My February Books

Feb booksThe Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

This book caught my eye last month when I was reading the January book reviews of one of my favourite bloggers, Mostly Yummy Mummy. She strongly recommended this fascinating account of a British journalist’s decision to move, for her husband’s job, to one of the most remote parts of Denmark. She made it her mission to discover why this cold and dark country regularly tops world happiness polls. Part sociology, part memoir, part lifestyle, this is always brilliantly, wittily written and certainly made me long to be Danish. It’s highly unlikely my husband will be offered a job in Denmark any time soon, but if he was this book would tempt me into encouraging him to accept. With my political hat on I found it interesting and inspiring that Danes are willing and proud to pay high taxes in order to provide top quality public services for everyone, and that this has resulted in an equal, contented and economically successful society. There’s a lesson there, Mr Osborne…

The Light Years, Marking Time & Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Wow! My best friend and fellow bookworm bought me all five of the Cazalet chronicles for Christmas, and I love her more than ever for it. I’ve read the first three, and am half way through the fourth, and I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed reading anything so much. The novels are a proper old-fashioned family saga, following the lives of the extended upper-middle class Cazalet family in the years leading up to, during and immediately after the second world war.

Howard has a superb gift for evoking that world and drawing you so deeply in to the lives of her characters that they feel almost more real than the people around you. She switches effortlessly from character to character, storyline to storyline, skilfully treading the fine line between dissatisfaction and satiety. I wept, agonised and laughed along with the main protagonists, but I also particularly enjoyed the intricate pen portraits of incidental characters who would be passed over by many other novelists.

These are the kind of books you can’t stop reading (I hope I haven’t neglected my children too severely), but never want to end. They are also books I know I will read again and again, and the characters will live vividly in my head for the foreseeable future. If you haven’t read these, get to a library or bookshop immediately, you have a treat in store.

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, Carry On, Jeeves, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, Thank You, Jeeves Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

February hasn’t been the best month ever for me, as I seem to have been feeling unwell for most of it. I was so ill with tonsillitis that I actually ended up spending three or four days in bed, which is almost unheard of. At the time I was in the middle of the second Cazalet novel, and, although I was loving it, I felt too headachy and under the weather to properly appreciate it, and I wanted a good old comfort read. My husband is a huge P.G. Wodehouse fan, as was my late father-in-law, so we have a huge stash of his work, and husband suggested there was nothing better as a feel-good-pick-me-up. I took him at his word, and motored through five Jeeves novels during my enforced rest.

One of them had an introduction which included this quote from Evelyn Waugh:

Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity which may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I couldn’t have put it better myself. One of my favourite things about reading is that there are worlds and people I can visit whenever I want to. Anya Seton can take me to medieval England, L.M. Montgomery to late Victorian/Edwardian Canada, Maeve Binchey to 1950s Ireland. Whatever is happening in my own life, those alternate realities will never change. And frankly, when you are lying in bed in the 21st century, feeling miserably sorry for yourself, and worrying about your husband being left on his own to cope with two poorly, grumpy children, and the housework all piling up, then escaping to a 1920s Piccadilly bachelor flat, or luxurious country house, with a butler on hand to smooth all life’s difficulties is pretty good. When this world is depicted so hilariously and in such deliciously rich language, then being ill in bed becomes almost a pleasure.

Nigellissima by Nigella Lawson

My husband got me this for my birthday, knowing that I love a good cookery book, and I especially love a Nigella cookery book. I adore her writing style, and her recipes tend to be my go-to favourites. They always work, they’re always delicious, and they suit my slightly freestyle kind of cooking. I haven’t actually made anything from this book yet, but there are loads of dishes I’m dying to try. Chilli Crab Risotto, Eggs in Purgatory, Prawn Pasta Rosa, Cappuccino Pavlova or instant Chocolate Orange Mousse, anyone?

 

 

Eighteenth Day of Advent: Food

Okay, enough with the mushy stuff about how much my friends and family mean to me. It’s true, they do, but today I am being a little more prosaic and blogging about another great love of my life – food!

Yes, I admit it. I am a girl glutton. I love planning meals, cooking them, eating them, talking about food, reading foodie blogs or snuggling up in bed with a good recipe book. Nigella is my favourite food writer because her recipes suit my style of cooking, and because she uses language so beautifully. Nigel Slater is also brilliant, and I love Sophie Dahl, Lorraine Pascale and Ainsley Harriott too. pretty cakes

Today is a particularly good day to blog about food as I had a normal family breakfast (toasted and buttered fruit loaf, since you ask), and then an end of term lunch out with my friend (buttermilk chicken burger with slaw) and then that same friend is babysitting tonight so husband and I can have a romantic dinner a deux (assuming I can get the children to bed and to sleep on time, and I have room left after my indulgent lunch). We’ll return the favour and one of us will sit for her daughter tomorrow night so she and her husband can have a date. It’s a good system.

