Sunday, February 01, 2015

Eat this: chocolate caramel pretzels



These are always a big hit wherever I take them, and they are so easy to make. The picture is of fancy Christmas pretzels which for some reason are cheaper than the ordinary ones, but any salted pretzel works well. All you need are pretzels and some chocolate caramels. I usually use Rolos or Galaxy Bites. The Galaxy Bites have the advantage of a higher caramel to chocolate ratio, and often they are cheaper by weight, but they do roll around if you aren't careful, so you need some balancing skills to get them on to the pretzels and into the oven. If you do a whole baking sheet of these (and I recommend you do) you're going to need about four rolls of Rolos.

Lay your pretzels on a lined baking sheet and put one chocolate caramel on top of each one. Put them into the oven for 3-5 mins at 180 degrees or until the caramels are soft. Press another pretzel on to the top of each caramel. You should have a sandwich of pure joy.

They can take a while to harden. As I'm usually preparing these about 15mins before I leave to go to book club, I put them into the freezer for 10 minutes. Once they are hard they slide off the baking paper no problem. 

Book Review [2015:5]: Black Roses by Jane Thynne



496 pages

If there's one thing I like in a book is it a believable,  ordinary character. On the face of it this is a spy story set in Berlin in the 1930s. So far, so standard. What's very different is that this is a book about a girl who ends up in Berlin almost on a whim, is befriended by Magda Goebbels and an English secret service officer (almost at the same time) and is forced to decide what she really believes and where her loyalties lie.

Into the complexity of 1933 Berlin steps Clara Vine, a English girl who longs to be an actor and has been offered a chance of work at the Ufa studios. She sees this as a timely get-out-clause to escape her unsatisfactory engagement to an English oaf. Her progress from young na├»ve actor to crucial intelligence-gatherer is woven neatly into the study of the world of 1930s Berlin: the rise of national socialism, and the confusing position of journalists and ambassadors in this unsettled time. Hitler's obsession with defining the role of the woman in German society, down to the clothes and jewellery she wears (or doesn't) and the ambitions she should have, is well exemplified. The juxtaposition of the 'good German hausfrau' and the fashion conscious and high-society loving female upper echelons of the Reich are excellently described. 

I really enjoy historical fiction, and I'm sure my knowledge of the Second World War is similar to most; I'm no expert in either politics or economics. Previously my knowledge of Magda Goebbels was limited to the fact that she killed all of her 6 children with cyanide before killing herself, as the Red Army took control of Berlin. Clearly every person is far more complex than the tiny nuggets that posterity afford them, but Magda Goebbels really does deserve a second look. Her life as the wife of Joseph Goebbels, and First Lady of the Third Reich seems at odds with her background of Philosemitism (is that a word?). 

Was the Magda Goebbels - Haim Arlosoroff relationship a work of fiction? I can't find any evidence online in my cursory search. It seems to be a shame to have invented something integral to the story and yet really totally unnecessary. The only down point to an excellent novel. I will certainly be reading the second two books of the trilogy.

Book Review [2015:4] - The Silent Tide by Rachel Hore




528 pages

If there's one thing that makes me put a book straight down it is turning to the back cover and seeing a synopsis along the lines of  "1984: Petra is a struggling artist finding her way in the big city.... 1944: Philomena is trapped by her class...". Honestly I hate the whole 'parallels across time' genre! However this was an emergency library selection when I had three girls mucking around and desperate to leave and probably eat or watch TV or something other than immerse themselves in the wonder of books. Choose your battles! I grabbed a couple that had nice covers. I admit it: I judged the books by their covers. There could be a whole post about book covers, as I frequently do this, especially in charity shops. This book is nothing like its cover, which to me looks like an easy read, female 1940s detective story, perhaps with a mysterious ghost backstory. It is apparently her "best novel yet" which is a dreadful thing to put on the cover. Why don't they stop the quote at "beautifully written"? Anyway, I digress, but I can tell you my heart sunk when I actually got time to read the cover and the back of the book. Whoops!

