IMG_6073

Thermos travel mug

When my eldest started primary, there was one particular woman who used to drop her children off and always have one of those insulated coffee mugs in hand. For some reason, one of the other mothers really took against her, starting her moan with a familiar gossip-page refrain:

“Who does she think she is with that in her hand?”

“What, the insulated coffee cup thing?” I ventured. “I think it’s to keep her coffee warm.”

“She’s just trying to show everyone how busy and important she is that she can’t drink her coffee at home like the rest of us..”

I didn’t think that. I thought that, as she came some considerable way (we live in the countryside where people can travel some distance to school), she probably didn’t feel like coffee the moment she left home and, to save some money, she brought it with her to drink on the way home.

But, I guess you see what you want in other people, what resonates with your own life.

I don’t, always, want to eat anything at all when I first wake up. I feel for my children who have to eat breakfast in the narrow window between waking up and going to school, without hope of snack nor sandwich before break or lunch time if they don’t (I am starving by 9am).

When my eldest started high school, she often didn’t feel like drinking her tea or caffe latte before school, so she’d take it on the bus with her. And this is where the search for good insulated mugs came in. They were either horrible cheap plastic, the taste of which permeated anything you put in it and/or they leaked. I’ve always been of the buy well, buy once mindset so I set out looking for a good one that was stainless steel, didn’t leak and had a handle.

Eventually I found one by Thermos: the King Travel Mug (full kennel name below). It’s not cheap. It’s guaranteed for 50 years, it’s absolutely leak proof (unlike so many insulated mugs the top actually screws on) – although I’m not brave enough to just sling it into my bag. It’s stainless steel inside and easy to clean (by hand) and there is no taste of anything else, despite the lid being plastic – it conveniently says when it’s open or closed so there is no confusion.

IMG_6074.jpg

It keeps drinks hot or cold for some considerable time – be careful if you give it to children. I tend to put my drinks in at the temperature I want to drink them at and they stay that way for a couple of hours, which is the longest I’ve tried. I’ve even put my delicious hot chocolate in it, which strictly speaking you shouldn’t; milk products don’t really fare well in insulated products in case they turn to yoghurt.

Do not, on any account, be tempted to buy this from Amazon – it’s only marginally cheaper but I waited weeks for mine and then they sent the wrong one (the much cheaper Thermo Cafe mug). I got ours direct from Thermos, where the service was spot on. I paid just under £28. Make sure you get the Thermos Stainless King Leak Proof Travel Mug – there are various other similar sounding ones that aren’t leak proof: if it’s too cheap, it ain’t it.

 

IMG_5989

Chocolate ganache that makes a rather splendid base for hot chocolate or chocolate custard

Sorry about the overly long title.

I’ve written before that I have a thing about really good hot chocolate. I prefer a potent pokey hot chocolate rather than a long, watered down poor-man’s version of one. This base is absolutely brilliant, it takes not very long to make, you store it in the fridge, it lasts for a week (unless you use cream that’s right by its sell by date) and you can turn it, in minutes, into superb hot chocolate or add it to shop bought custard (buy good quality one) to make chocolate custard that’s just really IMPRESSIVE.

The proportions below are a rough guide. Stick loosely to them, because I’ve perfected this over years. But of course it doesn’t matter if you have only 90g of one chocolate or 60g of another, or a bit more or less cream. The effects of varying the proportions are, indeed, something you can play around with. This is what works for us.

100g 70% cocoa chocolate

75g 37% cocoa milk chocolate (I use Green and Black’s milk cooking chocolate)

225g of single cream

In a bain marie or a bowl over pan of boiling water, melt the two types of chocolate with the cream. Be careful not to let it get too hot or scorch. Then just put it in a suitable container and put it in the fridge until you need it.

IMG_5975.jpg

To make hot chocolate you just measure out some milk into the cup you are using – for a normal size cup of mug you use 3/4 of the cup of milk and a big dessert-spoon dollop of chocolate ganache, all into a pan, warm through until melted/warm. Drink and sigh.

To make chocolate custard get shop bought custard – I use this one from Waitrose which is 500g and I add the whole quantity of the custard ganache the recipe above makes. This makes a good old amount of chocolate custard, but of course you can vary it to make as much as you want, or you may prefer the custard less chocolately. Experiment. It goes super well with my chocolate sponge.

