Monthly Archives: November 2010

Long socks

Many, many years ago, when I had, really, nothing better to do with my time, I used to wear stockings and suspenders.  I actually think that girls who wear stockings and suspenders aren’t my sort of girl. It’s so tried at. And let me tell you, despite what ANYONE says, they ain’t comfortable.

But I did. Possibly because I was less sure of myself or had the kind of life where putting stockings and suspenders on was a feasible enterprise of a morning.

One day I was wearing trousers. Smart trousers. I put on some shoes that really needed hosiery with them, not socks. But I was wearing trousers. It’s on occasions such as these I guess you wear pop sox. But pop sox are, absolutely, not my thing. I totally see they fulfil a purpose but not any purpose I’ve come up against so pressingly that I’ve had to put them on. I find them depressing. So I put on my stockings and suspenders under my trousers which, let me tell you, is dedication to duty.

Now all that was bizarre enough. Except at the time (this is relevant) I was on the Pill (if any member of my family is reading this, that’s a pill for medical reasons and nothing whatsoever to do with, you know, the sex). And as the day progressed, I developed this rather alarming pain in my leg.

For those of you who don’t know, the Pill increases your risk of DVT (deep vein thrombosis). I worked in Soho (of course) and around the corner was a family planning clinic. So I dropped in and said “I’m on the pill and I’ve got this really alarming pain in my leg”.

This really nice, hippy-ish doctor saw me. He had a pony tail and I remember him because he was so nice. “Well, pop your trousers off and lie on the bed so I can have a look at your leg” he said kindly. “I’ll be back in a minute.” And off he went.

This flung me into deep panic. I knew the procedure for removing my trousers. And if I’d been wearing pop sox I would probably have removed both of them. If I’d been wearing tights (WHY hadn’t I just worn tights?) I would obviously remove the whole tight. But I was wearing stockings, what should I do? Remove both of them? This just seemed odd. If I did that should I also remove my suspender belt? Didn’t that seem like too much undressing? Would he wonder why I was undressing so much? Should I keep my stockings on? No unthinkable, he clearly needed to examine my leg. So I did what any other insane person would do. I removed just one stocking and laid myself on the bed. The doctor came back, and of course he didn’t raise an eyebrow at my one stockinged leg, one naked leg.

But I felt really fucking stupid.

I got the all clear, at least physically, and got dressed and went back to my office.

“I saw a really nice doctor” I said. I described him. “Oh Hank Wangford” someone said, “the Country and Western singer! He works there as a doctor.” I don’t know why, but this made everything so much worse.  Actually it could have been worse still. It could have been Rich Hall.

This brings me, not neatly at all, to my current craze with finding Good Socks to Wear with Trousers. For years now, ever since I ditched the stockings and suspenders under trousers (under anything) I’ve searched for proper socks that reach to the knee, but are of really good quality and of fine denier (of an ‘unimaginable thinness’ as an interview with Julio Iglesias once said of his socks) that could be worn under trousers.

I’ve never found them. And now that I’m older, wiser, have children and live in the country, my concern is not with thin socks but good knee socks. This means they need to be: warm, comfortable (I will not wear socks that are itchy), nice looking and preferably have a high wool content (but not be itchy, have I mentioned I don’t like itchy). Not to wear with ‘fine shoes’ but to wear tucked into boots/wellies and under trousers. Preferably in plain colours and not mentally expensive. I know you can get cashmere knee socks for £35, thank you.

The hardest criteria to fulfil, as you will see, is that the socks are plain. Even when the other boxes are ticked, finding plain socks in wool, blah blah blah: impossible (not if you’re a man, cos you have delicious Pantherella socks, but I can’t wear those as they’re too big).

Burlington argyle socks are not plain, but great in every other sense. They’re not cheap at a tenner each, but I’ve always preferred to have less, good stuff than lots of rubbishy things. I go by ‘price per wear’ when shopping these days (as you can when you don’t have to slavishly follow fashion). Plus I’ve had two pairs of these socks for seventeen years and they are only just wearing out. But you try finding women‘s Burlington knee socks, in wool, available to buy in the UK. And when you do, tell me. I’ve found plenty places that promise to do them, but you either get there and they’re cotton, or they’re ankle socks or something else is not right.

