My April Books

Yes, I know I’m a little late with this. My excuse is that given it was snowing on Friday I found it a little hard to believe that we were really going into May Bank Holiday weekend.

April booksRecipe For Love  by Katie Fforde

I had read this this fun and frothy Katie Fforde novel in the past, but was tempted to re-read it because I had been binge-watching  the early series of Great British Bake Off, and this seemed a suitable accompaniment. The main protagonist is a contestant on a TV cookery competition and she falls in love with one of the judges. Fforde was inspired to write it after becoming addicted to Bake Off herself, and it seemed highly appropriate for matching my reading to my viewing. Does anyone else do that?

Death on the Riviera by John Bude

This book is part of the British Library re-prints of Golden Age classic crime novels. It was a birthday present from Anna back in February, but I saved it until April because I knew we were going on holiday to the South of France then, and so it seemed appropriate. I think John Bude’s novels are probably by favourite of the British Library series so far, and this one didn’t disappoint. It was well-written, excellent at creating the atmosphere of the French Riviera in the 1950s, and had a very clever solution. Good present choice, Anna!

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

This was another birthday present, from my parents this time, which I also saved for our holiday in France.  The week before my birthday I’d coincidentally chosen this novel as a present for a friend, so I was very keen to read it and see if I’d made a good choice!

While I was reading it I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not, and I’m still not entirely sure. It was an interesting and though-provoking read, quite different from my habitual literary diet of chick lit and detective fiction. The characters were intriguing and sensitively drawn, and the concept – of a man running a ‘literary pharmacy’, able to prescribe books to cure all human emotional ills except his own – really appealed to me, not least because this is often how I tend to treat books myself.

The downside for me was that I found the language and some of the scenarios just a little too far-fetched and verging on self-indulgent. Perhaps some of the language issues are related to translation as this novel was originally written in French. I always worry about translated works as, inevitably, the translator has as much influence on the finished text as the author, and that gives me an uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty as to who actually intended what. However, not much to be done about it as there is no way that my nearly two decade old A-level French is up to this!

I don’t think this is something I will re-read as I didn’t absolutely love it, but I am very glad to have come across it.

Murder at Ashgrove House and Murder at Dareswick Hall by Margaret Addison

I felt a little bit low last week for some reason, and Sophia was teething and having a horrible time of it, so I was tired, had even less time than usual to read, and when I did get a chance I wanted something interesting  but undemanding and comforting.

This modern series of detective fiction set in the 1930s which I discovered on my Kindle turned out to be absolutely perfect.The sleuth is a London shop girl, Rose Simpson, who gets almost accidentally mixed up in aristocratic circles with a very high suspicious death rate. The books are an open pastiche, or perhaps tribute, to Agatha Christies’s country house classics, with a strong element of Downton Abbey thrown in.

They follow all the conventions of classic detective fiction, are cleverly plotted and fun to read. You definitely have to be a big Golden Age detective fiction fan to enjoy them, but I am, so that’s alright.

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Thirteenth Day of Advent: Baking

This is not the post I intended to write today, but the one I had almost finished writing vanished without warning or trace into the WordPress equivalent of a black hole. And as today is Sophia’s 1st birthday tea party, I don’t have a super-abundance of time or, to be frank, inclination, to re-write it.

Sophia's birthday cake, illustrating perfectly that presentation is not my thing!

Sophia’s birthday cake, illustrating perfectly that presentation is not my thing!

So instead I am going to write about baking briefly, before getting back to actually doing it!

Baking was on my list anyway. I enjoy a lot of cooking, but baking is undoubtedly my favourite. I have also discovered that it is cheaper and less time consuming than therapy. If I am feeling stressed or depressed, heading to the kitchen and rustling up a batch of brownies, or a few muffins or a coffee cake inevitably cheers me up and puts things back into perspective. Plus if the actual baking hasn’t worked, eating the results will definitely do the trick.

December is peak month for baking. So far this month I have baked:

  • 2 batches of mince pies
  • 24 cup cakes for the school Christmas Fair
  • 1 batch of rocky road for Sophia’s tea party today
  • 1 batch of iced biscuits to decorate the Christmas tree
  • Sophia’s birthday cake
  • The Christmas cake

But I’ve barely started. Still to go I have:

  • A batch of fudge for presents
  • 3 more batches of rocky road for presents
  • At least one, probably more, batches of mince pies
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cookies for Anna’s school party
  • Cinnamon buns to freeze and have for breakfast on Christmas morning
  • The traditional Christmas Eve Yule Log
  • Something for pudding on Christmas Day – none of us like Christmas pud, so I’m exploring alternatives. Any ideas, let me know.

