Monday 29 September 2014

Book review: The Goldfinch

When we set off for Cornwall back in August, I carefully selected--well, loaded onto the Kindle--several books that I'd been really looking forward to reading.  And wouldn't you know it?  When I snuggled into the corner of the sofa, mug of coffee in hand after a lovely day of wandering around little villages, none of them appealed to me.

I started, and quickly closed, several books, frustration levels rising with every book that wasn't quite right for the mood I was in.  Tell me I'm not alone in this!  It's bloody miserable not being able to settle into a book.

After utterly wasting half an hour, I headed over to my Amazon wishlist and treated myself to The Goldfinch in the hopes that it would manage to hold my attention for at least five pages.

It held my attention for the next five days.

Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love - and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it is a beautiful, addictive triumph - a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.

Whist it was a definite page-turner I felt let down by Donna Tartt's writing.  The book is proudly proclaimed (on the cover) to be a Pulitzer Prize winning book and I expected a lot more from it than I actually received.

Don't get me wrong, it's a decent yarn.  I got caught up quite quickly in Theo's story, rolling my eyes as he did particularly stupid thing, and cheering him on when he was making something of himself.  (I spent rather a lot of the latter stages of the book wanting to throttle him, though.)  I loved both Andy and Boris, such total opposites but providing perfect foils for Theo's state of mind and age at the time we encounter them.  And Hobie!  A fantastic character and vividly portrayed.

Tartt does a fantastic job of capturing people and the minutiae of everyday life, but the book does rather get bogged down in long-winded descriptions of almost every piece of furniture encountered in the second and third acts, and other such little things.  Like Tolkein and J.K. Rowling, a bolder editor would have been a good friend to her...

Overall, the book is a coming of age story, with an interesting plot and about 100 pages of needless and paper-thin philosophy tacked onto the end.  I've encountered deeper and more meaningful philosophy in Terry Pratchett books, which he deftly inserts throughout the narrative, so I didn't feel overly impressed by afterthought tacked onto the end.  It felt very much as though Tartt suddenly remembered that she was writing "The Great American Novel" which must be philosophical and life-altering, so she tacked a bit on the end.

Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed The Goldfinch--I kept sneaking off to read more of it after all--I just didn't feel that it deserved all of the accolades that have been heaped upon it.  My advice is to take it out of the library and make up your own mind!


Wednesday 17 September 2014

Memories of Cornwall: Chapel Porth Beach

© Kathryn Yengel
I'm not much of a beach person.  They have great scenery and I love pretty scenery, but I find sand is best viewed from afar as it always, always ends up somewhere you don't want it to (if you know what I mean).  However, it appears that I'm the only one in my family who thinks it is totally okay, nay normal, to rock up at a beach and buy an ice-cream--even if it is the best ice-cream in The World--and then drive away again without setting toe on the sand.

And that is how I found myself perching awkwardly on a blanket on the sands at Chapel Porth beach, awaiting ice-cream o'clock.  Three o'clock on the dot, if you please!

We packed up all of the family (and some sandwiches, too) and got to the beach around 11 after hauling ass across across Cornwall to the north coast.  When we got there, the car park was nearly empty which left me bewildered...last year the car park was rammed, with people double-parking all over the place!  As it turned was high tide.  You can tell I don't go to the beach very often...I never even thought to check tide times!!

Dave's Dad reckoned that the tide would go out pretty quickly so we set up our blankets and tent on the sandiest part of the beach that we could find--that fishing tent may be the best investment ever--and let the kids loose amongst the pebbles and shingle for a while.

The cove was popular with belly-boarders and surfers.  There were loads of kids bobbing out just beyond the cresting waves and then riding them into shore with lots of whooping.  Later we found out that The World Bellyboarding Champsionships are held there, which explains why most of the people who rocked up had boards!

The kids followed the sea as it went down the beach, building sandcastles with other kids and having fun paddling in the sea with Nanny.  The mere mention of Weaver fish put me right off the idea of paddling.  I don't remember these from my childhood when I paddled fearlessly...although, perhaps the frigid water in the far north of Scotland was too much for them?

