25 April 2012

for the love of friends

Particularly friends who swoop in to relieve me of my responsibilities while I snivel into my third box of tissues. Apparently The Boss will be returned, fed, in time for bed. I could just weep with gratitude.

I was so concerned about my daughter picking up every pre-school cold and snivel when we moved back to the UK. It didn't cross my mind that I might become the walking viral reservoir for over a month (and barely walking at that).

I intend to spend the next four hours knitting the puerperium from last week, sneezing, reading last week's newspapers, eating toast, blowing my nose, and sending self-pitying text messages to Mr Breadwinner somewhere in continental Europe. I might even do some online shopping on his credit card.

I do not intend to do any of the laundry, washing up, ironing, hoovering or emptying of the cat tray.

Normal Yarn Along service to resume next week (I hope).

23 April 2012

culinary (con)fusion? rhubarb pork noodles

I don’t know of many people who’ve been to Singapore and don’t like it. The ones who scoff at its well-reported intolerance for everything that interferes with its harmonie communitaire – like chewing gum, litter or Western pluralist democracy – have never been there. Despite what my Guardian-reading brain dictates, my heart commands me otherwise: I love this place.
John Malathronas, Singapore Swing

Six weeks out, and we’re really starting to miss Singapore. The cool order of our little apartment, the convenience of our gorgeous swimming pool, the pure unbridled deliciousness of the food.

And so this weekend we decided to bring a little bit of sunny Singapore to dreich old Scotland, in the form of a rather nice bit of pork belly. My inlaws were staying. They happen to be hopeless with chopsticks and have a pathological fear of fat – even the slightest hint of rind turns them into picky toddlers – so this was going to be a test for them. But the rest of us fully intended to enjoy every mouthful.

Ever on the lookout for recipes to use up my triffid-like rhubarb patch, I decided to brave this peculiar Jamie Oliver recipe: hot and sour rhubarb and crispy pork with noodles. A friend had found it on the internet and almost dared me to give it a go. Out came the chopsticks, the noodle bowls, the Chinese spoons and the cleaver: pork belly is something that I want to do properly.

I wanted to write just a short blog post about this recipe because, if your rhubarb patch is getting out of control like mine, you must give this a go as an alternative to the ubiquitous rhubarb crumble. Not only does it contain the most obscure ingredient ever in the form of “interesting cresses” (sorry Jamie, I could only find cress cresses, but I’ll keep searching) but the rhubarb marinade cooks down into a spicy, tart, savoury, utterly fabulous sauce, almost like a mild rhubarb sambal - you could cook and jar this for so many different things (I have rhubarb ketchup with lovely sausages in mind).

The twice-cooked pork belly is obviously fabulous (except if you’re my MIL who refused to eat any – ho hum). An hour and a half roasting in the marinade followed by a quick, smoky wok fry rendered it both crispy and melting soft (as I set off the smoke alarm my husband rubbed his hands together shouting “wok hei!” in delight). And who knew that rhubarb and fresh coriander is a match made in culinary heaven? J-to-the-O-Dawg, we salute you. Especially after your lovely interview in the Observer Food Monthly at the weekend.

Totally bonkers recipe, totally seasonal major ingredient from the end of the garden, totally fabulous dinner.

Rounded off with cones of mango frozen yoghurt from JO’s 30 minute meals book (if you have the book and haven’t made this yet, you’re not going to believe how good it is), we all felt a little essence of sunny Singapore in our patch of grey British sky.

20 April 2012

a right royal (random) knees up

So it’s the Queen’s birthday tomorrow. Her actual birthday, as opposed to her public birthday in June. I’m not a rampant royalist, I’ve never really given the whole thing much thought... my inner little girl thinks that Kate’s awfy pretty and isn’t it a shame she didn’t bag the princess gig, but other than that they’re just elegant people in photos.

But I do like that the monarch is still allowed to do some arbitrary stuff, like having two birthdays. I mean what’s the point in being Queen if you can’t say “I’m tired of the rain on my April birthday, and I do likes me a good picnic, so I’m going to have one in June too – MAKE IT SO toadies!”