Oh yes, and the Christmas cake to ice. It sounds like quite a lot, and it does represent many, many hours in the kitchen, but give or take, it is time I will very much enjoy. If I’m on my own while Anna is at school and Sophia naps then I’ll put Radio 4 on as I potter round. If Anna is home then she’ll help me, which means things tend to get a bit messy, but we have fun. And by Christmas Eve itself I will have abandoned Radio 4 in favour of wall-to-wall carols on Classic FM. I will also have banned everyone else from my kitchen by then as my control freakery approaches its zenith.

Occasionally someone has been kind enough to enjoy something I’ve made, and suggests I go on Great British Bake Off. It always makes me laugh, because with absolutely no false modesty, I can say that presentation is very, very, very far from being my thing. I’m far too slapdash and impatient, not to mention cackhandedly incompetent.  Watching Bake Off is a huge pleasure, simply because the amazing creations on there are so very far from anything that comes out of my kitchen. I don’t mind, though,  apart from the annual stress of providing Anna, and now Sophia, with birthday cakes to be proud of. It just makes me happy mess around with flour, sugar, butter, eggs and witness the alchemy that transforms them into delicious and welcoming treats for family and friends

The Food of Love

I love food. No big secret there. I spend a very large proportion of my waking hours either shopping for food, cooking, eating or thinking about what I want to buy, cook or eat.

The last couple of months, though, have challenged this love somewhat. Sophia is now eating three meals a day (and by ‘eating’ I am using the baby definition, which actually means throwing to the floor or smearing as widely as possible across face, hair, clothes and anyone unwise enough to be in her vicinity), and so in addition to all the other family meals I have to think about what she is going to eat. If there’s one thing hungry babies don’t like, it is mummy vanishing into the kitchen to spend ages cooking, so Sophia’s food needs to be planned and preferably cooked in advance.

My husband and I have always eaten separately from Anna during the week. There are several reasons. One is that my husband is almost never home before 7pm, often much later, and, in my opinion anyway, that is far too late for a young child to be eating and going to bed. There is the option of me eating with Anna and husband eating alone later, but that would still be two  separate meals, and it is not something we’ve seriously considered as we both feel that taking the time to sit down together for a proper meal, sometimes a glass of wine, and really catching up on each other’s days, however dramatic or mundane those days have been, is a real cornerstone of our marriage. I sit at the table with Anna, and chat to her, and sometimes have a snack to keep me going until dinner at 8.30pm, but I am always glad to have that adult time to look forward to. Another, more prosaic, reason for our decision is that we (especially I!) love spicy food. Rarely a week goes by without us eating Thai. Indian or Mexican style food, and Anna has made it abundantly clear that she is not a fan, and I’m not prepared to give up my curries in the interests of a family meal.

My plan was (and is) that now Anna and Sophia can now eat their evening meals together. This is working a lot of the time, but they’re not always eating the same food, so often I’m cooking separately for them. Sometimes this is because Sophia is still on a strict(ish) no salt, no sugar regime, and I don’t want to deprive Anna of reasonable treats for the sake of eating the same as her sister. Sometimes Anna has eaten a big school lunch and only wants a sandwich. And sometimes I want to take advantage of the fact that Sophia is yet to develop an intolerance for green veg and cram as much spinach and broccoli into her as I can before she decides they’re inedible. Anna has been of that view since she was about fourteen months. Meals I have discovered which work for both of them are eggy bread, beans on toast, macaroni cheese, pasta with tomato and veg sauce, baked potatoes, and chilli (without the hot spices). I’m working on increasing that repertoire, but in the meantime, a standard day can see me making porridge and toast for breakfast (having previously batch cooked the granola my husband eats), then something for mine and Sophia’s lunch, then a snack for Anna when she gets home from school, then an evening meal for Sophia, an evening meal for Anna and an evening meal for us. Throw in a play date guest, or a bake sale at school, or an ungovernable yearning for chocolate brownies, and you can see why I’m never out of the kitchen.

