rolling pin will slip and partially ground hazelnuts will scatter across the counter and onto the floor. Make sure you’re working on a very clean work surface before you begin or the damned nuts will also contain cat biscuits and crisp crumbs. 

Fold these, the vanilla (extract because, again, you couldn’t find ground vanilla ANY WHERE) and suspect the recipe makers are fucking with you. Ditto ground cardamom (leave that one out, no one will know)). Add the liquor of choice: one for the pudding, one for you etc. 

Spread the chocolate cream over the meringues and sandwich together, covering the top one with more choc cream. Do not press too hard or you will have invented Tabletop Eton Mess and have to start again. 

Realise at this point that you forgot the first steps which was to make a super-chocolatey cream involving double cream and bitter chocolate melting together. Raise your hands to the sky and ask the Kitchen Gods why they are making this so hard. At this point significant others in the room will find reasons to leave..."pub's about to shut and I really need...peanuts...YES! Peanuts!"

Decide to improvise by making vanilla cream (again, no one will know). Make vanilla cream without bothering the wash the fucking bowls for the fourth fucking time that day. You now have mildly chocolatey vanilla cream. It will taste fine, don’t worry about it. Wrestle this into plastic tub, getting the spatula stuck between the tines of the whisk. Abandon both in washing up bowl. 

Now to deseed the pomegranate. It is a good idea to warn loved ones that you are doing it so that when they walk into the kitchen they do not fall to their knees screaming "but it was only a pudding, there was no need for murder!" This is because pomegranates are EVIL and will splatter bright red juice over you, all surfaces, walls, cupboard doors, appliances, floors, livestock and all stationary objects within a 100 metre radius. Congratulations! You now look like a crime scene. 

Decide that you will take all constituent parts (meringues, creams, seeds and other decorative items) and assemble in situ on Christmas Day with small children because that will be FUN. You will assume this because Christmas has made you lose your mind. Go and lie down in darkened room, leaving clearing up to those lucky bastards that escaped to the pub. They will be shifting sticky sugar and cocoa mixes for hours. Probably a good idea to have a bath. 

On the day, carefully transport the pudding components, along with a billion bags of presents, unsent cards that will now be hand delivered to relatives (so much nicer!), the entire beer supply of your local shop and several overnight bags of anxiety, stress and familial angst. 

After present carnage and gluttony at the table, gather small children unto you and attempt to guide them. 

"No, we squeeze the piping bag from the top."
"Please don't hit each other with the spatula."
"Yes, the gold dust is pretty but you shouldn't squirt it in each other's eyes."
"I really think that's enough cream in that spot."
"Maybe if we try spreading it..."
"Yes, that did make a rude noise when you squeezed it."
"No, I don't think we should just throw the pomegranate seeds in the bin."
"Could you not see if you can get gold sprinkles in your brother's ear?"

You are now covered in sticky substances and gold dust. Serve and eat. Silently cast curses in the direction of those refusing it: "I really couldn't, I'm so full" (may all their sandwiches be dry turkey ones). Bask in delighted noises from those that do eat it: "this is soooo delicious!", "bloody hell, how much Baileys is in here?"

The meringue is perfectly chewy yet crisp on the outside. The creams are boozily delicious. There is enough sugar to take them all down with diabetes. It is a triumph. Get another drink and make those who were TOO FULL to try it, do the clearing up. 

Note: unused pomegranate seeds (i.e. all of the damn things) are good in gin. 

The actual messy reality which WAS totally delicious and 
any lapses in good taste, structural integrity or artistic arrangements 
should not now or ever be placed at the feet of the original recipe 
designers, but are entirely down to REALITY getting in the way. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Seasons Pleasings

It’s okay, I’ll stop after this one, I promise. But I wanted to mark this Solstice with a little glimpse at things that have provoked sighs of deep contentment and let me think that, for just that moment, all is right in the world. 

Misty days where the cloud hung low, clinging to the tree tops, blurring the city lines and lending an air of mystery to my trip to the allotment, where I dug in some well rotted manure (courtesy of my friend's Shetland pony), admired cobwebs bejewelled by the damp air, and watched millipedes weave, like bright copper threads through the earth. 