I went into Johnny Loulou’s recently and just wanted to tear my hair out at the lack of warm knee socks that didn’t cost £30 plus. I did however, find these in John Lewis and they do address most of the issues, except, whilst I like the stripes for a bit of fun, it’d be nice to also have them in plain colours; but hey that’s really asking too much it seems.

John Lewis wool (40%), silk,  nylon, elastane sock, £8.50.

Recently I discovered some really useful, every day black over the knee socks from the M&S children’s department. These cost £4 for two. They’re cotton rich, so not warm in particular but they’re great for chucking on when it’s not too cold and you need some knee socks (they’re longer than knee socks but you get the idea). In fact the girls’ department of M&S threw up some pretty good socks, because they go up to a grown up size 7. There are these for example which have a bit of angora in them that are really nice.

I have some excellent, really long, really warm, dark cherry-red cashmere socks that I bought from Ollie and Nic some years ago. They are great to wear with my sheepskin boots but no good to anyone else as they’re not stocked anymore.

In the end the shop that had the best selection: patterned, plain, not expensive, comfortable (not wool but warm) was Uniqlo £6.99 a pair. I know I mentioned this company only yesterday but hey ho. Or rather ho ho ho.

A tale of two loaves

I’ve recently perfected my own little sourdough recipe. It’s nothing mind blowing, but it’s something I came up with all by myself. So I’m pleased. I’ll post about this another time since I can’t remember proportions and I’ve got it all written down at home in my little book.

The recipe – the one, let me make it clear, I made up myself – makes two loaves. I recently made a batch and put both loaves in the fridge to prove overnight. Except it was really late when I put it in and I got up early, so in fact the loaf that I cooked the next morning had only had about seven hours’ proving at 4 degrees. Really I should have proved it at room temperature for such a short period of time.

Anyway come the morning I put it in the oven and when I took it out a whole little baby loaf had burst out of the side. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take a picture of it. Despite slashing the loaf it still burst out of the side at the bottom.

This used to happen to me a lot, but nothing as dramatic as this. I’d researched why it could happen and it seemed one of those things (an ‘OOTT’ to give it its official name) that can happen for a myriad of reasons but the two that kept coming up were underproving and bad shaping.

Now I’m rubbish at shaping a loaf. Or rather I’m not bad but often by the time it gets to the ’10 min rest’ before you shape it it’s late, so I have just shaped it crudely and cast it into a proving basket. And, despite what the professionals say, honestly I’ve not noticed a difference. I thought the bursting could also be due to a too sharp change in temperature too quickly (i.e. putting bread straight from fridge to oven). But that doesn’t seem to be consistent either. I definitely think underproving is a main cause, and I rarely underprove.

So the loaf, once I’d amputated the rogue bit off, was okay. But not great. For one the bit that I’d cut off was doughy – like you could scrunch up a bit and it would go to dough. This never happens to me with sourdough and it wasn’t cos it was undercooked (it wasn’t). The crumb was dense and not very exciting at all. I cooked the other loaf about two days later. It was completely different. Much larger air holes, waxy crumb, delicious. Same dough, different loaves.

Heattech by Uniqlo

A couple of years ago, I was sent two stretchy T-shirts from Uniqlo. One was a cream crew neck, the other a purple scoop neck. I read the first two lines of the press release, as you do, before putting it into the recycling. I gleaned enough information to learn this was some sort of modern thermal wear.

And they were relegated to my drawer.

Most of my life, I’ve worn Damart underwear. As a child, my mum got them sent over from my Parisian uncle – bright turquoise, short-sleeved thermal vest t-shirts. I can’t say I liked them. When I got undressed for PE I stood out like a traffic incident sign.

As soon as I could, I stopped wearing vests and started getting sexy with my La Perla underwear. I was fashion editor of a national newspaper, I had my place in the front row at shows to think of.

When I became fishing correspondent of the Independent, all this changed and keeping warm on the banks of huge rivers in Scotland, in January, became a keen quest. I tried all the thermal underwear I could get my hands on Patagonia (most of my other fishing clothing-kit was Patagonia, and it was/is excellent), Marks and Spencer, Damart and various others that I’ve long forgotten the names of. It was all pretty useless. Except for Damart (see, Mamma knew a thing or two and let me tell you, she still does). Thankfully, its designs have improved since my turquoise vest days. However, the catalogue is still crap and they really should redesign it because there are some really pretty little vests that they do, in great colours, that are hidden hidden hidden in amongst the hip huggers and giant slippers that you put both feet into.