A lazy lunch out, followed by Anna breaking up early for the end of term, means today’s is also going to be a very brief blog indeed. Sophia is currently having a nap – probably far too late for my goal of getting her settled on time tonight – and Anna is chilling with a bit of telly, but I don’t think my window for writing is a very large one. Plus, if I do have a limited laptop the not insignificant fact that the Boden sale started today is also competing for my time!

Sometimes, normally when looking at holiday photos or being unable to fasten my jeans, I wish I loved food a little less passionately. Or at least chocolate, chips, cheese, pasta and rice a little less. But by and large I revel in it. I make an effort to eat healthily in that I try and eat lots of good stuff and pack the veg in, but I refuse to feel guilty about enjoying sugar, fat, carbs or whatever the villain de jour is as well. After all, we pretty much have to eat three times a day every day of our lives, so surely it makes sense to ensure it’s an activity that makes us happy?

Fourth Day of Advent: The little things

My first few posts in this series have been about really big things. My husband and daughters are obviously the foundation of all my happiness, and, I would argue, the NHS is a foundation stone of the nation’s. Generally speaking I think that experiences and people make me happier than things and possessions, and I suspect that these Advent posts will reflect that. On a day to day basis, though, there are lots of little things, which are only things, but which make me smile, or give me a happy glow each time I see them.

A few years ago my friend bought me a set of Cath Kidston tea-cups for my birthday. I love them. They sit on the dresser in my dining room looking beautiful, and they’re the perfect size for an indulgent cup of hot chocolate. So it would be rude not to indulge really.cup

I have a necklace, just a simple silver heart on a chain, which my husband bought me for my 25th birthday. I wear it a lot because it seems to go with everything and because it makes me feel loved and special.

The free beauty magazine Boots produce every couple of months, makes me happy. As does the free Waitrose food magazine and those nice little recipe cards you often get in supermarkets. They make me especially happy once I’ve filed them away in my special recipe folder. I know, I’m a geek.

For me the very first stage of preparing for Christmas is getting my Nigella Christmas cookery book down off the shelf, and starting to plan menus for all our various festive get togethers. This year was even better as my Christmas organiser, a present last Christmas, also got it’s first outing. I know, I’m a geek.

candleI had a mini shopping trip around Walthamstow this morning, buying Christmas cards and a few other little stocking filler bits and pieces, and, a real treat for me – my Christmas scented candle. In life before children I lit candles a lot. I find them beautiful and romantic and fascinating just to gaze at. We ate dinner by candlelight most evenings and I loved nothing more than soaking in a candlelit bath for hours on end. Somehow there hasn’t seemed to be as much time for that over the last few years, to say nothing of the obvious risks of having candles anywhere near little fingers. I still have candles in my bathroom, but generally the closest I get to using them is giving them an ineffectual swipe with a damp cloth every few weeks (months) to remove the dust which has built up. I’m also fussy. Cheap scented candles never smell anything but artificial to me, and always remind me of toilet cleaner. I do know I’m weird about smells – I’m almost phobic about those warm wet wipes you get in Chinese restaurants or on aeroplanes because I find the fake citrus scent so upsetting. Which my husband thinks is hilarious. Rather than have a cheap candle I’d much rather put a simple tea-light in my oil burner with a few drops of lavender or bergamot essential oil. But luxury, high-end, organic, frankly pricey, scented candles are another matter. I only let myself buy one a year, at the beginning of December, and then I light it every evening, and often during the day if we have guests. I always choose something that feels seasonal – this year I’ve gone for orange and clove. It’s in pride of place on the mantlepiece, and I’m really looking forward to lighting it for the first time this evening.

All little things, but ones which I appreciate every time I use them or wear them or see them, and add their little bit to my daily happiness.

 

Weighing up the issue

I’m thrilled to have been asked to guest blog for the Huffington Post. This is my latest post for them:

Like many women, my attitude to my weight and body shape is fairly complicated. There are many factors influencing it – health, feminism, the desire to be attractive, the desire to eat cake, whether or not I’m about to meet up with someone I haven’t seen for a few years – but really it comes down to a constant tension between two polar opposite ethoses which play out in my head thus:

Day One – I pull on my jeans. They feel a bit tight. I reflect regretfully on last night’s pizza, half bottle of wine and half tub of Ben & Jerry’s. I am seized with a conviction that this is not the way to treat my body. My body is a temple. You are what you eat. The way to happiness (and slimness) is suddenly blindingly apparent. I should cut down on sugar, alcohol and other refined carbs. I should increase the amount of fish, seafood, fruit and vegetables I eat. I should avoid heavily processed, salty food. I should exercise regularly. My energy levels will increase, my skin will glow, my jeans will fit, and I won’t get Type 2 diabetes, bowel cancer, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s or CHD. What’s not to like about that?

Days Two, Three, Four and Five – Wow, this really works; I’m so glad I’m the kind of woman who takes care of herself. What delicious recipes I’m discovering. My stomach is flatter, my skin is clear and my energy levels really are soaring. There can be nothing tastier than fresh grilled fish and a huge salad dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. And that endorphin rush after going for a run or a swim, it’s unbeatable.