It was an early start to the Sunday but my feet were toasty in thick socks and wellies. No one else was at the plots, just me with what sounded like hundreds of birds shouting their territorial rights, the chime of distant bells and the satisfying thunk of the shovel in the damp earth. 

I love misty days. They make me happy all the way to my toes and I can't wait to get out and walk in them. 

Last Friday, I took a trip to see colleagues, one that involved 2 trains there and 3 back, a cancelled train, a detour and a shouty woman on the final leg. As I reached my front door, I could see the lights on the wreath and the tree glowing through the window. Once inside it was warm, full of cats and N pleased to see me back, smelling nicely of pine, cloves and home. Settling into the sofa with a glass of wine as deep as a plunge pool and an M&S prawn sandwich, blanket over my chilled feet, fending off messages from Mum, N asked why I was sighing. 

I hadn’t realised I was, but they were the sighs of deep and blissful contentment. It was good to be home. 

Making jumbleberry jam to give to people I love over Christmas. A mix of raspberry, Japanese wineberry and blackberry, jam sugar and lemon juice. The longest part about making jam? Gathering the fruit. But that’s also the best part. 

The house smelt of sugar, fruit and that indescribable whiff of summer. 

Although the skies have been too shrouded to see the full moon, a week or so ago, I'd managed to capture it completely by accident as I stopped to take a photo of the lights at the local church. When I got home and looked back at the photos, I could see it, photobombing over the church's shoulder and looking might splendid. 

See? Splendid. It reminded me of that Jaffa Cake advert from looooong ago. Repeat after me: Full Moon, Half Moon, Total Eclipse!

A friend and I took a bimble around Malvern at the weekend, something we haven't done for a while. I dropped an astonishing amount on books (both new and second hand), and then we happened upon what is the winner of my own personal Christmas window contest...

Inside the shop was warm and bustling with the ever-cheerful owners and staff taking time to chat to everyone through the muffling of our masks. Later, we ate rum and walnut chocolate cake, exchanged presents and parted, determined to do more bimbling next year. 

Today I finish work, not back to my desk until the Thursday after Christmas*. The Kid comes home on the 23rd and I will attempt the Meringue of Folly on Christmas Eve. It's not really a peaceful time of year, but I am still going to make the most of not having to switch the computer on at 8 in the morning, of being legitimately allowed to eat After Eight mints for breakfast, to make turkey stuffing sandwiches, to watch old films. To hunker down. To take the Kid on long hill walks with flask and aforementioned sandwiches. 

To make plans and daydream.  

However you spend this time of year, and whoever you spend it with, I wish you all a very Good One indeed. Thanks for keeping stopping by here over this strange, untidy year. 

(*although I may possibly pop back here during the festive break because I don't seem to be able to keep away - even when I have Proper Work to do) 

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Seasons Eatings

Every family has them. Those odd side dishes or food rituals that only appear on 25th December and incomers (sons and daughters in law mainly), look on with undisguised horror and incomprehension. But to your family, they are non-negotiable. If these foods do not appear, it isn't Christmas and boy, will you make sure everyone knows about it. 

There are the things you buy in - Quality Street, Cadbury's selection boxes, Cadbury's chocolate fingers, Terry's chocolate orange (you see where I'm going here, right?) - and things you make, bringing them to the table with a sense of propriety and pride, smiling like a beneficent god as the rest of the family choke down something they don't really like but wouldn't dream of hurting your feelings by saying so. 

For years, until Mum mastered the art of pastry, it was mince pies. My sister and I aren't sure, all these years later, what happened as this usually exceptional cook took the raw ingredients of flour, fat and liquid and turned them into something you could build a house with. Her pastry throughout the rest of the year was spectacular: light, fluffy, crisp, flaky...whatever it needed to be, it was. There was just something about the time of year that changed the way the pastry fell together. Now, years after those days, I suspect an egg was missing from the mix. 

These days, her mince pies are delicious, but somehow, I still hanker occasionally after one from my childhood years. Whenever I’m short of a weapon. Or some grouting. 