Anyway. The one problem with Damart underwear (I still recommend it as the warmest thermals you can buy) is that you cannot, under any circumstances, tumble dry it. And, as is the way when you’re busy, the odd vest does sneak in and then it shrinks. So I had a lot of Damart vests that were really small. When I was pregnant they barely covered my breasts, let alone my bump as well.

At the bottom of the drawer, recently, I rediscovered my Uniqlo Heattech t-shirts. Now, they are not super warm. Don’t go putting them on expecting to be able to step out on a freezing day and not feel the cold. But they are a really useful warm, extra layer. The t-shirts come in three styles: crew, polo or scoop. But you can also get leggings, tights, socks, leg warmers, SHORTS. I went into the Oxford Street store on Friday and stocked up with socks, more t-shirts, nearly bought leg warmers but didn’t (wish I had) and the leggings had sold out.

The fibres are all synthetic (acrylic, polyester, viscose, elastane – the generic name for Lycra which is a brand name), but I’ve tested them RIGOROUSLY and even after a hard day’s cycling/being on the tube/rushing round London there is no stinkiness. The t-shirts are so fine and stretchy and LONG (BRILLIANT if you’re pregnant by the way).  You can read all about the technology here. The t-shirts work brilliantly under jumpers (I hate jumpers right next to my skin). They are also thin enough to wear under dresses.

T-shirts cost £12.99, but until 22nd December you can buy two for £19.99. Don’t panic if you’re not near a store, you can buy everything on line.

Addendum added 17th December: the leg warmers are weird. They’re seamed, so not as stretchy as they could be. I have really slim calves and I can just about get them to knee height. So these are fine if you want to wear them a la Fame, as ankle warmers, but for anything else be warned they’re not very stretchy.

Snowglobe Christmas cards

£4 from Paperchase

I saw these today in Paperchase. They are lovely. They slide flat so you can post them but spring up to be a ‘snowglobe’. There are various designs, from a fairly minimalist snowflake, Christmas trees, this one (Christmas in the Country, got it for my eldest as she’ll love the detail), a Santa and of course a nativity scene (that IS what it’s about, despite what Coca Cola would tell us).

Not cheap at £4 but my eldest and I make all our other cards, so it’s nice for her to have something from her folks that she’s not expecting. Last year we bought each other laser cut wooden Christmas decoration cards from Igloo which were beautiful. (Not sold on the website but if you have a branch  near you see if they do them again this  year.)


Here are my little amaretti dusted in icing sugar.

Amaretti means ‘little bitters/little bitter things’. I’m not exactly a fan of the really brittle, very bitter amaretti  you can get, although they’re very nice crumbled onto peaches bound for the oven, or layered with berries, coulis and mascarpone for a really easy summer dessert. I am a fan of the really chewy ones, the ones that cost a fortune, so I’ve always tried to recreate them at home, often to great disappointment. The recipe in Indulge by Claire Clarke of the French Laundry was possibly the worse ever. My God they were awful (other things in this book weren’t, so an aberration).

Anyway, Joanna of Zeb Bakes recently posted a recipe for Hazelnut Amaretti which I was determined to try.

I’m not a fan, believe it or not, of things coated in chocolate. Like I cannot understand people who coat strawberries in chocolate. It’s all wrong to me. So I had no desire, whatsoever, to coat or drizzle my amaretti. But if you have such a desire, do follow Joanna’s recipe in its entirety and not the one below.

Anyway, here’s what I did.

250g of ground almonds
250g hazelnuts, with skin on, ground in my mill attachment of my Kenwood chef (note: Joanna used 200g hazelnuts and 50g of pistachios, I didn’t have any of the latter)
4 egg whites
400g caster sugar
half a teaspoon of Amaretto di Saronno

You basically mix everything up together. You don’t whisk up the egg whites. You’ll end up with a sticky, heavy dough which tastes very nice. Roll out little balls and place on a baking  tray lined with parchment.