I still love food and cooking. I love the sense of nurturing and providing for my family. And I am thankful daily that we are lucky enough to be able to afford plenty of good, safe, nutritious food and the fuel to cook it with. But. But. Sometimes it just all feels so relentless. It’s not just the cooking, it’s planning it, and making sure we’ve got the ingredients in stock, and then clearing the kitchen, loading and unloading the dishwasher, picking up the discarded food from under the table and wiping everything clean, washing the filthy bibs and muslins and mopping up the spilt milk. There is a certain, inescapable, amount of drudgery involved, and it can be difficult not to feel overwhelmed by it, and lately I have been.

cinnamon bunsOn Sunday, though, I surprised myself by trying a new and fairly complicated recipe for cinnamon swirl bins, just for the fun of it. I’d got the recipe from Jenny Colgan’s novel The Little Beach Street Bakery (if there’s one thing I love more than a good chick lit novel, it’s a chick lit novel with ace recipes in it!), and I was a little trepidatious because dedicated viewing of the Great British Bake Off has taught me that sweetened, enriched doughs can be very tricky. I could almost see the sceptical look on Paul Hollywood’s face. But, do you know what, they worked! They were absolutely delicious if I do say so myself. Their appearance could probably be tactfully described as rustic, and I may have been a bit heavy handed with the icing (although no one complained), but they tasted incredible – so much nicer than anything similar you can buy. Along with an omelette they made a fantastic lazy Sunday brunch which we all enjoyed (I stretched the no sugar rule sufficiently to give Sophia a taste), and I rediscovered my love for pottering in the kitchen. Perhaps simply because they weren’t an essential meal it made baking them all the more enjoyable. The food I make generally comes out of love for my family, but it was nice to reignite my own love of food too.

Summing up Summer

I’m a bit slow off the mark with the obligatory summer in review post. I could blame the back-to-school rush, or the poorly catten, but I think my own disorganisation would probably be fairer.

For the past couple of years, when confronted with a six week summer holiday, I have scheduled, scheduled, scheduled in a desperate attempt to avoid boredom and cabin fever. This year was a little different. We had one week’s holiday in Cornwall planned, and I spent a few days with my parents in Liverpool right at the beginning of the summer, but otherwise we had a blank slate. I was a little bit nervous, but it turned out to be just what we all needed.

This was the summer that Anna learnt to ride a bike, Sophia learnt to crawl and I learnt the true meaning of multi-tasking. Feeding the baby her porridge, bidding on Ebay, eating my own breakfast and joining in a spirited Sound of Music singsong?No problem.

The weather wasn’t brilliant, but we had fun anyway, and spent time doing a lot of the things that just get squeezed out in term-time as weekends have so many competing demands. We had a pyjama day, took a selection of soft toys to the playground, made pizza, chilli, spaghetti sauce, butterfly cakes, chocolate cake and Smarties cookies (not all on the same day), did some gardening, started reading Famous Five, had some cycling practice, and got messy with paints and crafts. We spent a lot of time babyproofing and looking round for objects which could be dangerous to Sophia, and even more time removing the ones we’d missed from her mouth.

Mornings without the pressure of the school run were sheer bliss, and time didn’t hang heavy at all. There were days when I felt like I’d taken up a new, unpaid career in catering but generally it was a lot easier than I’d feared. There was a summer hero though. By about 4.30pm my nerves, patience and creativity would be stretched fairly thin and I still had teatime, bathtime and bedtime to get through. That was when the wonder that is Cbeebies came into its own, giving me breathing space to sit down for ten minutes and then cook tea with only one small person, who could be contained in her bouncy chair for a while, to worry about. Telly which is safe, fun, educational, perfectly targeted to young children and free from advertising is an absolute godsend, so I was more than a bit panicstricken today to learn that the BBC are thinking of scrapping it as part of their enforced cost-cutting measures. Frankly I would pay the license fee for Cbeebies alone, so I rushed to sign the petition against the cut. If you and your children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren have also benefited as much as we have from Cbeebies then I’d encourage you to do the same.

And now we have shiny new shoes, warm coats, school bags, PE kits, GBBO on telly, leaves turning colour…and the unbroken blue skies and blazing sunshine which were conspicuous only by their absence in August.