Having said all that this book is captivating. It follows the story of two women whose connection is initially unclear. Both are single women making their way in the publishing world, Isabel in the 1940s/50s and Emily in the present day. The characters are well drawn and convincingly complex, both eras are immersive and atmospheric. 
Whilst the book's subject is ostensibly the complex relationships and life of Hugh Morton, the focus is really the parallels between life as a single woman in the 1940s and present day. There's plenty of complex characters and events are rarely as simple as they seem. The 'nearness' of both eras lends another layer of complexity, as characters frequently overlap both. I loved the way the focus shifted from the life of Emily to the life of Isabel, and the difficulties faced by career women in the mid-20th century. The relationships described are so believable, and not all neat and tidy, as fiction sometimes prescribes.

I was really pleasantly surprised by this book, and it serves me right for pre-judging it on the genre. I'm glad I took the time for it, and was delightfully engrossed.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Review {2015:3] The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths



288 pages

Distractingly flowery in the first couple of chapters, the writing nevertheless settles down into a pleasing little detective drama. It reads very much like TV, and leaves the reader with a distinct feeling that the author has one eye to possible dramatisation. 
The plot follows a university 'forensic archeology' lecturer and her surprising co-option by a police detective to solve his cold child abduction case. There's stereotypes aplenty: gruff detective, moody birdwatcher, new age druids that interrupt archeology digs - what you might expect to see in a standard episode of Midsomer in other words (even a poor woman who starts helping the police and then finds herself in grave peril).
A couple of real niggles. The chief protagonist is obsessed with bring overweight and goes on and on a boat being over 12 stone.  Perhaps she's only 4ft tall and that's the issue, but I for one don't consider myself to be a heifer, but haven't seen 12 stone for quite some time.  In addition her inner thoughts and behaviour are so bizarre at times I wondered if Elly Griffiths was a man. I'm still not sure. 
There's nothing new here in terms of storyline, there's no surprises, but enough twists and turns to keep the reader amused. I didn't hate this book, but it's not a keeper. 


Photo-a-Day: Week 3


365:15 Freshly Baked Bread

365:16 Friends

365:17 Aspalls
Still can't get over the fact that I live somewhere where this is on tap. Nectar.

365:18 Ice Crystals

365:19 Planning a Vegetable and Fruit garden

365:20 Frost on Gum 

365:21 Crossed branches
This is my quince tree that has clearly been left for many years to its own devices.  I'm going to have to tackle the pruning of this beast at some point, but where to start?


Friday, January 23, 2015

Book Review [2015:2] - Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Little-Lies-Liane-Moriarty/dp/1405918462


Another wonderful book from the author of What Alice Forgot. Little Lies is a delightful read start to finish with some real laugh-out-loud moments. The story is based around a murder amongst a group of primary school parents. Liane Moriarty's skill is in highly accurate observations of everyday events and wonderfully believable characterisation. Describing events from the point of view of different characters, with attendant internal monologue, is so often badly done; Moriarty proves her self well able to worm her way under the skin of her characters totally believably.

If you've ever been primary school parent you will enjoy this, and perhaps recognise more than you'd like to admit. 

464 pages

Book Review [2015:1] - Fall of Giants by Ken Follett



http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fall-Giants-Century-Trilogy-Follett/dp/0330460552/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1422045028&sr=8-1&keywords=fall+of+giants

I'm a huge fan of Ken Follett's epic duology Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Actually I'm not sure that quite covers my feelings for those books. You know those books you have on your shelf to read again and again, like old friends? Something new every time, but also something warmly comforting about them. That's Pillars of the Earth for me. Consequently I've been awaiting this Century trilogy with bated breath, but also a sort of nervous excitement. The publication at the end of last year of the final in the series led to my excited embarkation of the trilogy over Christmas.