Later note: a dollop of this ganache, mixed up with cold milk, also makes a divine chocolate milk drink.

IMG_5105

The Week Junior

The Week – a comic sized, comic-looking journal which digests all that week’s news for you (strap line: ‘All you need to know about everything that matters’) – launched 20 years ago. I was a subscriber from the beginning. I LOVED it. Despite working in newspapers since 1993, you do sometimes miss stuff, and also, sometimes, you want a handy-sized journal to stuff in your bag.

The great thing about The Week is that you end up reading about things you thought you had no interest in. It’s brilliant for catching up about world news and, each week, takes a closer look at an important matter you may have suddenly realised you know too little about, but were too embarrassed to ask. The Week has no original news of its own, it takes its material from news reports that have come out that week. It has a great column called Wit And Wisdom (which I’ve been in three times, go me) where it picks up great quotes that have been made that week in the press or TV or radio.

I love The Week. I love that it has hardly changed its format in twenty years (it may in fact have never changed it and that’s great because its format works).

I was a columnist for The Week’s website version (which does generate its own news stories). And then I got made its sketch writer for a while,  a job I’d always wanted. I got that gig the day my youngest started school, so that rite-of-passage was painless because it was all about me me me that day.

Yesterday, The Week Junior launched. It doesn’t quite have the great feel to it of The Week original. It doesn’t obviously take its news from newspapers, as in it doesn’t say “The Daily Telegraph reported this week”. And I think that’s a pity because a bit of that sort of thing might encourage young children to read newspapers and also tell them about reputable places to get their news from. I think more children should read proper news.

It’s well laid out, interesting – both my children started reading it the moment I put it down. I worry about what it will do to First News which is a good children’s newspaper, although neither of my children particularly took to it (and they may not take to TWJ, either).

(I worry because I think it’d be a shame if the launch of one news publication for children pushed out another. There aren’t enough.)

Just going by the first issue, I think TWJ is better, but that may be because I love the original so much that I’m completely biased.

TWJ is aimed at 8-14 according to its press release. I would say that’s pushing at the upper age limit. My eldest is 12 and she reads The Week (original) and whilst she enjoyed TWJ, I’m not sure she will still be interested in it when she’s 14. My youngest, who is six, could read it easily (I’m not saying this in a ‘my child is a genius kind of way, just saying she was interested in it). So I would say the age group is more like 6/7 – 13. But I could be wrong, and what does it matter anyway.

The Week Junior is currently available exclusively from Sainsburys (i’m sure it will roll out in other places soon). Cover price: £1.99. Do have a look at it to see if you think it’s right for your family. Currently The Week subscribers can add it to their subs for an extra £50 a year.

[Disclaimer: I got sent the first issue for free, but if I subscribe I will do so using my own money.]

February 2016: We’ve been taking this for a couple of months now and we think it’s really excellent.

IMG_5064

Sonia’s Swiss crescent biscuits

Growing up, my mum made friends with a woman called Sonia, who worked in the dry cleaner’s kinda opposite our flats. The dry cleaning would be wrapped in this lovely navy blue paper, the like of which we seemed to have at home for years afterwards (I guess she gave us some).

We didn’t have a car, growing up, but we used to go out with Sonia and her husband, who drove a red VW Beetle. We would go to the airport and watch the planes take off, in the days when this was still possible. We also went to Windsor castle. I loved our trips out as they were the only car-trips out we had as children. (This isn’t meant to sound sad, we went to Italy a lot and I had a great childhood.)

I have a picture, of us at Windsor castle, me with a right sulk on (I peed on my mum’s lap on the way home, I think I might have done it on purpose, the shame), wearing a very flash red coat and a rabbit fur hat, Sonia and my mum looking really glamorous, but in a totally nonchalant way.

One of the things Sonia used to bring with her were these amazing little hazelnut crescent biscuits. She would have them, layer upon greaseproof-paper layer, in a tin, and as you opened the tin, the smell of them – they were coated with vanilla sugar – would hit you. They were not like any biscuits we could buy, or that my mum made.

Because they were so occasional, they were especially delicious. Sonia also used to bring  a flask of coffee, which I would drink (I was an early caffeine drinker).