If I were Queen I’d enjoy the random powers. Apparently she can actually appoint whoever she likes to be the Prime Minister! I could have some fun with that one. I would definitely proclaim a national cake, and that cake would obviously be a Victoria sponge. Because Victoria sponge has inherently perfect style.

Let me explain…

I had this maths teacher at secondary school, and he was all about solving your quadratic or geometric problems with style. It was no use simply to arrive at the correct answer with lots of squiggly calculations along the way. With him you got the real praise for getting to that answer in a way that made your classmates gasp at the clarity of your solution. Spotting the slick common denominator at the earliest stage, rendering the most complicated of equations effortless, that was the key. I loved maths, and will never in all my days forget him, striving for style amongst the cosine curves.

A proper Victoria sponge has precisely that style.

Choose your eggs according to your sandwich tins (3 eggs for 18cm, 4 for 20cm tins works for me). Before you begin, weigh the eggs in their shells, and then use exactly that same weight of soft butter, caster sugar and self-raising flour. Isn’t it genius? Blend together, adding a splash of vanilla if you like, divide into tins and bake for 25 minutes.

Every time I make a Victoria sponge I relish the pure stylish clarity of the recipe. (For an inspired and seasonal filling, look at this gorgeous variation published today by GoddessonaBudget… now I think that's a Vicky sponge fit for any Queen.)

But I digress, this week I was baking for someone else’s birthday: not royal but no less dignified is Dom from Belleau Kitchen and his 2nd blog birthday. For the occasion he asked his random recipe followers to make him something celebratory and randomly selected from a baking book. Now a baking book I have! Just look at these bad boys…

hurrah! the first things rescued from the unpacking chaos : )

Using a random number generator I selected page 12, which was Apple Cider Pudding Cake printed out from the Joyful Baker last autumn. (Curiously, it seems to have been the last post she wrote since then, I hope it’s not something I said…)

It’s a very American recipe, and I’m afraid we parochial small islanders do tend to struggle with those. Inches? Fahrenheit? Cups? I had to find an actual ruler and an online conversion chart, and rescue my measuring cups from my daughter’s toy kitchen. And I just don't understand two cups of Granny Smith apples, why not just tell me how many apples? I wasn’t feeling any pure stylish clarity by the time I eventually got started, but that’s likely my fault not hers.

It’s a squishy, treacley, appley pudding with a delicious crunchy crumble topping. I served it with a dollop of natural yoghurt, which it definitely needed because it’s quite sweet. If I were to make it again, I’d significantly streamline the ingredients. Less salt, less sugar, and definitely smaller quantities of spices (mine had a distinct aftertaste of both salt and pepper which I'm sure wasn't intended). I’d probably use self-raising flour rather than all the baking powder and soda. And comparing my photos with the Joyful Baker's, my sugar was clearly a grade darker than hers, which probably wasn't ideal.

The crumble topping is inspired, definitely the best bit. But ultimately, if I knew you were coming for tea Dom, I think you’d right royally agree with my conclusion: stick with slick Vic. (or Vik?!)

Happy Birthday Belleau Kitchen, and Gawd bless ya Ma'am.

all cakes taste better with tea and a doily

18 April 2012

in search of...


I'm not asking for much, just a tiny bit of perfect. Sadly my life is not. It's in pathetic and woeful c.h.a.o.s. My brain stops working in chaos, anxiety and neuroses start accumulating, resulting in complete apathy and underachievement.

I want to make something for a special little baby in London who is due to arrive any minute, and I was inspired by the sheer flawless purity of this post by a blogger known as Pilli Pilli. From the way she writes, she clearly doesn't even consider herself a very accomplished knitter. Bah, some people are almost too clever.