At first I was disappointed. The excellent writing and atmospheric descriptions were there but something was missing. I think the biggest issue is the sheer number of characters. Follett has attempted something quite remarkable in telling the story of the First World War from the point of view of Welsh miners, upper-class English, Russian peasants, American, and German families. Because the characters are not introduced slowly or piecemeal, the book requires an initial heavy commitment to buy in to them all, and to fully distinguish them from each other. Just as you fully inhabit one storyline, focus switches to another character.

Having said that this commitment is quickly rewarded. If there's one thing that Follett can do it is weave an engrossing story. There is some strangely clunky text; I found descriptions such as "pints of beer in glasses" very sticky.  There are some beautiful set pieces here, and some real stand-out storylines, intermingled with some frankly unbelievable coincidences. But it's fiction! I'm not particularly educated in the details of the first world war and the descriptions of daily life the trenches on both sides as well as technical discussion of the strategies of politicians and military was fascinating.  
Sadly not as immersive as Pillars of the Earth, but definitely worth a look if you are interested in the machinations of the early part of the last century. I look forward to reading the second in the series.

864 pages

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Lego Movie Cake

Oh my. I was quite unprepared by how popular my facebook post of this cake would be. Sadly I have to say it was one of the easier cakes I have done (or maybe I'm just getting used to the novelty cake thing now, with 3 a year to practise on). At first the Bean's request for a "Lego movie cake with an explosion and all the characters running away" seemed a little too hard, but thank God for Pinterest, I found this:


Which was pretty much exactly as requested! I decided pretty quickly that I wouldn't be making the characters out of icing, and apart from that it didn't look too bad. We'd bought the Bean a Lego set containing Emmet, WyldStyle and UniKitty for her birthday, which was helpfully a few days before the cake was required for the party, so that just left Benny, Batman and Vitruvius.  I cannot tell you how excited I was to find spaceman benny in D's old 80s Lego collection!


I managed to cobble together a Vitruvius, but it's best not to examine him too carefully!
If you followed my novelty cake posts before you'll have heard me say time and again how much I dislike shop-bought fondant icing. It costs a lot, and it tastes horrible. In the past I've just tried to overcome it with an unhealthily thick layer of flavoured buttercream underneath, but I decided this time to try something I've been meaning to make for some time: marshmallow fondant.

It turns out making fondant is not only cheap and easy, but it tastes vastly superior to the shop-bought stuff. I used this recipe, and as I was just trying it out, I decided to make a huge block and colour it later. I added in large slug of lemon juice too, as my girls are obsessed with lemon icing! Next time, I will certainly colour the marshmallow mixture prior to the addition of the icing sugar, as it is much easier to stir in a colour than knead it in at the end. As ever, I used Wilton paste colours; you just can't get a good red or black any other way. For the red and green, I needed to add a little oil to keep the texture right.

Instead of the lovely little white marshmallows, I used a standard supermarket home-brand bag of pink and whites. They are about half the price of the tiny ones, and as I was going to be colouring up the whole batch, I didn't think a little bit of pink would matter. You usually have a lot more white than pink in a pack in any case. As I don't have shortening in my pantry, I used vegetable oil, which worked fine.



I highly recommend double wrapping and then sealing in a box and leaving the fondant for a few days before using it. It's texture seems to become better with age. Do not let it dry out though! 

From there it was just a case of modelling. I like to get in a zone, with a cup of tea and an audiobook and relax into it. It's quite fun! The lego noddles on top of the cake I made by rolling out the grey really thin and cutting them out with a straw. The fondant sticks together with water just like regular fondant. And here's the finished article (as usual I forgot to take a nice photo before the day. There's always so much else to do!):











Saturday, January 17, 2015

Photo-a-Day: Week 2


365:8 Marshmallow Fondant
An attempt to make something more palatable that the shop-bought roll-out icing

365: 9 Sunrise

365:10 That. Cake.

