I’m not sure that in normal circumstances I would have picked up Maggie and Me by Damian Barr.
But what do I mean ‘normal circumstances’? I think I mean ‘of my own volition’. I have to confess that much of my book buying I now done online (yes, I own a kindle, and I LOVE it). There is less of that happy bookshop browsing time in my life, although I must confess to an impulse purchase of Jackie Kay‘s ‘Fiere’ when I took the scenic route via Looking Glass Books back to my office the other week.
So, what I am saying is that if I’d happened upon Maggie and Me in a bookshop I probably wouldn’t have given it a second glance.
But luck is on my side. I worked for several years at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (@edbookfest) which wasn’t just the loveliest team in the world, it was also a brilliant provider and recommender of good reading material. Of course. And, although I no longer work there, their Associate Director (@RolandGulliver) is my daily commuting buddy. And one of his many talents is his skill in recommending books. It helps that we both adore Niccolo Amaniti (and are both disappointed in his latest novel).
So, Roland recommended I read Maggie and Me. In fact he issued it as homework when I took week off.
Reading is a slightly different experience with a kindle, as opposed to a physical book with papery pages. For a start you probably won’t have turned it over and read the back, or the inside back cover about the author. You won’t see a picture of the cover every time you pick up the book to read it. So, in effect, all you can go on are the words on the ‘page’. This should be a good thing. And often it is. But it also means that I regularly can’t remember the name of the book or the author I am currently reading.
I remembered Maggie and Me. And Damian Barr. Probably because the book references Margaret Thatcher (the Maggie of Maggie and Me) so regularly, and vividly (opening with the writer’s memory of the night of the Brighton Grand Hotel bombing by the IRA, and Maggie walking out un-harmed, apparently un-fazed). And Damian? Why do I remember his name? Perhaps because he is called names at school, or perhaps just because I tried to remember his name so that I could lookout for more of his writing. Yes, it’s that good.
In Maggie and Me, Damian recreates Scotland in the 80s; it is the era of Thatcher, of her power, but also of the very real hatred of her in many homes in Scotland. Damian’s father works at ‘the Craig’ (Ravenscraig) which is threatened with closure. Wee Damian is convinced that Maggie won’t allow this to happen, but we all know the outcome – there would be no more second sunsets. His parents have separated by this time and Damian is living in the roughest and most violent flat in a rough and violent estate. He finds solace at the Carfin grotto, which says it all about the writer’s ability to find humour in what was an appallingly difficult childhood.
I laughed out loud. I cried. But I didn’t want this book to end. Go buy it. Go buy tickets to see Damian Barr at a Book Festival, or just follow him on twitter – he deserves your attention.
Maggie and Me will certainly make it onto the ‘favourite books of the year’ list for 2013.
I don’t like marmalade.
I’ve never liked marmalade.
I went through these two statements in my head the other day, and then I thought to myself, ‘But perhaps I do’. You see, because I have known all my life that I don’t like marmalade, I’ve never tried it again since I was about 7 years old.
So then I started thinking about children not liking food, and how you should get the kids involved in cooking using the ingredients they think they don’t like. And then voila! They will at least try them. And quite possibly like them, as they are so proud of what they have made.
You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? The farm shop had lovely looking seville oranges, and I decided to test my hatred of marmalade, by making a big vat of the stuff.
I LOVE making preserves, and have several cookbooks devoted just to that, in addition to various back to basics cookbooks and family cookbooks which I was certain would have good recipes. I consulted my go-to website for finding recipes eatyourbooks. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but if you haven’t read that post, then I’ll tell you about it again – if, like me, you have many cookbooks and no longer have an encyclopaedic knowledgeable of exactly what recipes are in which. Register them on the website, and you’ll be able to search for recipes, or on particular ingredients, and it will tell you which books or magazines will have the recipes you are seeking.
So, I narrowed my choice down to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, or Thane Prince. And Thane won (and not only because I follow her on twitter, but because I love her no-nonsense recipes with her explanations of WHY you do certain things).