Hello Kittens

This is Day Five with our new kittens, Percy (black) and Henry (tabby) and I’m already forcibly reminded of those early days with a newborn baby, though with a few notable exceptions.kittens1

One similarity is the clearing up of poo. Thankfully Percy and Henry are pretty well trained, but their arrival chez nous was rather complicated by the fact that Percy had had a little accident in the cat carrier on the way here. He’s a very fluffy kitten, with quite long hair, and it took ten minutes of my friend holding him over the sink while I attacked him with baby wipes to get him clean. Possibly she was marginally less wriggly, and definitely less fluffy,  but it was very reminiscent of my husband and I trying to change our 8 week old daughter’s very dirty nappy in an old-fashioned train toilet with no changing table. The difference, of course, is that at 10 weeks old the kittens are litter trained bar the odd accident, and it took me three years to get my daughter to that stage.

Another similarity is the struggle to give medicine to a small animate being who doesn’t want to take it. We had to give our kittens three doses of worming medicine on three consecutive days. Day One I cheerfully grabbed a kitten, grabbed the syringe, and then realised I had no free hand with which to open mouth, and, in fact, that one hand was proving grossly inadequate to restrain a kitten who had clearly got the idea he wasn’t going to like this. We tried again when my husband got home, and dose one was (eventually) successfully given. Day Two was even more problematic. I stupidly let my husband toddle off to work at 7.30am, forgetting that he had an evening event and wouldn’t be home before 11pm (way after my bedtime), and the kittens hadn’t yet had their daily dose. I tried to draft Anna in to help me, but frankly (and, arguably, predictably) she was about as much use as a chocolate teapot, because every time the kitten wriggled she just let go. A cat-owning friend who also has children at Anna’s school volunteered (translation: was guilt-tripped) to come home with me to help, and embarrassingly she was the one who got scratched. I felt very bad. This morning, Day Three, husband tried to make good his escape with an airy ‘see you tonight, darling’, but I was ready for him. Deploying tactics similar to those used on the kittens I prevented him leaving until the third (and thankfully final) dose had been administered. It was him who got scratched today. Not by me, I hasten to add. I’ve now been advised by another cat-owning friend that wrapping a towel around is the best way to contain them, and I will definitely try that in future. On the cats, rather than my husband that is.Percy

The third similarity I’ve noticed is probably just me, but, as when Anna was a baby, I keep panicking that the kittens have stopped breathing. They’re still very small and so need a lot of sleep, and they seem to sleep so deeply, and breathe so shallowly that I start to panic, and find myself lying next to them, hand on back to try and feel breathing, or hear signs of life. I know. It is just me.

The final similarity is cost. Thankfully we have a free at the point of need NHS which takes care of a baby’s health needs, whereas kittens have to be expensively treated at the vet’s. However, medical care aside, one of the things I remember about being pregnant is that when someone tells you you need a piece of kit – cot, pram, sling, high chair, bouncy chair – without much questioning you simply hand over your credit card, only to result in shock-induced early labour when the bill finally comes through. Same with the kittens. The vet told me they needed flea treatment, worming, vaccinations, specially formulated kitten food etc etc, and it all seemed eminently reasonable. Until I saw the bottom line. Eek. A baby might actually be cheaper, at least I could breastfeed them.

Other similarities are more akin to looking after a toddler than a newborn – insatiable curiosity, determination to make a beeline for the one thing you don’t want them to have, manic jealousy of any animate or inanimate object they feel is getting too much of your attention. The kittens are constantly trying to bat my hands away from the laptop, just as Anna used to do.

The biggest difference is that you don’t have to get up several times a night to feed and comfort kittens. I was worried about leaving them on their own at night, but as my husband has a cat allergy and so we’re keeping them out of the bedroom, there wasn’t any real alternative. And they seem fine. They have the run of the kitchen and dining room, with their bed (as yet unslept in, they prefer our furniture of course), litter tray, food and water and seem perfectly happy with that. Henry

And they’re utterly adorable. They always sleep curled up together, which is incredibly endearing, and when they’re awake they either go completely crazy chasing each other’s tails, which is also very cute, or they’re mega affectionate, and climb on to my lap for cuddles and strokes, purring like mini steam engines. Last night I had what is perhaps the ultimate comfort experience as I sat, in my pyjamas, eating a bowl of homemade chilli, watching Great British Bake Off, with two sleeping kittens on my lap. Autumn evening bliss.