Now, perhaps if your dough is wetter, the amaretti will spread out more. My dough was sticky but solid and so my amaretti didn’t spread and thus I was able to get quite a few on my baking tray. Don’t ask me  how  many this recipe  makes cos I didn’t count but I’d say at least 30!

Bake at 160C. Joanna says between 12 mins and half an hour. I did my first batch for 29 mins which resulted in a very crisps amaretto with some chew inside – I actually really like them like this and they look golden (they should still be soft when you take them out as they firm up as they cool). I did the other batches for 20-22 mins which resulted in a paler, much chewier amaretto. Experiment and see how you like them.

They are excellent and very filling! I was thinking that these are a relatively high protein biscuit – with the nuts and the egg whites and gluten free. Would  make delightful little presents too as they travel well.

The iPad – a late review

I know loads of people have written about the iPad, and I’m not attempting to compete with them (or anyone, actually). What I will try to do is give my impression of the iPad because I found out certain things, after owning one, that I didn’t know. And you might not, either.

Why buy an iPad?

Well this is a good question. Lots of people asked me this when I expressed wanting one on Twitter and Facebook. And oh gosh yes, in real life. “It’s just a big iPhone” they said. Well, der, it’s not actually since it’s not a phone, for one.

I’m writing this on my iPad, a feat I could not have managed, easily, or whilst still retaining my sanity, on my iPhone. I wanted an iPad because we don’t have a computer in the house. This isn’t some grand statement. I think computers are great and like all things, if used wisely can augment rather than diminish, real life. I also think they have a real place in educating children and that we shouldn’t be so afraid of them. If you’ve ever watched a young child – as I have – use technology – you realise not to be so afraid of this union. When I interviewed Dr Joan Freeman recently, who has conducted the longest ever study of gifted children, she said there was a direct connection between being gifted so young and access to IT.

But we don’t have a computer in the house because the laptop we did have is now about four years, which in computer years is equivalent to being a hundred (one human year = 25 computer ones, source: Barbieri, 2010) and it’s so slow as to now be unworkable with. Plus, PLUS, the battery went just as it was out of guarantee, so it can’t recharge (and a new battery costs £100), thus it has to be plugged in the whole time, so it has neither the portability of a laptop, nor the capability of a desk top model.

So I was faced with a dilemma – to have on computer in the house for me is unthinkable, but get a new laptop? Not at £1000 a pop (I only do Macs, I’ve only ever only done Macs so don’t go telling me about your PC wonder, I’m not listening). The iPad was a really viable alternative. Not because I expected to write a novel on it – I sit on the sofa and write with a fountain pen on my Basildon Bond for that – but because I need something to be able to answer emails on in more than the three misspelt words the iPhone allows. I wanted to be able to look something up on the internet easily and I wanted to be able to update my blogs.

All the essentials of life. I have a big fuck off Mac in my office for work, writing articles and writing letters in giant font. What I wanted for my home computer was a bit of fun, but also, ease. The iPad looked ideal except for one important detail – no keyboard. I can’t be fucking doing with a virtual keyboard. I need a proper functioning keyboard for my super fast digits (120wpm typing speed, oh yes). Whilst the keypad that the iPad offers is bigger than the one the iPhone does, it was still one of those touch-screen things. No use to me and my bendy digits.

Then I realised that you could get a keyboard. A proper keyboard, that the iPad slots into. It costs £55 and it renders the iPad into a little mini computer, quite a beautiful thing actually. I was sold.

A note here: do not buy the cover that Apple makes for the iPad if you intend to get the keyboard. The cover (£30) fits on to snuggly and to get it off (and you need to get it off to fit it onto the keyboard slot) is hair-pullingly frustrating. If you plan to carry your iPad around with you, then get a zip up cover.

I got the most basic model (WiFi, 16GB) because my thinking went like this:

I didn’t want my iPad to be a travelling device as such: I have an iPhone for that.
I didn’t need to store loads of stuff. I have a desk top computer and if I want to put films and photos on and I run out of space, I just delete stuff. So the 16GB is fine for me.
I didn’t need 3GS, not only does this need a separate SIM (with contract), but I had an iPhone for that. So I use my iPad at home on wireless.

