Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Not socks...

It's my grandad's 80th birthday this weekend. I'd wish him a happy birthday here, but I'm pretty sure he's never switched on a 'puter in his life so I'll save it for Sunday.

We're having the obligatory family party, to which I'll be taking a lovely lemony baked cheesecake and, I think, a chocolate beetroot cake. Coming up with a present is always a battle though. When asked, all he ever requests is brown socks. 

Brown. Socks. 

I've actually bought them for him several times, but I just can't bring myself to commemorate another occasion with brown socks. Especially not an 80th grandfather birthday!

So I decided to get out my pens and create him something instead. 

Now, like many retired gentlemen, my grandfather has taken up a hobby to while away the hours, and likes to spend his time in the garage building models of ye olde fayre ground-y things (all those extra 'e's and 'y's are entirely necessary, apparently). This started with a set of gallopers (a merry-go-round, the one with the horses), but I think he now also has a swing boat, a living van (like a caravan but, um, different?) and possibly a traction engine. The horses on the gallopers have tails made from the hair of different members of the family.

Is that odd? Possibly...

Anyway, here's my arty present for my grandaddy inspired by galloping horses that may or may not share my hair.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Sticky Buns

This is the sort of recipe I usually shy away from. I think I'm afraid of yeast. And I'm not the most patient of people, so the thought of having to faff about waiting for something to rise never really appeals.

But then I realised that if I bake rising-things whilst I'm doing something else, it's all perfect. Make the dough, wander off to do something else, come back in half and hour and do the next bit!

So, I made these buns. They're a bit like the cinnamon-y ones you can get in all the best shopping centres, but my recipe said banana and chopped apricots so that's what I did.

Now, seriously, this recipe makes you feel like a proper domestic goddess. I pitied my unborn children for not yet existing to appreciate what a marvellous mother I would be, producing these from the oven.

I also made some with marmalade, and less sugar, for breakfast at the weekend. There are no pictures.

Here's the recipe:

100g strong white bread flour
100 malted granary bread flour (I just used more of the white stuff, there's only so many bags of flour a person can have in the cupboards)
1/2 teaspoon salt
7g sachet of easy-blend yeast
5 tbsp warm milk
1 egg, beaten
3-5 tbsp warm water
25g butter, melted
2 medium bananas, thinly sliced
100g dried apricots, chopped
50g light muscovado sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
zest of 1/2 an orange (didn't bother with this, no oranges about in my house)
2 tbsp honey, warmed

Mix the flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the centre.  Pop in the milk, egg and a little bit of water and mix it into a nice dough. Sprinkle some flour over your work surface and knead the dough for a while, feeling like Mrs Bun the Baker, until it's smooth. Put it in an oiled boil and cover with cling film 'til it's about doubled in size (I found it took about half an hour).

Butter a baking tin. Roll the dough out on your floured surface into a rectangle about 30x25cm and brush it with butter. Mix the fruit, sugar and cinnamon together and spread it over the dough. Roll it up into a sausage from the long side.

Slice it into about nine pieces and pop them into your tin so they're just touching. Leave it to rise for another half hour or so, covered in cling film.

Heat the oven to 200C. Brush half the honey over the buns and put them in the oven for 20-25 minutes until they look all golden-brown. Let them cool for a little while before brushing over the rest of the honey and eating.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West

Yes, I am still reading Infinite Jest. But it's a beast. And too heavy to carry about with me. Someone gave me a copy of this the other day and it's short with a surprisingly big font, so I read it in the bath the other night.

As I said, it's very short and feels more like a little glimpse into the lives of the characters rather than a fully fleshed-out novel. It's written in the first person, too, so you're very aware that you only ever see things from one person's perspective and that it lacks much background or depth.

The novel focuses around the return of the soldier, Chris, from the battlefields of the First World War to the home he shares with his wife and spinster cousin (our narrator). Chris, however, has lost his memory of the past fifteen years and thinks he is a young man still enamoured with his first love. Whilst the characters are, at times, stereotypes, the book still manages to create a delicious sense of place and time, and to make us question the realities of why we chose to love who we do, how that endures, and whether the truth is really the most important thing to cling on to.

Short book: short review.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The King is Dead, The Decemberists

I'm not really a fan of live music. I know this is a shocking thing to admit, and every time I tell anyone it guarantees that they either shun me or immediately try to drag me to a gig with the best band ever which they know will change my mind. 