Dad didn't cook, wouldn't have wanted to cook, but would earn unending brownie points with us kids simply by deigning to share a Smartie or two from his Christmas stash.  If we were very lucky and very good, maybe even a square or - heaven! - a line of 4 squares of Fruit and Nut chocolate. Despite this being the total sum of his culinary contribution, his tastes shaped our Christmas lunches. 

I remember describing it to a friend once and she looked at me with horror; "Mushy peas? Mushy peas have No Place on a Christmas table!" They did in our house. He was not a fan of most green veg, my Pa, but put a bowl of mushy peas in front of him and he was as happy as a pig in a pea field. 

Likewise, he was not a fan of the claggy fruit-laden Christmas pudding. Yes, he'd set it on fire for us to ooh and ahh at, but that was it. Once it was safely blown out, he'd help himself to a wodge of syrup sponge pudding, adding extra syrup from that green Tate and Lyle tin that brings back such a sugar-rush of memories now, and then complain if the custard wasn't thick enough to stand a spoon up in. 

If there was not enough left for a second helping the following day, he'd sulk and refuse to share any more Smarties. 

Pity my poor Mum, influenced by Delia and Keith, desperate to bring a bit of class to our table with spiced red cabbage, goose fat roasted potatoes, a delicate cream for the puddings, only to be thwarted by his distinctly down to earth tastes. "Fancy tack!" he'd say and carve himself another slice of custard. 

This year, I tentatively suggested that we opt for rib of beef or goose (I like both more than turkey) when Mum voiced concerns about a possible avian-flu-related turkey shortage, only to be shouted down with "we always have turkey!". Like I said, some things are non-negotiable.

There will still be mushy peas this year but there won’t be a syrup sponge pudding. I’m not sure any of us could eat it without crying, and god knows, this year has rendered us soggy enough as it is. 

Instead, I’ve offered to make a festive pavlova. 2 layers of chocolate meringue, sandwiched together with a chocolate liqueur spiked cream, some pomegranate seeds and more sugary stuff that I need to buy in as I’ve sworn off it till then so we’ve nothing sweet in the house. I WILL make us a pudding to ooh and ahh at and fight over the second helpings or, so help me, take us all down with diabetes in the attempt. 

Of course, it has to survive the 40 minute car journey from here to there, so we may well be eating an Eton Mess by the time it reaches table. 

***Image above from Food Stories - click on photo for link to recipe - rest easy, mine is NOT going to look like that***

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Seasons Readings


Because there are certain books that can only be read at this time of year. I’ve tried to read The Box is Delights in summer, The Dark is Rising in spring. It doesn’t work, they don't fit and trying to read about snow so deep you could lose livestock in it, or dark forces abroad under a wintry moon, whilst it's 30 degrees out and your toes are sweating, just means you lose something of the magic of them. 

You need the cold nipping at your toes, frost etching the skeletal bones of trees and the promise of a hearty stew on the hob for them to work.

Delights and Rising are, obviously and very definitely, Christmas Books. Or rather, they are midwinter solstice books, conjuring pagan worlds beyond our reach but tantalisingly glimpsed. A world of fires and snow, old gods and wolves, and should only ever be read in the run up to the solstice. 

My favourite, and never bettered, author, Terry Pratchett wrote Hogfather and Wintersmith in his Discworld series that are very definitely Christmas and winter themed. The former is hilarious and yet serious in its exploration of why humans need myths, why humans persist in irrational thinking, why we just need some bloody...magic. 

'Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?' 
'Oh, come on. You can't expect me to believe that. It's an astronomical fact.'
'All right,' said Susan. 'I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need...fantasies to make life bearable.' 

There are some books that I save for winter reading, just because they have passages that capture it perfectly, I only ever reread Wind in the Willows during this season. It’s invocation of home and longing taking hold in snow blown trudges is so breathtakingly perfect, it’s forever a winter book for me. Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, while it might linger over hay-strewn, cider-sparked Midsummer dalliances, contains some of the best winter passages you could hope for. The childhood joy of snow and how it transforms your familiar world is so beautifully realised, you’ll want to be 8 years old, stout in many scarves, setting off carolling with a tin can full of smouldering rags.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is a splendid read, but I tend to save for deep winter. January, when the cold has an iron grip on the ground outside, and the tree branches are stern lines in a glowering sky. That’s when I can hear the wolves* howling in the hills. 