Leila had fun washing pebbles in her bucket and making a rock castle, proudly crowned with a feather I found and guarded by a still-bendy crab leg that her Mummy found.

Pretend her eyes are open...
Lucas and Maria explored one of the caves revealed when the tide went out.  It was all very idyllic and a bit Famous Five until they came out complaining that the cave was smelly!!  Julian and George were made of much sterner stuff.

Finally ice-cream o'clock rolled round.  I will confess that I had a little bit of fun, okay a lot, but I did spring up like a gazelle at the mention of ice-cream time!

No trip to Chapel Porth is complete without a Hedgehog from their beach cafe!  It's little sister, the pure and simple (but naked by comparison) Cornish ice-cream is divine but the Hedgehog is really something special.  By far the coolest National Trust cafe in the country.  They introduced a gorgeous range of local fruit ice-lollies this summer, too.  Leila had a strawberry one which was amazing.

The best part of the day was that the kids all slept like angels after tiring themselves out at the beach!  It seems like an absolute age since we were in Cornwall but really, it's just been a smidge over a month.  Clearly we need to go back again very soon...

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Adventures in quilting

I've been bitten by the quilting bug. Hard. When Dave suggested I buy a sewing machine a few months ago, I never thought I'd find myself making quilts. Turning up a few hems maybe, darning holes in Lucas's school trousers...but a quilt? No way!

I finished my first quilt last week, which I will eventually post about once it's been gifted, and almost immediately I found myself back at the fabric shop for supplies for my second. And then I popped into Hobbycraft for a lint brush to clean out my sewing machine--I had no idea that they needed to be cleaned!--and came out with this pretty 'jelly roll' of fabric... I clearly can't be trusted near fabric at the moment.

The world of fabric is a bit bewildering at first. There are a slew of new terms and a dizzying array of fabric types. I always thought cotton was just, well, cotton, but no. There's cotton drill, lawn, poplins and probably more!! There are also pre-cut fabric packs available, like the jelly roll which is made up of 40 x 2.5" coordinating strips and perfect for turning into a quilt.

I found an easy sounding pattern online and cut the entire thing into 6.5" strips and then tried to randomly put them together into blocks of three strips.

This should have resulted in 6.5" square blocks when sewn together and pressed, but either my seams were too wide or the fabric shrank a bit with the steam when I pressed as I now have rectangles. 

My grand adventure is temporarily stalled while I slice the finished blocks down to 5.5" square. This is every bit as tedious as you can imagine!! 

(I'm actually waiting for my car to be fixed at the garage rather than walking home and trimming the blocks!)

So that's what I've been up to of late. Hopefully I'll have a very pretty quilt top to show you in a few days!

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Great Bloggers Bake Off: Baked Alaska edition

Lemon & Lime Baked Alaska
After "Bingate" I couldn't resist making a Baked Alaska for the Great Bloggers Bake Off.  I used to make one every year for Dave's birthday but once I discovered the wonderful world of cake decorating, they fell by the wayside.  Which is a shame, because a Baked Alaska done right is a cracking dessert!  (Not at all 'nasty'  or 'embarrassingly retro' as Ruby Tandoh said in The Guardian!!)

With the benefit of hindsight, I bet Iain wishes that he'd saved the very centre of the ice-cream and a bit of sponge...he could have done a mini Alaska for them to taste.  Mind you, both Mary and Paul seemed highly unsympathetic to his ice-cream being left out.  Last year, after Custardgate, they tossed out the baker who'd used the other competitor's custard.  At any rate, now that Diana's had to drop out due to ill health--losing your sense of smell and taste is just horrible, I hope it comes back in time--I am willing to bet that Iain will be back in the tent tomorrow night to make up numbers...

Enough of Bingate, and back to my own baking!  I had intended to just do a small one, since it was just the three of us, but it turns out that I don't do small.  As I poured ice-cream mix into the lined bowl I did wonder if it was perhaps a bit big, but carried on regardless.  Dave and Lucas ended up providing a Baked Alaska Home Delivery service to the family!!  Next time I make one, I'll throw a Baked Alaska party...