But I'm just not really a fan of live music. Sure, my ears are entertained, but what about the rest of me? What do I look at? It's fairly interesting watching someone singing into a microphone or playing an instrument for about, oh, ten minutes, then it gets a bit... monotonous. And you can only stare at the ceiling, walls, the person next to you for so long. In my ideal world, it would entirely acceptable to read a book whilst at a gig. Or to be having supper at the same time.

Anyway, despite this I do occasionally go to see people singing and playing in front of me. And one of these exceptions are The Decemberists. To be fair, I would prefer a twenty minute music-intense version of their gigs rather than the three hour extravaganza (friend B always makes us watch the support, too) but there are enough of them on stage playing interesting instruments to give me things to look at, they have a bit of audience participation and I really like the music.

But secretly, most of all, I like the posters. Here's this year's, on my wall next to last year's.

It's a big blue monster with pink nail varnish on! I think...

Next year, though, I think I'll save money by getting someone else to buy me a poster and sitting in front of it with my headphones in. Whilst eating my supper.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Unseasonal Cake

It was my friend A's birthday at the weekend and I'd promised a cake. Problem is, he's a little bit fussy about what he'll eat (read: worse than a grumpy toddler raised on Monster Munch...). Usually that just results in chocolate and everyone's happy, but I've decided to give up chocolate for 'lent' (non-religious, hence the '') and refused to make a cake I couldn't eat.

So he said he wanted a fruit cake, 'like the bottom of a Christmas cake'. I think that meant he didn't want the icing or the marzipan.

All good, I think marzipan is the devil's ear wax.

So, I hied over Nigella for a Christmas cake recipe. It's her quick and easy one, which I also made as cupcakes at Christmas. To avoid it looking too festive, I popped a selection of nuts on top and glued them down with apricot jam glaze. Very sticky, but look how pretty!

It has a definite WI feel to it, I think, and has put me in mind of seed cakes and other things generally only eaten by Miss Marple.

The recipe's in the Christmas section of Feast. Needless to say, I don't faff about with all the wrapping in brown paper she's so keen on - I'm just very generous/lazy with lining of tin and that seems to do the job.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

This book had a strange effect on me. Whilst I was reading it, it seemed unendingly bleak and the characters almost entirely unlike-able and unpleasant. But, having finished it, I'm left with an impression of warmth and humour, and I find myself missing the characters like you do with people in books you wish were your friends. Very odd. (And I don't have some sort of penchant for unpleasant friends, by the way...)

The Corrections is one of those books that has been suggested as The Great American Novel (why does no one worry about The Great British Novel? Or any other country, for that matter) and follows the lives of a Mid-Western couple, the Lamberts, as they head into old age, looking back over their lives and those of their three, now grown-up children. The novel is building to a potential 'one last Christmas together', made all the more poignant as we realise the father, Alfred, is descending into dementia and his childrens' personal problems are ensuring that the last thing they want to do is spend time with their family.

As I mentioned, for at least two thirds of the novel I think I found all the characters thoroughly unpleasant and I was unable to drum up much sympathy for them or the difficult situations they had found (or created) for themselves. They all seemed predominantly selfish and self-centred and the only real reaction I felt was wanting to tell them to pull themselves together and stop whining... Possibly this is because we constantly see them through each others' eyes, so you can't help but be aware of how much hurt and damage they cause each other. I guess this could be seen as realism, but the novel seemed rather short on the moments of love and compassion that I'm sure usually temper how selfish we all can be. Or maybe I'm too optimistic.

It's obviously a testament to Franzen's writing, though, that despite the unpleasantness of his characters, I did eventually find myself warming to them. As flawed as they were, the flaws were entirely human and they felt real. Similarly, despite the family he describes being miles from anyone's ideal, the novel left me with a lasting feeling of domesticity and warmth, and craving the sort of apple-pie Americana I've never even seen in real life!

The 'corrections' in the title refer to the correction in the financial markets, which is described in the final chapter. Having this as the title seems to give the impression that the Lamberts' lives have been following an unreal or temporary path, which is 'corrected' at the end of the novel by Alfred's removal from the family as a result of his mental disintegration and then death. I find it a slightly strange idea, both that reality could need that sort of 'correction' and that the characters lives start improving as a result but without any real development or action from themselves. They were selfish and unpleasant people, but now they're going to be nicer because the thing that was making them nasty has been taken away. I guess it suggests to me a lack of personal responsibility which I find unappealing, but does also emphasise how huge an effect other people can have on us, whether accidentally or on purpose.

I enjoyed this novel, and felt it addressed lots of important ideas. But I think it left me feeling a little unsatisfied. Possibly the bleakness left more of an impression than I realised.

I've started Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace as my next book. Might be a while before there's a review of that; there are a lot of very small words and a lot of pages.