By the time I’ve grown out of my iPad the chances are it will have broken, died, be superceded by a model so much fancier and more able. Sad but true. When I bought my laptop just four/a hundred years ago, it was the latest Mac laptop, now it looks as modern as a rag and bone man.

Much is made of the iPad’s incredible battery life, but IN WHAT WORLD?? If you use it for anything that involves grabbing information from the outside world, the battery lasts from sunrise to sunset and not a moment longer. And it takes FOR EVER to recharge. Not like the iPhone which can take a 100% charge in an hour or so. My iPad has to charge all night (it, I’m sure, takes less time than that but I recharge it at night) to be at 100% in the morning.

You also need OS10.6 to use it. No-one told me this. Or at least, I didn’t register it. My desktop computer is three and a half years old and was running 10.3, so when I got the iPad I had to wait to update the OS (you can just buy the latest Snow Leopard at about £25 and it works fine, you don’t need to buy the Snow Leopard before that one, or at least that’s what my Mac expert tells me and it worked fine for me) and install it before I could use my iPad. If you already have an iPhone you can transfer all your apps over – all but the camera/phone reliant apps go over (since the iPad has no camera or phone) easily. But, they come out on the bigger iPad screen the same size as the iPhone. You can blow them up (there is a x2 button that appears on the bottom right hand side of your screen) so that they fill the screen but the resolution goes somewhat.

When you go to the iTunes store you can see which apps are made specifically for the iPad, and these will make proper use of the bigger screen. Otherwise, with some exceptions, you’re looking at a small-screen in a big screen unless you blow it up.

The Mail and iCal functions are much better on the iPad. There still isn’t full search capability on Mail – you can only search by mailbox. So for example, on my full size computer if I want to search for an email from Miuccia Prada (name drop, name drop) I can simultaneously search for one from her across all my mail boxes and it will find it. On the iPad it can only do one folder at a time, so you’d have to search you ‘inbox’ first, then ‘sent’ then ‘trash’ then any other folders/mail boxes you had. This is minor, but important if it’s a function you use a lot. Safari is used in exactly the same way as on a desk top model, just you get a smaller screen. But you still have your book marks and everything. I can also do banking on my iPad whereas I couldn’t on the iPhone (this varies according to which bank you’re with though). Note that, as per the iPhone, you can’t access Flash sites on the iPad.

You can only get photos onto your iPad by importing them through iTunes (or I guess whatever you use on PC, I only know about iTunes) or – what I do and find infinitely easier as most of my photos these days are taken on my iPhone – email them to myself.

I wouldn’t want to read on it for ages – it’s backlit and so it hurts my eyes. And I don’t find it super light to hold for ages either, not one-handed  like a book. I don’t read many books (other than for work, so I tend to do that at my desk) and if book reading is your thing, I’d look at a Kindle which is a totally different thing from the iPad anyway..

Some apps I like:

MiTypewriter, £1.19 – this is my eldest’s favourite app – it’s an old fashioned type writer. Gorgeous fun. You can email what you write to yourself and then print it out from your desk top machine. Makes a lovely tip tapping noise and you get to push the whatchamacall it to make the page go up (what is that thing called).

Notebooks for iPad, £5.49 – I first had this on my iPhone and I use it to store recipes and shopping lists on (so they’re always to hand, when I’m shopping). I can’t pretend it didn’t nearly blow my head off setting it up on  my iPhone. It’s much easier on the iPad, I can’t work out if that’s cos I already knew a bit about it or it’s changed or what. So if you scare easily this might not be for you, but there’s lots of help and the developer is very good at replying to emails.

iQuarium HD, £1.19 – this is a virtual aquarium. You ‘earn’ points by keeping the fish alive and feeding it. You trade the points in for rocks, gravel, water plants. I can’t pretend it’s the best aquarium out there – I’m sure there are others. But it’s fun for five mins a day and children will like it. Note: if you don’t feed the fish it will eventually ‘die’, so be careful out there if you cry easily.

Little Things, £1.79 – a beautifully designed game. You search for various items in a picture made up of hundreds of objects. I love this app. It looks great and it’s a bit of gentle fun (although it does make me go a bit cross eyed after a while, it’s the staring so intently and the backlit screen).