Dave asked for a citrus ice-cream, so I obliged with Lemon and Lime and I also added a thin layer of mandarin orange slices underneath for a Citrus Extravaganza.  If you're baking for adults only, then you could soak the sponge with Cointreau or Grand Marnier rather than fruit juice.  The slight bitterness of the liqueur would nicely offset the intense sweetness of the meringue and ice-cream.

We don't have a blowtorch at home--and I call myself a foodie--as I get a bit twitchy about something full of fuel hanging around in the drawer, so I made a French meringue and shoved it into the oven.  I thought about sitting on the kitchen floor Bake Off style and talking nervously to camera, but leaning on the counter drinking a cocktail seemed much more fun.

Eight minutes later I pulled a beautifully browned Baked Alaska out of the oven.  The meringue was gorgeously crispy on the outside and just-cooked inside so that it was marshmallow-like in texture.  It did its job really well, as the ice-cream was only just starting to melt on the outside.  Because I didn't have enough meringue to completely cover the cake layer, the bare edges got all toasty which turned out to be awesome.  Such a great textural contrast and toasted sponge tastes so, so good.

My only regret is that I didn't put together the Baked Alaska earlier in the day.  The dark evenings made photographing it a nightmare!  (Maybe I should have dyed the ice-cream a bright green for contrast?)

Lucas, who had never eaten Baked Alaska before, loved it.  For Dave and I it was a nice citrusy trip down memory lane.  I'm pondering doing it again, but using little pudding basins to give individual Baked Alaskas that could happily live in the freezer for a few weeks as emergency "I Need Sugar!" desserts.

If the trials and tribulations of the GBBO contestants have put you off making your own Baked Alaska, think again!  You can do so much in advance, and you absolutely don't have to make your own sponge or ice-cream--Mary Berry's recipe uses a bought sponge and jam--if you don't want to.  Give it a go!

Lemon and lime no-churn ice-cream

2 lemons
2 limes
175g icing sugar
568ml tub double cream

Zest and juice the fruit into a large bowl (your mixer bowl is ideal for this), making sure to remove all the pips!  Add the sugar and stir until dissolved.  Add the cream and whisk on a medium speed until soft peaks form.

Line a pyrex or pudding bowl with a couple of layers of clingfilm and carefully fill it to the top with the ice-cream mixture.  Press a layer of clingfilm over the top and seal.  Freeze until hard.  This took about six hours.  Overnight (or longer) is fine.

Sponge cake

110g caster sugar
110g unsalted butter, room temperature
110g self-raising flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon milk

Preheat oven to 180C (160C fan oven).  Grease a loose-bottomed 8" sandwich tin with butter.  Set aside.

Place all ingredients, except for the milk, into your food processor.  Blend until a cake batter forms.  Slowly pour in the milk, pulsing the mixture.

Scrape all the cake batter into the prepared tin. Level the surface.  Bake for about 25 minutes until the top springs back when pressed.

Cool in the tin, on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then turn the cake out of the tin and leave to cool completely.

To finish

3 large egg whites
175g caster sugar
Fruit of your choice, sliced as necessary (optional)
Liqueur to sprinkle the sponge base with (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200C.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the sponge layer on top.

In a mixing bowl whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form.  Slowly add the sugar to the egg whites and keep whisking until glossy and the peaks are very stiff.

Sprinkle the sponge with fruit juice or liqueur and arrange a thin layer of fruit on top of the sponge.  I used tinned mandarin oranges and kept the layer as thin as possible.  Remove the ice-cream from the bowl--it should come out easily if you lined it with clingfilm--and place on top of the fruit.  Make sure you remove all the clingfilm!

Working quickly cover the ice-cream with the meringue, bringing it down to the cake and make sure there are no gaps.  The meringue insulates the ice-cream, so gappage means melty ice-cream!

Bake for 8-10 minutes, slide onto a serving plate and serve immediately in thick slices!

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