When I was seven, my mum and dad opened up a coffee shop on London’s Bayswater Road. I started making cakes and biscuits for my dad’s shop. I started baking. I tried to recreate Sonia’s biscuits but I never could. For some reason I didn’t dare ask her for the recipe, or perhaps I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to make them less special.

Occasionally, these days, I will go to my mum and dad’s house, and Sonia will have been, bringing with her a box of her special biscuits. And just opening the lid of the biscuit tin (she always brings them in a biscuit tin) will transport me back to being a very little girl, sitting in a red VW Beetle, watching planes taking off, treading that fine line between showing my appreciation for her biscuits and eating a fair few, but not toppling over into greed. It’s still a line I struggle with balancing on.

The other day, I saw Sonia and I plucked up the courage to ask her for the recipe. I don’t know why it’s taken me four decades to do so. Amazingly she had it written down (none of that “oh I do it from memory”) and she gave it to me, and, here it is:

250g plain flour

200 butter, unsalted, fridge cold

100g ground hazelnuts (I buy the chopped, toasted version and then grind them, it really makes a difference, but you can use pre-gound hazelnuts or almonds, but it won’t be *quite* as good as if you toast and grind them yourself)

80g icing sugar

5g vanilla sugar (Sonia says you can buy these in little packets but I leave this out and just add a tablespoon of vanilla essence)

Pinch of salt

Caster sugar for after (vanilla sugar if you have it)

In a food processor, pulse the butter and flour until like breadcrumbs. Add the sugar, salt and nuts and then pulse until it comes together in clumps. Don’t over mix. It will work out I promise. Of course you can do this all by hand, but I’m lazy.

If you’ve made it in a processor take it out now and, by hand, bring the mixture together. Chill for 20/30 mins.

Preheat oven to 190C

Take small bits and roll into crescent shapes. I weigh each one to make sure I don’t end up with tiny/huge biscuits, roll into sausage shapes and taper the ends, curve into crescents. If you’re interested, I do them so mine weigh about 21g in raw dough.

Put on a parchment lined trays and cook for 10 mins. Cool and then coat in vanilla caster sugar if you have it, (I put a vanilla pod in a jar of normal caster sugar and just keep it there for, like, ever) normal caster sugar if you don’t.

Then don’t eat four whilst you’re writing a blog post, because that will make you feel really, really sick.

Store in a biscuit tin, each layer interleaved with greaseproof paper.

(Sonia calls these traditional Vienna biscuits but as she’s from Switzerland, I call them Sonia’s Swiss crescent biscuits.)

IMG_5042

The day I finally became Julia Roberts.

Remember the scene in Pretty Woman, where Julia Roberts and Richard Gere go to the opera? She wears a long red dress, and he presents her with an expensive necklace before their date.

It was not the date, nor the jewellery I envied. It was the fact that she cried during the opera. For a long time I wanted to cry at the opera. I heard that people did. My partner often cries at opera, so moved is he by it. I never have. I’ve tried, because I thought that’s what happened if you really got it, if you were somehow more cultured than I thought I was, if you had a beating heart inside your body. But no.

I grew up in an Italian house where opera was frequently played. I really appreciate opera. I absolutely love some of it. I think the singing is fantastic and I can really appreciate all the hard work that goes into it. But it doesn’t make me cry, and for a really long time, I thought there was something wrong with me. What made me cry, what makes me cry still are cheesey-to-anyone-else Italian tunes from the 1950s and 60s. If you want to see me go silent, turn my back to you and then discreetly pull a hanky from my pocket, with a magician’s slight of hand, play me Claudio Villa.

He’s not an opera singer. He may not even be a very good singer. I don’t know. What I do know is that he makes me cry, because it resonates with me. It reminds me of being little, being in Italy, when I still had two generational layers in front of me, shielding me from the world. When I could look sideways at my family tree, and a little bit up, and see lines and lines of cousins and aunts and uncles. He reminds me of hot afternoons with the orange ‘mangia disco’* in the corner ‘eating’ our vinyl 45s. The canopy pulled down over the balcony shielding us from the worse of the day’s sun, my belly full of gnocchi made by my grandmother and the lunch table a graveyard of bread crumbs and wine corks.