But of course, being me, I didn’t exactly follow the recipe word for word – I didn’t have enough granulated sugar in the cupboard and was determined not to go back out to the shops again, so I substituted with a mix of caster and dark brown muscovado sugar.
Orange and ginger marmalade
From Jams and Chutneys by Thane Prince. If you are even vaguely interested in preserving, buy this book – it covers the basic techniques and then delicious recipes for everything from an every day raspberry jam, through frozen cranberry vodka to smoky barbecue sauce.
- 1.25kg Seville oranges, scrubbed in warm water
- 115g fresh ginger, cut into 1″ nubs and then crushed
- 1.5kg unrefined sugar (I used 3/4 caster sugar; 1/4 muscovado)
- 200g jar stem ginger preserved in syrup, drained and chopped into slivers (keep the syrup – you’ll need it later)
You will also need a large muslin square, a big heavy based pan and preferably a jam thermometer (although this is not necessary)
- After scrubbing the oranges pop them whole into a large heavy-based pan, with the smashed lumps of ginger and 8 cups of water
- Bring to the boil, cover with a lid and simmer for about 45mins till the fruit is soft and squishy
- Using a holey willie (this is what we call a slotted spoon in my family!) remove the ginger and the fruit from the pan – put it in a big bowl
- Pour the liquid into a jug to see how much you have – if you need to, add more water to make up to 6 cups and put it back in the pot.
- Add the sugar to the pot, and let it start to dissolve (off the heat) while you are processing the oranges
- Before you do anything else, pop a side plate into the freezer, or the icebox of your fridge (this will make sense later)
- Now, sit yourself down, put on the radio and get to work on the oranges. You’ll need a bowl lined with the muslin square, a wee sharp knife, a soup spoon, a chopping board and the bowl of oranges
- Cut the oranges in half, and scoop out all the pith and the seeds and the orangey goodness into the muslin lined bowl. Once all the oranginess is in the muslin square, tie it up securely and pop it in the pot of water
- Thinly slice the peel. This will take a bit of time to do properly, so relax and enjoy, it’s a lovely mindless task, almost meditative once you get going
- Add all the sliced peel to the pot. Pop your sugar thermometer into the pot if you have one, if not, don’t worry – you’ll still get good marmalade
- Bring the mixture up to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes
- Add the ginger syrup and the slivers of preserved ginger
- Cook on a fairly quick boil for a further 30 minutes, or until the marmalade has reached setting point. I didn’t boil it hard enough so it took FAR longer than 30 mins. If you’re using the thermometer, just keep boiling till it reaches ‘jam’ but do the cold plate test to make sure it will set.
- The cold plate test – take the plate out of the freezer and drip a blob of marmalade onto it. Leave a few seconds till it’s properly cold and then push it with your finger. If it’s runny, keep boiling. If it sort of wrinkles at the edges, it’s ready. Voila!
- Remove and discard the bag of oranginess.
- Ladle into sterilised jars, seal and label
A note about sterilising jars. You must do this! If you don’t your marmalade could go nasty really quite soon after putting it in the jars. And what would be the point of that?
You can sterilise them by running them through the dishwasher and using them immediately (without putting your icky fingers inside the jar before filling them). Or wash them in hot soapy water, and place them upright in a baking tray, and pop them in the oven for 20 minutes or so. Again, fill them with marmalade before you fill them with ickiness from your fingers.
And another note for you – about soft peel. That’s what marmalade is all about, yeah? How would I know, I never liked the stuff! Anyway, if you want your peel super soft and lovely, then you have to go through the process of cooking the oranges in water BEFORE you add the sugar. If you add the sugar before the skin has softened it will just go tough and your marmalade won’t be so unctuous and delicious.
So, I guess you want to know if it worked, if I now like marmalade? Well what do you think? Would I be able to resist this unctuous bittersweetness in a jar? It’s DELICIOUS! I still don’t know if I like ALL marmalade, but I certainly love this one.