Motivated, I got some navy blue DK out of my wool box (n.b. I've started to rail against the "s" word... you know the one... it seems a bit furtive and harsh. Just me?) and started the puerperium pattern that I've read so much about. I figure that navy blue can go either way gender-wise with the correct choice of buttons. Bugger it, there's something I'm quite hopeless at, choosing buttons.

Nevermind, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it, for now I have to try and make a pretty picture for Yarn Along. But hang on... all my surfaces have sticky marks, dust bunnies, cracked paint (not in a shabby chic kinda way) or heaps and heaps of stuff from the container delivery, still piled up with no idea what to do with any of it.

Deep breath. Note to self: remember the New Years resolution, "hope in honest error" and all that.

So enough grumbling: the puerperium does indeed look like it'll turn out nice, if not quite as evenly perfect as Pilli Pilli's lovely pieces. Everyone's got to have something to aim for. And The Blue Afternoon continues to be one of the most brilliant stories I've read in ages, I hope it has a good ending.

In the meantime, I'm going to sow peas with The Boss. A little bit of perfect after all.

13 April 2012

project 52: sacrifice

We made a massive sacrifice today.

A whole container pulled up outside the house yesterday afternoon, and within the hour all of our earthly possessions had been disemboweled into a big heap. Make that five big heaps actually, one in each room of our very small house. Without a flat surface to be seen, it looked like we'd been ransacked in a particularly gory whodunnit movie.

Today, due to the sheer volume of unnecessary bilge that we'd just knowingly shipped across the world (carbon footprint guilt) and with some destructive renovations looming, my husband and I made a decision to live differently, perhaps a bit more like the original 1937 residents of our home. Without something that I love.

Without so many books.

We had so many that we were keeping for ridiculous reasons like:
a) they were a gift, and we wouldn't want to offend
b) we enjoyed reading them (like, 12 years ago)
c) we like the look of them, books on shelves look interesting

The thinning out became addictive, brutal and ruthless. The Oxfam charity bookshop boxes very quickly outnumbered those that we decided to keep, and before we knew it we'd achieved what we set out to; four shelves of books. Yup. Four.

The eagle-eyed might spot that these four shelves cover everything. Gardening, cooking, fiction, knitting, child-rearing, travel, and even key texts from two of my previous professional careers.

sorry, iphone photo for today's p52, I don't even know where my camera is in the chaos

I feel purged. Especially as the bookshelf sits in the precise position that the tv once occupied. It is the one item that we asked the container men not to remove from its box.

Sacrifice, it can feel good. But I'm not sure the librarian down the road is going to feel likewise when I take my next reading list to him...

project 52 p52 weekly photo challenge my3boybarians.com

*disclaimer, our daughter's books aren't part of this deal. Her bedroom shelf inches now probably outstrip ours, but as a budding bookworm, she can never have too many!

11 April 2012

we survived

It’s a miracle that we’re both still alive and on speaking terms. Though I remember having the exact same thought the day after returning from my honeymoon, this time I’m talking about my progeny and I.

I’ve always suspected that I’m not an easy person to be cooped up with for too long, and I’m crashingly awful at being ill, so the combination ain’t pretty. But The Boss has stoically endured a whole week of my “groaning-on-sofa-under-blanket” parenting, with the notable absence of both her father and a telly. Amazingly, she seems very capable of (largely) looking after herself, and has proven that boredom is the true mother of invention, making pop-up books, chick nests and tangled webs of “knitting”, all without supervision.

I’m not very good at sympathy – I do feel it for others, I just can’t seem to rearrange my facial features or words into the appropriate shapes – so I really don't ever expect any in return. Suffice to say that since last week’s Yarn Along post, I’ve progressed from (evidently!) delirious high fever, to the vile sneezy streaming (the kind that just got me a seat to myself on a crowded bus), stopping in at whey-faced inert lethargy for Easter.

At some ill-defined point over the loooong Easter weekend, I realised that having paper airplanes thrown at my semi-conscious head by a child standing on the dining table, was newspaper cartoon strip fodder… at best (or pure neglect at worst). So I roused myself and tried to teach the girl how to do French knitting (or knitting nancy as my Mum calls it).