Corkulus, £2.99 – this is a virtual cork board. You can add virtual post it notes, to do lists and photos. It’s a great idea, but I have to say that to really work it needs an even bigger screen than the iPad. So it’s a little indulgent, but I like to think I have a virtual corkboard on my iPad, I mean, just in case I have to story board something, like you do..

Real Solitaire HD for iPad, £1.19 (free version also available but you get ads and I kept clicking on them by mistake and it got annoying) – again there are many card apps out there, this just happens to be the one I have. This is the app I use the most – I am currently obsessed with playing Patience/Solitaire.

My first Italian words, £1.19 – I really liked the graphics on this. It helps you spell very basic Italian words. Good accent and really lovely design (hey, it’s important!)

I’ve got about twelve million other apps – ones that tell me which stars are in the sky, various games that you’ll all already heard of – what I’ve tried to do is highlight apps you may not have heard of and that I find particularly fun/useful.

Do I regret buying it? Not in the slightest, it’s fun,  useful and portable although ironically I tend to keep it docked to the keyboard in the kitchen for recipe looking up more than anything.

Making sourdough whilst drunk

A few days ago I started making some white sourdough, in large part to take to a friend’s house and also because I fancied a change from our usual largely-wholemeal sourdough. It turned into a long process. I kept taking out the starter, meaning to get the dough going, but somehow never finding the five minutes I needed to do it.

On Thursday of last week (it’s Monday as I write now) I weighed out my starter, refreshed it in the bowl to make it up to the weight I wanted (400g of starter), refreshed the starter in the Kilner jar and put the latter back in the fridge. However, in between me doing this and the starter in the bowl becoming active, my partner had made a loaf of yeasted-bread (no doubt fed up at having no bread..) and used up some flour. Because I needed a lot of white flour – 1k of the stuff – there now wasn’t enough.  So the dough became a mishmash of white flour, wholemeal and whatever else I could bung in. It ended up being 500g of white, about 430g of wholemeal and 70g of barley flour.

I started it off. Knead, rest, knead, rest. Somewhere along the line, that magic, nebulous hour of evening came, the one that tells you it’s socially acceptable to have some wine and thus it was that I poured myself ‘un dito di vino’ (a finger of wine): it really doesn’t take very much to make me feel merry. I started chatting to my partner, had another dito di vino, la la la la. Suddenly I remembered the bread. It had sat there for hours (it was at the ’30 min rest’ stage, some 30 minutes that ended up being).

I kneaded it, slung it in a bowl and put it in the fridge, thinking “fuck”. Over the next few days I kept doing this – taking it out, kneading it and then putting it back in as I kept running out of time. Look, I’m a very social, busy person when I’m not being a hermit. To cut a really long story short, it wasn’t til last night that I put the dough into some bannetons and put it in the fridge for what I planned to be the final rise.

I had no idea what to expect, so we’d made some ‘normal’ bread for eldest daughter’s sandwiches this morning, just in case (I say ‘we’ it was of course entirely not of my doing).

What I really didn’t expect was to get some bread that was – is – just delicious. It’s far more aerated than a normal loaf (which usually contains 60/40 white to wholemeal; this loaf as you see above was 50/50. This is because it had a higher hydration than my usual loaf (65% instead of 55%), whilst having less starter (40% instead of 50%). I have no idea what any of those numbers really mean, but for once, making a mistake whilst cooking has led me to a happy discovery. Not only has it got far bigger holes than my usual 60/40 loaf, because I made it over four days, it has a wonderful taste to it.

This is, perhaps, how people invent their own recipes. My knead/rest cycle went something like this, for those interested:

Knead, rest for ten minutes.
Knead, rest for ten minutes.
Knead, rest for ten minutes.
Knead, rest for four hours.
Knead, cover guiltily with a cloth and put in fridge for 14 hours.
Take out of fridge and ignore dough for an hour or so.
Knead, put back in fridge for a day, or so.
Take out of fridge, knead. Put back in fridge for another day.
Take out of fridge. Knead. Rest for one or two hours – who can remember. Shape, put in bannetons, cover, put in fridge for 18 hours.
Cook. Eat. Enjoy.

When I said sourdough was the most forgiving of breads, I wasn’t lying.

A very good sourdough me thinks.