Then there’s art. Growing up, art was for people who had studied it. Who understood. Who knew dates off by heart and who could say thing like..well things like I can’t say because I don’t know. I stayed away from art galleries.

And then, a few things happened. I met my partner, Pete, in 1997. He taught me that art was what you made it – what spoke to you. And what that was was entirely personal to you. That it was okay to not like some art, even if everyone else loved it. And it was okay to like art even if nobody else did. That gave me confidence. Just a few months after I’d met him, (warning: some monumental name dropping coming up) I found myself at the opening of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the only British journalist – for some reason – invited to a dinner and then a do (where there were other journalists)  with Jeff Koons, Dennis Hopper, Frank Gehry, Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg. I was sat next to Koons and before I’d simply not have been able to talk to him, but, suddenly I felt able to. I can’t pretend it was the most interesting dinner I’ve ever been to: it wasn’t. But it was memorable.

I was working at the Independent at the time, and my friend, Chris Maume (now obituaries editor of the Independent) was one of those journalists who was so learned that he could write about sport or art and imbue each with knowledge from outside the actual subject. I think that’s a real skill, because if no man is an island, no subject is, either. He came into the office one day having been to an art exhibition (I wish so much I could remember which, now) and when I asked him how it was he said “God, it was BRILLIANT, I wanted to fuck the art.”

Well. I had never heard any of the art journalists describe art like that. Little by little, I got the confidence to go to art galleries, to realise that it was my response to stuff that mattered.

I still didn’t cry at the opera. But a few months ago, we went, en famille, to see Proms no.69: Carmina Burana, and I did cry. At the Latin choir. And that’s when I realised that it wasn’t just Claudio Villa and his ilk that make me cry. Sung Latin does it too. When I used to go to the sung Latin mass at St Etheldreda’s, where there is a splendid choir, I used to cry. In the middle of mass. Like I was having a religious experience, which perhaps, I was.

Last weekend, we went to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival at Snape Maltings, which is not far from where I live. I love Snape. It has a bit of everything: concert hall, shops, walking, Pump Street Bakery where I can drop £20 on breakfast pastries and pretend I have a family of ten. Ostensibly we went to catch Hollie McNish, whom I’ve been a fan of for some years, ever since I saw her on You Tube reciting a poem about breastfeeding. We all went to a little talk she did about Freedom, where she talked about how she was free to write whatever she wanted, but, in fact, she didn’t always feel free to perform her poems, because some of them got loads of hate mail. One of them was, ironically, the first poem of hers that I ever heard and the one that my children had listened to: Embarrassed, about breastfeeding her daughter. She read it out. I struggled to say upright. I went up to talk to her afterwards to say that I, too, had stopped writing about breastfeeding because of the hate mail. It gets hard to deal with, after a while.

The next day, at her performance, she read out other poems: about what it’s like to be old, what real beauty is, what happens to your body when you have a baby. I felt incredibly moved. I may have cried again. My children were sat, transfixed. I love how Frozen hardly touched them, but here they were in a concert hall listening to a slam poet and utterly in the moment. My youngest wrote poetry all the way through in this little note book she’d been given. Two were utterly brilliant, one  was about the sea and one was about her going into a coffee shop and drinking 17 coffees. She’s six.

I was so emotional that afterwards, when I went up to Hollie again and get her to sign her second book, Cherry Pie, for my girls, all I could utter was ‘hi’.

On the Saturday, my eldest and I had also been to see Jack Rooke‘s performance: Good Grief. Rooke is 21 and his dad died six years ago. The performance is about his dad, his nan and Jack’s grief. No poetry was read out. It was a great performance: so well observed and funny. Plus he gave out malt loaf, Get out of Shit cards (mini moo cards yay!) and a tin of custard creams was passed round half way through. There was a bit of swearing. Swearing and biscuits. I could see my eldest thinking “wow, this poetry festival is great!” But half way through he does this bit about his dad, and how for six months after he died, he’d still call his dad’s number, asking him to “come home now”, asking him to pick him up (he was a cab driver).

I cried.

*mangia disco means record player in Italian but it literally means ‘eats the records’.