Day Six – Yuk, it’s cold and rainy today. What I need is an afternoon in the comfort of my own warm kitchen. I’ll bake cupcakes with my daughter. I’ll put a delicious beef and red wine casserole on to simmer, and serve it later with mounds of buttery mashed potato. Syrup sponge and custard would go down a treat after that as well. Yummy. Oh, but hang on a minute. What about the that healthy living malarkey? The reasons for thinking that was a good idea are suddenly obscure. I’m not one of these health food fascists. I am a cook and a foodie. I am a woman with curves. I’m not a whinging calorie counter, I’m a live life to the full kinda gal. And I’m definitely not going to become anaemic through iron deficiency, or get osteoporosis through calcium deficiency. Bring on the pudding!

Days Seven, Eight, Nine and Ten – I’m so glad I’m not one of those women who obsess about their weight all the time. What amazing recipes there are in the world. Hmm, should I make chilli or risotto for dinner tonight? There can be nothing tastier than organic bacon from our local butcher, nestled between two slices of homemade white bread, slathered with butter and a smear of brown sauce. And the endorphin rush of sinking into a hot bubble bath with a good book and a glass of wine, it’s unbeatable.

Day Nine – I pull on my jeans. They feel a bit tight…*and repeat, ad infinitum*

The thing is, when a lot of people fall off the healthy eating wagon, they do it consciously. “Oh, I really shouldn’t have this slice of chocolate cake, I’m trying to be good. Never mind, salad for supper.”, whereas I manage somehow to convince myself that not eating the chocolate cake would be tantamount to denying my whole personality, and so I should eat it with relish, and then enjoy steak frites for dinner into the bargain. Then a few days later, I genuinely feel that fresh fruit is all I want for pudding, I know that anything else will make me sluggish and lethargic all afternoon, and that seems genuinely undesirable.

And this internal debate is inextricably linked with my vision of femininity, how I perceive myself as a woman, and how I want the world to react to me. I have my Gwyneth moments (well, sort of) of feeling I exude a healthy glow, that I am setting a positive example of healthy living to my daughter, that I am enabling myself to get the most out of life by looking after my body. But I also have my Nigella moments (well, sort of) of feeling that I am healthily voluptuous, that I am setting a positive example of joie de vivre for my daughter, that I am enabling myself to get the most out of life by wholeheartedly embracing the sensual pleasure of amazing food.

One of the quotes which I always think of when I reflect on this issue is from Jennifer Weiner’s fabulous debut novel Good In Bed, when her heroine Cannie is finally able to accept her body shape:

“I will love myself, and my body, for what it can do- because it is strong enough to lift, to walk, to ride a bicyle up a hill, to embrace the people I love and hold them fully, and to nurture a new life. I will love myself because I am sturdy. Because I did not -will not- break.”

Which, funnily enough, seems to work whatever mindset I find myself in that day.

I’m still wishing, however, that I’d bought the sign I saw in a gift shop recently “Never trust a skinny cook’.

The icing on the cake

As promised (threatened) last week, the subject of this week’s post is the production of a very large number of cupcakes for my book launch tomorrow night. Did I mention, by the way, that my first novel IS PUBLISHED TOMOROW!

It is Anna’s full day at nursery on a Wednesday (9am-3pm) and so when it became clear that my original carefully considered plan of making the cakes a few at a time and freezing them hadn’t worked out, then I decided to just blitz it today in the six hours I had to myself. When I woke up at 2am this morning I realised that I actually had no idea at all how long it would take to make, ice and decorate 12 batches of cupcakes. A long time, I can now confirm is the answer.Just looking at the pile of ingredients was a little daunting.ingredients

However, I set to work. I discovered with the first batch that my top oven emphatically does not work for sponge cakes. OK, fair enough, I would just have to stick to doing them two trays at a time. It was fine. Unfortunately I burnt the last twelve – rookie mistake of checking, deciding they needed a couple of minutes longer, not setting the timer and then…twenty minutes later, hmmm, what’s that funny smell?photo-3

I’d had a lot of fun deciding how to decorate the cakes. The convention with cupcakes at the moment seems to be for swirls of buttercream, which looks amazing, but I’m pretty terrified by piping bags, and decided icing 12o cupcakes like this would be several steps too far. I therefore got inspired by Nigella – in How to be a Domestic Goddess her fairy cakes are iced with fondant style icing, and they look fabulous. I also decided to follow Nigella’s advice on aesthetics; she suggests pale pistachio green with a pink rose, and as that chimes with the colours of my book cover, it seemed an obvious choice. I wanted two different styles for contrast, though, so eventually I decided on pale blush pink with white daisies.

pretty cakes

I got the last tray iced with just minutes to spare before going to pick Anna up, and when we got home we road-tested a couple as a post-nursery snack – funnily enough my daughter was far more willing to help mummy out with this than with tidy-up time -and feedback was extremely positive. lots of cakes