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey will make you shiver, feel the cold deep in your bones as she perfectly captures what it just be like in the long hard winters of the deep north. The worry of ice creeping into the house with long scratchy fingers, of falling through frozen rivers, of just being damn cold All Day Long. Read with a hot chocolate, under a blanket. 

It goes without saying that now is the time to bring out the Gothic. Oh, not Dracula or Frankenstein (October and November only). No, I mean Bleak House, Wuthering Heights. Let long descriptions of fog, howling storms, snow deep enough to swallow roads, flow past you and make your duvet feel all the warmer for it. 

Of course, there is the greatest of them all, the Christmas Carol, but I actually prefer to watch that. Be it Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine or Bill Murray in the Scrooge role, I prefer those to the book. 

Writers of detective stories have always pulled out all the stops for Christmas. Agatha Christie, Nicholas Blake, Mary Kelly and more, bring out all the trimmings: evil domestic tyrants, dysfunctional families, chippy young gels who can be trusted to be ever so clever and neat at finding clues. There will be a feast, missing treasures, strange family traditions that no one understands, long held resentments, dastardly people getting their comeuppance. Snow will scatter, misunderstandings will occur, mild romance may even take place. If you are very lucky, your detective will be faintly comedic, entirely at sea in terms of manners and traditions. But good will always triumph and chippy young gels will go orff to do splendid things. 

Unless it's le Carre's Murder of Quality where there is not a jot of redemption for anyone, not even the heartbreakingly poignant George Smiley. Still, winter book.

I don’t really venture out of my comfort zone for Christmas reading. It’s a time for cracking open pages and welcoming old friends back in. For knowing what’s going to happen but still feeling gripped by it. This is nostalgia at its best - no false remembering of the past, but a revisiting. Turn the page and, oh hey, there you are! So good to see you again, come and tell me everything. 

Come and let me stay with you a while. Watch you eat the plum pudding, sing carols to the squire, defeat the villain and celebrate with a glass of something warming with your restored or newly created family. Let me feel the sneaking chill while safe under my own roof. Let me feel like a child for a moment before my own tumbles through the door, fresh from a long train journey back south. Let me remember what it was like to wake to a full stocking at the end of the bed and a tree that sent magic to every corner of the house. 

The best Christmas reading transports you to the before times. Before life admin, before work, before grief. It reminds you that danger lurks but comforts you with happy endings. 


What are your season's readings?

*Disclaimer - I LOVE wolves and will continue to do so until I inexplicably become a 19th century homesteader with chickens and sheep to protect

Edit: I forgot the Moomins! How on earth could I forget the Moomins, the greatest wintery creations ever to venture forth with a sensible handbag?? I blame the fact that I currently don’t have any copies on my shelves. Mine are missing, I don’t know where, and have been for a while. I shall be buying myself some replacement copies. This absence will not do. 

Thursday, December 2, 2021

It's going to be...busy

Presents have started arriving. For the past 3 mornings, the overladen post woman has rung the bell, handed me a parcel and then vanished, juggling 10 more under her arms. When, looking through the window, I see her open up the back of the van, there are enough still in there to stock a defunct Debenhams. 

Christmas is now a mere 22 days away and the Great Flurry has begun. Today's parcel included handmade soaps and alpaca socks, tiny wishes in bottles. Yesterday, a selection of nut butters was handed over with a sigh (it was a heavy box). Tomorrow, hopefully, hand poured candles, this poster and hot chocolate to make the winter bearable for my people. 

I'm ordering as much as I can from small, independent suppliers but it is heavy on the postage charges. I'll order books from and then I can't avoid heading out to the high street. Except, it's not the high street, but the one behind it where the sweetshop lurks next to the gallery, around the corner from the really good charity shop because my friend and I have a challenge - who can buy the most interesting/weird thing for each other for 4 whole English Pounds. 

Up in the little side arcade, the wool shop is where I'll get beautiful yarn for winter projects to keep a couple of recipients busy (I also need some circular needles for me), and the no-plastic shop has cool water bottles and lunch boxes I can fill with tasty things for the Kid and his partner. The deli has amazing coffee in bags and herbal teas that actually taste good and not like pond water. 