And you do want the recipe for marmalade and apricot muffins don’t you?
- Concerning Marmalade. (backwardslion.wordpress.com)
- Katie Stewart: Marmalade 2013 (realfoodlover.wordpress.com)
So, I start my sourdough starter today. I’m expecting good things from this – I have an exceptional guide: Sourdough by Yoke Mardewi and I have the right products (OK, so that’s just wholewheat rye flour and water) so what could possibly go wrong?
There will be photographic evidence as I go along, so keep coming back to see how it goes.
- Experiments – Overnight Retardation for Different Sourdoughs (baobread.wordpress.com)
- One Year Of Sourdough Love (myitaliansmorgasbord.com)
Inspiration is a strange thing. You never know where you’re going to find it. Sometimes it’s from another person, a conversation you have, something they mention. Sometimes it’s from something you read, or hear about. Or with cooking it can be from the raw ingredients, what’s available, fresh and seasonal, or just left over in your cupboard. Or from something else you taste. Or a smell, or a memory, or a piece of equipment, or a serving dish, or piece of crockery. And sometimes it just springs up from somewhere inside you and you have no idea how it appeared.
Much of my inspiration comes from what I read, or what ingredients I have to hand, or spy in the shop/market.
Two books which are inspiring me just now include:
Lucas Hollweg’s Good Things To Eat. A very recent purchase, and bought entirely because I love his regular feature in the Sunday Times, our weekend paper of choice. Today I didn’t bother with inspiration, I just made one of the recipes as it was written: a salad of cucumber, strawberry and watercress. Just divine, with a sharp sweet vinegary dressing and more black pepper to add further bite to it. Let me know if you want the full recipe.
Darina Allen’s The Forgotten Skills of Cooking. I’ve owned this book for several years, and find myself constantly going back to it. Recently it was for a recipe for soda bread and its variations, and before that it was elderflower fizz and vinegar. It’s not just a go-to book for certain recipes it is also the perfect book for browsing – I have a fantasy about making a cold smoker, to smoke my own meat and fish and this book shows me how. She also shows you how to to cure bacon, store fruit, make suet, skin a wood pigeon and writes beautifully about her memories of the local pig killer. In fact, what makes this book is the human element – the memories and the stories bring her food to life. If you’re even vaguely interested in what I would call ‘traditional’ cooking skills and recipes then buy this book. It will delight and inspire you.
I have many cookbooks. I know that won’t surprise you. I love books and I love cooking, so of course I have many cookbooks. And I also live in two different places. It’s taken me a while to admit this, but I do. Through the week I am in a wee flat in Edinburgh, and at weekends I am in the Clyde Valley with my boyfriend. I’m living the dream.
But dreams can occasionally be confusing. I don’t always have the clothes I want or need in the place I want them. Or the right necklace to go with whatever I’m wearing. I know, I know, real first world problems.
One of the confusions I wouldn’t have predicted was the recipe confusion. I’m never sure if I’ll have the right cookbook with the recipe I need in the place I’m cooking at the time. Or if I want to plan what to make at the weekend, I can’t browse a cookbook and plan it till I get there.
My new favourite thing is EatYourBooks. It’s a website where you can keep track of your cookbooks. If that was all it did you wouldn’t be very impressed would you? So of course it does more. It has a vast database of indexed cookbooks. And for each indexed cookbook it includes each recipe, and the key ingredients in each recipe. How genius is that?
So, imagine I know I want to cook something with aubergines and chicken. I search ‘my bookshelf’ and I find I have 23 recipes with these two ingredients, ranging from Miso Roasted Chicken (Donna Hay) and Green Chicken Curry (Vatch’s Thai Street Food) to Grilled Breast of Chicken with Provencal Vegetables and Aioli (Simon Hopkinson). And, as I tagged each book as I added it to my shelf, I know which books are in Edinburgh and which in the Valley. And of course the website lists the ingredients I need for each recipe (a straight list, without quantities) so I know if I’ll need to buy an extras to make the dish. Oh, and it includes various magazines as well. I tell you, it is perfectly genius, and I love it.