IMG_9900

Halloween spider’s web cake

We do Halloween in our own way in this house, which is not very much. We don’t do trick or treating because that kinda contradicts everything we say the rest of the year (“knock on strangers’ doors! Eat lots of sweets! Ghosts and ghouls do exist!”).

But we aren’t total killjoys, either. We do stuff and have our own traditions and one of them is that I make this cake.

It’s basically a red velvet chocolate cake – or that’s how it started – but I don’t add red colouring so mine isn’t red, it’s just a light chocolate cake with cream cheese/sugar/butter filling and covered with a chocolate ganache, then iced with white chocolate. It’s actually fairly easy and really tasty and if you have one, a plastic spider on top looks good.

This recipe is adapted from a recipe in Waitrose magazine. The changes I’ve made are: no salted butter, no red food colouring, more cocoa, I used kefir instead of buttermilk (don’t worry if this means nothing to you!) and I cut the sugar down. But you can’t tell. It’s still very much a proper cake.

The cake

200g butter at room temperature

350g plain flour

1 tsp of baking powder

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

4 tablespoons of good cocoa powder

quarter of a teaspoon of sea salt

300g caster sugar

3 eggs

1.5 tsp vanilla extract

284ml buttermilk/kefir

Cream cheese filling

120g butter

120g cream cheese

100g icing sugar

Chocolate icing

300ml double cream

250g 70% cocoa chocolate, chopped

1.5 tablespoons of liquid glucose (you can buy it in tubes in the baking aisle)

50g white chocolate (I use Green and Black’s – absolutely the best white chocolate there is that doesn’t cost loads)

You’ll also need an icing bag and fine nozzle

What to do

Oven to 170C.  Line a 23cm spring-form cake tin with parchment or treat yourself and buy some cake tin liners. Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl, but not the sugar. Put the sugar and butter in a separate bowl and either beat by hand or put in a food mixer with whisk attachment and beat until smooth. Now add the eggs (continue with the food processor if you have started with it, but by hand is also, of course, fine) one at a time, beating well with each addition.

Now add the dry ingredients, alternating with the buttermilk/kefir until all combined. That’s it, your cake is done. Scrape into a tin then bake for about an hour.

It needs to cool completely. When it is cool, slice it into three. You’ll probably have two flat layers – the bits of the cake that were the middle and the bottom – and a slightly domed layer – the natural top of the cake. You can, if you want, straighten the slightly domed layer out by cutting it, or you can just use it as the middle layer of your cake. Either way, you want a very flat layer for the top, please.

Place what will be the bottom layer on a cooling rack on top of a baking tray (this is important for later) and spread half the filling on, place other layer on top and finish with a flat layer. Put it in the fridge for about 30 mins (longer if you want).

When you are ready to do the topping: place the double cream, dark chocolate and liquid glucose in a bowl atop some simmering water until all smooth and melted. At roughly the same time, melt the white chocolate in the same way and prepare to put into an icing bag with a thin nozzle icing head-piping-thing.

Now, spread the chocolate layer over the top with a spatula knife – this is where the baking tray comes in useful. It takes some practise but you will get some chocolate on the sides as you really need to cover the whole thing. Flatten the top. Now you pipe a spiral of white chocolate around the cake – start a bit off centre. When you’ve covered the whole cake, take a cocktail stick or skewer and make lines from the centre out, to make that ripple effect. Put back in fridge to chill and take out and serve at room temperature.

It’s good. Happy Halloween!

IMG_4328

Little Ondine nail polish

I have, on the top shelf of my fridge (it seems to last longer in there), at least 30 bottles of nail varnish. Mostly Chanel, because that’s always been my favourite nail varnish make. Some of the bottles date back to my life pre-motherhood, and still the varnish works beautifully.

But I have a new nail polish love, and that is Little Ondine. Little Ondine is not like other nail polish. It has no solvents in it. It doesn’t smell. And it peels off. it’s cheaper than Chanel by almost half, the varnish is more chip resistant and the colours brighter and shinier. And, dare I say it, I think the colours are a bit more ‘on it’ than Chanel’s are these days,

I know, it’s like getting a divorce! All those things you once loved, now surpassed by someone new, different, maybe a bit younger. Definitely shinier and more eco-friendly.

The packaging is cute, too.