365:11 Winter Fruits

365:12 Cloud Bank

 365:13 Blue sky

 365: 14 Big Kent Sky


Photo-a-Day: Week 1


365:1 Puppets at Norwich Puppet Theatre. 
No-one will ever convince me that these things are not sinister.

 365:2 An asthma medication formulated for smoking in a pipe. 
Bridewell Museum, Norwich

 365:3 Beautiful fungi. Mousehold Heath, Norwich

 365:4 Bunnies watching TV. 
One of those days where all you want to do is snuggle down and watch a movie. These two girls like to join us if it's a good watch. (If not they go and sit by the conservatory door hopefully.

 365:5 Frost


365:6 Reflection

365:7 Composting Prunings
An unexpected bonus of having a couple of rabbits. This year they've been overloaded a little by the vast quantity of wood they've been expected to chew through as I struggle to sort out the overgrown garden. This forsythia has been a big hit.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Frosty Mornings

I'm not really a Winter person. I don't like the dark mornings and evenings and I hate being cold. You know you see those adverts for ice hotels in Norway and trips to Lapland? Absolutely not interested at all. When you've got kids the Winter holds a new level of pain. Coats and hats and gloves and scarves and boots and waterproof trousers make getting out of the house even more of a trial. And then when you go anywhere like a museum or a restaurant you have so much STUFF to find a place for. When I had my lovely huge double mountain buggy it was amazing for this sort of thing. You could fill it up with all the winter guff and just dump it somewhere. These days I have to carry it all. 

We've been catching up with the 2014 series of Fargo, which has made me fall in love with Martin Freeman all over again, but I cannot imagine why anyone lives in such an environment as Minnesota. How fab is Freeman though? If you haven't seen the Saturday Night Live Office/Hobbit sketch it's a wonderful reminder of how great he is. He seems to be typecast as a bit of a bumbling loser, but when you look back at this you can see how he is so subtly different.



Even I can see that there are some good bits in winter. I love a frosty morning, that dry cold with crisp air and bright skies (while they last). Curling up under a blanket to watch a movie. And ice crystals? Yes please! The Bug and Bean have recently discovered the joy of collecting ice from around the garden on a cold day. I remember doing this as a child, especially at school where perfect ice slippers could be gathered from the concrete bike stands in the bike sheds.








Saturday, January 03, 2015

New beginnings...

I've decided to take up a 365 challenge this year in lieu of New Year's Resolutions.  Of course I can't help but make some resolutions, and I'm not against them; I make resolutions at the start of every month. Every single month promising myself to get more organised and get on top of life. Perhaps it's impossible to get on top of life? As a great (great) man once said:

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

It's been a very busy 18 months since my last blog, moving across the country, moving again, making friends, settling the progeny into new educational establishments. At the same time I wish I'd kept it up because life has moved fast and I've missed it. So many things I've done and seen and thought and achieved and I haven't taken note. So yes, a new beginning and a new blog.

My 365 challenge will be a photo-a-day. I won't be blogging every day so it will be a few day's roundup amongst the other things I do write about! I've chosen this because I love taking photographs and wish I was better at it. However I'm not about to carry a camera 24/7 so lots will probably be on my phone. Hopefully this will be a nice visual diary for me to look at.

Day 1


I had the pleasure this week of going to the Bridewell Museum in Norwich with several other adults so that instead of running at top speed to the shoe room (as is Little My's wont, much to my frustration), I was able to peruse some of the exhibits. I must have been to this museum 20 times and never been allowed to look at the old pharmacy before. What a joy to be able to slowly browse!
I could have stayed all day reading the labels on all the wonderful pharmaceuticals.




2015 will see me attempting to re-enter the world of paid work. I'm wondering if it would be at all possible to become a 1920s pharmacist?
The Bug particularly enjoyed dressing up as a 1950s lady.



Day 2

Mousehold Heath is a marvelous place that we have yet to fully explore. I'd love it if we could go for a good long walk every weekend this year. We've so many great places right on our doorstep we'll have to make a proper effort to see them all!