Luckily for me, it seems slightly beyond the dexterity of a five year old. I say luckily because I was immediately hooked. The only yarns I have just now are odds and sods from a previous project, so I can’t cast on anything new, but I can enjoy the brainless monotony and instant gratification that the Nancy brings.

I don’t know what this long snake is destined to be… I thought it might make a nice edging for a future hat or small person garment, but I don’t know if the tension works out well for that sort of thing. (Does anyone know? Would it wash okay attached to the edge of a sweater made in the same yarn?)

Regardless, for now it’s therapy.

I’m still reading The Blue Afternoon by William Boyd, and I think it is totally fabulous. I’m enjoying it so much that I’m reading it really slowly so-as not to miss anything. For a girl with my background, this book has everything going for it: architecture, medicine, South East Asia. Love it love it love it.

07 April 2012

on pie

Returning home seems to have imbued my posts with an awful lot of nauseating nostalgia this past month. I do apologise, and place the blame squarely at the feet of my extended family. It's been quite some time since I saw or spoke with them. Now that we're thoroughly reacquainted and secure in the knowledge that we definitely live in the same country again, we'll probably go back to completely ignoring each other.

But I'm not quite finished with the nostalgia. When I'm single parenting for a prolonged period of time, The Boss and I resort to nursery food. (By prolonged I mean, like, more than about three days. I know, not that long really except that it happens rather frequently.) Parenting without help, when you haven't washed your hair or heard adult conversation for days, is not an occasion for cuisine. Porridge, boiled eggs with soldiers, fish fingers with peas, cheese on toast, baked fruit with cream. You get the picture.

Which brings me to pie.

My brother and I were boarders at a prep school. (I know, I know, let's get the standard responses out of the way: how awful, cold showers, cross country runs, Latin, nits, psychological trauma - actually it was kind of marvellous and magical, sorry to disappoint.) It was quite a small school and we had a fabulous dinner lady who cooked amazing food, pretty much from scratch, three times daily. She had her seventh birthday during my time at that school, by virtue of having been born on the 29th February, making her about the most fascinating person we knew.

The favourite meal of every child without exception was a particular kind of pie, always dished out in dozens of large enamelware dishes - the white ones with a blue rim - on occasional (all-too-infrequent) weekend evenings.

Aping the research of all the most meticulous journalists, I did a cursory Google search earlier, and found that one former pupil has blogged about this precious delicacy already. Sort of. She's created her own vegan variation. Vegan. I mean each to their own, but some things are so fundamentally not vegan that having the gaul to publish this under the same sacred name... well, it takes some chutzpah. Probably borne of the knowledge that she'll outlive us all.

So, at risk of other schoolmates Googling the dish, finding my blog, identifying me and noticing that I'm crackers too, I'm not going to publish the name of the pie. (For some reason I just like being anonymous. Remember: boarding school, fragile psyche so go easy.) It does have a title, and if anyone can guess it I'll send you some vegan sausages as a prize. Let's face it, they'd survive the journey.

Prep school pie

     pork sausages (the fatter the better)
     baked beans
     well seasoned mashed potato
     grated cheddar (must be the orange-coloured stuff - not quite sure why)

1. While the peeled potatoes are boiling for the mash, grill the sausages but try not to let them get too crispy on the outside.

2. Once the sausages are done, chop into inch-long pieces and put them in the pie dish.
3. Pour over the baked beans (obviously the quantity of all the ingredients depends on the number of people you're feeding and the size of your pie dish).
4. Mash the potatoes with plenty of butter, milk, salt and pepper, and place on top of the pie filling, making sure you leave a nice rough surface - "plough" the top with a fork if necessary.
5. Sprinkle liberally with grated cheddar cheese and bake in the oven until the edges are singeing and the sauce is burbling up at the edges (approx 25 minutes in a medium oven - I can't be more specific because the thermostat's broken on mine).