Back home via the lovely independent gift shop where I'll get things for my sister and sister in law; the plant shop just because. 

Home to make: mince pies, autumn jumble jam, peppermint bark and gingerbread. Last year was the Year of Chutney which, although it was fun to make, I would bet a house on the fact it's still in people's cupboards, unopened. In fact, I know it is because I still have a jar of my mum's from 2 years ago. Unopened. 

But nothing sweet is left unopened at Christmas. Out will come my collection of tubs, baskets and cardboard boxes stashed over the year, forming an ever more tottering tower in the small office. These now come into their own as Joy Boxes. 

Everything is better in boxes. These are filled with those bakes and makes, cards, presents and other bits of nonsense I've collected over the year - cardboard punched into the shape of snowflakes or little pictures of trees made from washi tape, a scattering of jelly babies. 

In Dad's honour, everyone gets a scattering of jelly babies this year. They were his favourite sweet. 

This weekend, we are going to get ahead of the crowd and get the tree. N took me aback by insisting we got a tree. I'd been prepared for a battle as he's really not a Christmas man, but he mentioned it first, so I'm holding him to it. We'll leave it in the garden for a couple of weeks yet - right now is too early, it'll be brown and shedding by Christmas Eve if we bring it in now. 

Then we need to leave it up for a week with no decorations as we fully anticipate a Tiny Wee Mabel incident. This will be her first Christmas with a tree. There will be shenanigans. 

Of course, I write all this now. On a calm Thursday afternoon, in the slight state of delirium that comes from having had a heavy cold for a few days. Come the cold light of the 24th, I shall be screaming at a jam that won't set, a boyfriend that hasn't secured the tree properly and a me that put so much pressure on myself. Presents will still need to be wrapped and someone I've forgotten will deliver a card. 

By midnight, I shall be 4 sherries to the bad, covered in flour and parcel tape, collapsed on the floor next to the tree, watching The Nightmare Before Christmas while the Kid and N throw jelly babies at me. 

It's going to be Christmas. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

November, in all the senses

As November waves us goodbye, I'm sitting by the radiator, the Great Boo next to me. Earlier in the morning, I could see the frost glinting the edges of the shed and the Degoba System, so I'm going to stay in here with my coffee for a little longer. The rest of the house is asleep while I've been up for a little while pondering the question "to marquee or not to marquee, that is the expense." My heart (and bank) say no, my head (and experience of English weather) say yes. 

This burning issue (oddly, the same one my Mum and I nearly fell out over for my previous wedding, and why the hell is a bit of tarpaulin and some rope so bleeding expensive? It's not like I get to live in it afterwards) aside, here is how I've experienced November. 

Taste - marsala fries (new addiction), soups both spicy and warming, gluten free lasagne that took 5 hours to make, trifle at my nephew's birthday, pizza gobbled late after evening pilates

Smell - leaf mould and damp soil, muddy canal water, fireworks and smoke, an espresso scented candle that made me sneeze, onions caramelizing for French Onion Soup.

Sight - snow caught on nearby hilltops before it could reach us, warm glows from uncurtained windows, The Great Boo and Tiny Wee Mabel off their tiny rockers on catnip, destruction at the plot following Storm Arwen. 

Sound - the local fox shouting at the moon, robins telling each other off in the trees, the Beatles, parcels flopping onto the hall mat, the repaired boiler springing back into life, my nephew's voice cracking on maturity

Touch - blankets on top of duvets on top of a pyjama-ed me as we shivered through a boiler malfunction, the itch of winter jumpers, frozen raspberries on the plot, the rough wood of the lock system as I helped a barge owner open it, the shape of N's head as I cut his hair. 

December lands with a great clang today and there are Lists to be made. What to get, what food to prepare. A tree to buy and tattered decorations to shake out of their boxes. Train tickets to book and cards to write. I’ll get round to it all, as soon as this wretched cold let’s go. 

Of the Before and the After

The Potting Shed by Lore Pemberton.  On my Christmas  wish list, Click on the image to get to her website. I had planned to pop on here and ...