And it includes cookery blogs. And it highlights new articles from its featured blogs, so today I learnt how to make my own creme fraiche from Food52. You do know Food52 don’t you? It’s food porn. But useful porn, if such a thing exists. Go find out for yourself.
Bear with me here.
This cake isn’t especially shiny, but it is possibly the most delicious cake I’ve ever made. It also can pretend to be healthier than some cakes, as it is chock full of pineapple and banana. So, I think that means I can call it shiny cake if that is what I want to call it, or just because an old girlfriend could never remember that its real name was Cookie Shine Cake, and it was always referred to as the Shiny Cake.
A cookie shine is what Scots used to call a tea party. I’m a Scot and don’t recall ever hearing of a cookie shine, but Sue Lawrence tells me it is so, so it must be true. She does mention that it was mostly used in the 19th century and that it is now pretty much obsolete, so perhaps I’m forgiven for never having used it; I’m not THAT old.
The cake is moist and sweet, like a luxurious, tropical carrot cake, covered in luscious creamy cream cheese icing. Go on, it’s simple to make, uses up that desiccated coconut and the tin of smushed pineapple you have in the cupboard. Oh? Is it only me who has a random tin of crushed pineapple in the back of the cupboard?
This recipe comes from Sue Lawrence’s Scottish Kitchen. She’s a great cookery writer providing foolproof baking recipes for all manner of classic scottish homebaked goods, such as shortbread, bannocks and scotch pancakes. But there is so much more to her books than classic scottish high tea fare – not only does she provide a bit of social history around her recipes, and her travels around Scotland, but she also has great go-to recipes for almost every occasion, from quick weekday suppers to outdoor eating (yes, in Scotland!) and smart dinners. Go on, buy one of her books and see what I mean.
Anyway, here we go:
- 250g / 9oz SR flour
- 275g / 9.5oz light muscovado sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnnamon
- a pinch of salt
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 225ml / 8 fl oz sunflower or rapeseed oil
- 1 432g can of crushed pineapple, in natural juice, drained
- 2 small ripe bananas, peeled and squished
- 50g / 1.75oz desiccated coconut
- 75g / 2.75oz chopped roasted hazelnuts
- 100g / 3.75oz butter, softened
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 200g / 7oz cream cheese (full or low fat, you decide)
- 300g / 10.5oz golden icing sugar
- 1 TBsp chopped roasted hazelnuts
Prepare two 8″ cake tins (or one deep loose-bottomed tin) and preheat the oven to 280C / 350F / GM4
- Mix flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt together in a big bowl
- Add the eggs and the oil
- Add the pineapple, bananas, coconut and hazelnuts and mix well together
- Spoon the mixture into the cake tin/s and bake for 35 – 40 minutes. You’ll need slightly longer if you are using one cake tin, so do check it’s ready by inserting a skewer into the centre of the cake and if it comes out clean, it’s ready. If not, give it another few minutes and test again.But remember if you are opening and shutting the oven door on your cake, do it gently – you don’t want to blast in any cold air into the oven, or the cake will flop.
- Leave to rest in the tin for about 30minutes and then turn out onto a wire rack to cool.
- While it’s cooling you can get on with the icing.
- Cream together the butter, vanilla extract and cream cheese, using an electric beater, till smooth.
- Start adding the icing sugar a little at a time and keep beating till all the icing sugar is added and the icing is smooth and luscious.
- If you had one cake, split it in two. Sandwich the two halves together with icing and then cover the top with icing too. Sprinkle toasted hazelnuts round the outside edge of the top, or all over. Or not at all.
Now, get yourself a nice cake plate and serve your cake, preferably with a pot of Earl Grey tea and proper porcelain tea cups.