This is school dinner nostalgia, so organic free-range haricot beans are simply not going to cut it in this recipe (something that my poor Mum must've secretly wept over when, after months apart, she would pour her heartbreak into a homemade recreation using the best possible Aberdeen Angus sausages, only for us to declare that we preferred the school version). Simple bangers, Heinz beans, tatties and orange cheese; that's all there is to it.

You might think, if you're not wise enough to keep your own counsel, that this is just sausages, beans and mash rearranged on a plate. You would of course be completely wrong, so many dishes are much, much more than the sum of their parts. There's evidence-based research to back that up... probably. (Nigella's Spaghetti with Marmite springs to mind) 

There is one detail missing in this lovely picture though. It would be much more authentic served in a blue and white enamel dish. I'll need to lust after these Falcon pie and bake sets with the subtlety of a charging elephant when the breadwinner gets home. There's got to be some reward for solo parenting through an entire rainy bank holiday weekend after all, and I'm pretty sure these would trump anything bought in a hurry at Schiphol airport.

Happy Easter peeps.

06 April 2012

project 52: foolin' around

A weekend morning at my Grandparents' house in the mid-eighties. My brother and I were woken with a stage-whisper from Granny, and ordered to come downstairs and play a prank on Grampa. With great flourish on her part, and lots of poorly muffled sniggering on ours, a huge leek was produced. I was told to choose a radiator to hide it behind, while my brother was instructed to go upstairs to our "sleeping" Grampa and tell him, with as much panic as could be feigned, that one of the radiators had a leak.

In an award-winning display of mock-anguish, Grampa (in our eyes, the spitting image of Lance Corporal Jack Jones from Dad's Army, and equally prone to shout "Don't PANIC!" to make us laugh) rushed downstairs and checked all the heaters, becoming more and more flustered until, at last, the offending vegetable was located. Cue helplessly hysterical children, weak with puerile giggles; I think it might have been just about the funniest thing we'd ever done. I'm pretty sure he maintained the charade for the rest of the day, gruffly telling all the neighbours about his wicked grandchildren on our walk for the messages, and having "a word" about our naughtiness when Mum and Dad arrived to collect us.

And because of that morning, I can not do April Fools Day. I've never been able to get past the only April Fools prank that I know. April 1st = leeks on radiators. That part of my brain is closed to any alternatives. With just a few years hindsight, and with each re-telling of the tale, it became startlingly clear that it was a pretty weak gag.

But I might arrange a similar morning ritual for The Boss next year because, seriously, at the time? Hilarious.

project 52 p52 weekly photo challenge my3boybarians.com

04 April 2012

products of a fevered mind

Displays of unreasonable maternal wrath directed towards a helplessly innocent Boss, the opposite end of my usual spectrum... discovering a pregnancy conceived of Fox Mulder (though not the associated saucy bit), who certainly wasn't going to hang around to take part in the hard work... a laboured discussion with midwives about how I was under no circumstances going to labour with said child (to no avail of course)...

...all the random products of last night's feverish thirteen-hour sleep. It seems a throat infection is purging my brain of some deep-seated issues (if you're a dream analyst, restrain yourself, I honestly don't want to know).

And so I wake to find that it's Wednesday at last, and that I'm feeling a fraction better. Thankfully The Boss is low maintenance, never happier than doodling and colouring, so all I need to handle is getting dressed in time for a meeting with an architect. Between now and then I'll sew a calico cushion pad for this Garden Plot Squares blanket gone wrong.

I've made a fair few of these blankets for babies before (I'll see if I can find a few photos to add below - they were pre-blog) and took a notion about two years ago to make a Breton-stripe coloured blanket, with alternating squares of cream and navy. It looked daft, so I've learned to my cost that these blankets always look best in one colour, with a coordinating border at a stretch. But I couldn't bear to frog the eight squares that I had already stitched together, so folding them over to make a cushion seems the only option.

I'm reading The Blue Afternoon, an old William Boyd novel. Not enough progress to report yet, but I love his more recent books.

Yarning along with Ginny.




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