I have to say that Sue Lawrence is very particular about her half ounce measurements – I am not. I still prefer to cook in ounces and pounds. I know what 4oz of butter looks and feels like; I can measure out an ounce of flour just using spoons and hardly need to use the weighing scales. This recipe, I’m pleased to report, seems to be fairly forgiving – so if you want to round up or down with your ounces please do so. But don’t blame me (or Sue Lawrence!) if it doesn’t quite work.
I love Ann Patchett. I didn’t know I loved Ann Patchett, but really I think I do.
She’s one of those authors who have crept up on me. I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of her and then I started coming across Bel Canto a few years ago, and it became one of those books that I ended up having to read, or it felt like it would keep cropping up in my life until I did. But let’s face it, it was no hardship to read it was it? If you haven’t been there yet, just buy it this weekend and find a comfy spot and start reading. You’ll thank me.
Then I saw Ann Patchett at the Book Festival in Edinburgh a few years ago. She was with another author, Valerie Martin I think, and I have a feeling that it was the other author I was initially interested in. Anyway, I no longer recall why I was quite so determined to see this event… out of around 800 events with world class authors, thinkers, politicians, commentators, illustrators, historians, philosophers, scientists, et al why would it be this one that I actually go to? You see, although I worked at the world’s largest (and possibly greatest) book festival for a number of years my attendance at live literature events was woefully low. But I read a lot, and had a great time, so no regrets!
Anyway, back to Ann P. I bought her novel ‘Run’ off the back of seeing her in conversation with Valerie Martin. And it didn’t disappoint either.
So, when I saw that State of Wonder was shortlisted for the Orange, I knew I had to read it. That was all I knew about State of Wonder though – it was written by Ann P and had been shortlisted for the Orange prize. So, two good reasons to read it really.
It’s interesting when you start reading a book with no real idea of ‘what it’s about’. Especially if you read on an e-reader and so don’t see even the front cover as a clue, or the blurb on the back to give you an idea of what might be within. I realise that ‘what it’s about’ is often not what makes a book great – recently I have read about an orphan, shopping malls, the life of Achilles, a second marriage, a child in a poor estate in south London, and so on….
Anyway, I wasn’t expecting a research scientist from a large pharmaceutical company to shlep off to the Amazon to try to get a major research project back on track, and find out what happened to her colleague who had been despatched to do the same job some weeks earlier. But State of Wonder isn’t just about any of those things, is it? It will be about different things to different people I’m sure, but for me it’s about where you belong, and about loss and being lost. And found. And about parenthood. It’s about dreams. And nightmares. About ideals and compromise; about hopes, dreams and desires. It’s beautifully written, evoking the intense heat and sheer ‘foreign-ness’ of arriving in a town on the Amazon. The main characters are all women and all strong women, but each with their own vulnerabilities. Ann P is so good at drawing characters, people you feel you know from the first encounter with them, and then as you read, you just get to know them better.
I studied science many years ago. In my naivety at school I had hoped to be a research scientist, discovering the cures for all the world’s ills, or at least cancer (AIDS hadn’t appeared in our lives at that point. Yes, I’m that old!). So, I studied for a degree in Medicinal Chemistry. And quickly realised that I would never work for a large pharmaceutical company and would never discover any cures. I’d already worked out that scientific research probably wasn’t my vocation in life (really? I have to do exactly the same experiment over and over and over again every day for weeks and weeks and weeks just tweaking at the different components and reporting on any changes? How dull). But when the pharma companies started the ‘milk round’ of recruitment of fresh young graduates the remaining vestiges of that enthusiastic naivety and hope for the future died. They were oh so proud of a drug they had produced which reduced the symptoms of ulcers (and therefore made them lots of $$$ from stressed American businessmen). In the very next sentence they told us they were cancelling all research into a drug which had the potential in the future to eradicate a third world disease (was it cholera? Malaria? Or something altogether different, I can’t recall). But it would never make them any money. So the research was being pulled.
State of Wonder reminded me of my earlier self, and the erosion of my state of wonder. But I’m glad I’m not a research scientist. I would have been pretty rubbish at it, and I never looked good in a white coat anyway.