Saturday, 30 November 2013

Blogger Book Club #2- The Book Choice

So! As you may have noticed, Jenny has been being absolutely brilliant with this blogger book club, and I... am not. This is mostly because she is far more organised than I am, and for that, I salute her.

She even organised a little poll to help us choose our next book, and the winner was...



A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

"Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.'
Ruth discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of her beach home. Within it lies a diary that expresses the hopes and dreams of a young girl. She suspects it might have arrived on a drift of debris from the 2011 tsunami. With every turn of the page, she is sucked deeper into an enchanting mystery.
In a small cafe in Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao Yasutani is navigating the challenges thrown up by modern life. In the face of cyberbullying, the mysteries of a 104-year-old Buddhist nun and great-grandmother, and the joy and heartbreak of family, Nao is trying to find her own place - and voice - through a diary she hopes will find a reader and friend who finally understands her.
Weaving across continents and decades, and exploring the relationship between reader and writer, fact and fiction, A Tale for the Time Being is an extraordinary novel about our shared humanity and the search for home."

I'm so excited that this book has been chosen- it looks really, really good. It actually isn't the sort of thing I would normally pick, so I'm hoping that I'll enjoy it and I'm off to pick up my copy today. It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013, and is also a nominee in the GoodReads Choice 2013 fiction category.

The chat will be taking place towards the end of January, and this time, rather than posting information on our blogs, we will be sending out emails with reminders and updates. So if you want to take part, but haven't commented with your email address either here, or on Jenny's blog, please do so now and we'll make sure you're added to the mailing list! 

Friday, 29 November 2013

Winter Wear


When I was packing for my trip to the North to visit Bess, I came to the conclusion that I have no winter clothes. And to be completely honest, I wasn't being completely over the top there either- the majority of my wardrobe really is made up predominantly of sleeveless dresses, light cardigans, and flimsy tops. Which is baffling, when you consider that I live in the UK and for 95% of the year the weather is mildly dreadful (the other 5% of the year it is totally dreadful. I'll accept that this year was an exception). So I'm trying to get some ideas of things I actually might like to wear whilst the weather is cold and miserable, and I decided now might  be a good time to have a play on Polyvore. Well, I think I've found a new way to kill time when I'm supposed to be doing something sensible. 

I saw the beautiful scarf on Ashton's blog and instantly decided that it must be mine. But given that it is $68, which I'm sure you'll agree is pricey for a scarf, I had to have some thoughts as to how I would wear it. 

I'd wear the scarf with the grey dress and the black boots with tights for an afternoon Christmas shopping with Mama CupandSaucer. We'd mooch around one of the Christmas markets in those huts which promise to give you splinters if you look too closely, and head inside for tea and cake and to check over what we'd bought before heading back out into the cold for the final bits and pieces. We'd then head straight out for supper at Lorenzo's if we were shopping in Plymouth to crow over our successes.
(Clearly this is a dream. I haven't even started Christmas shopping yet. And as an aside I actually already have in blue- currently working out if I can justify the grey too...) 

The outfit on the left is something I'd wear for an evening ice skating. My little sister has decided that when she is six, I will be taking her ice skating, so I'd better get some practice in this year. I have an awful lot of love for Uniqlo's men's cashmere jumpers, and I think this turquoise one would be perfect for scaring off my winter fear of wearing colour. I already own these jeans, and I fell in love with these boots a little when my friend M bought a pair at the weekend. Aren't they gorgeous!? I'd zoom around the rink looking cool (but really boiling inside my cosy jumper), and somehow managing to look graceful on the ice when I am incapable of doing this on solid ground. Tricky.

Sigh. I wish I could buy all of these things- I really do need more winter clothes- but sadly, I think this month's wages will be going on Christmas presents for everyone else. It isn't too bad though- I love seeing the look on people's faces when I buy them something they really love. Case in point- yesterday, when I bought Mama CupandSaucer a Lindt advent calendar just because I knew she wouldn't buy herself one, she was so happy and it made me feel super special.

What are you wearing this winter? I feel like I'm in a standard clothing rut.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

A Devourer Of Books

I always carry a book. It's doing absolutely nothing for my back, but certainly helps to kill the time between work and korfball, or when I'm on a train or (more rarely) bus. I always have to have something to read with me, or otherwise I sit in coffee shops, looking around, trying to people watch surreptitiously and failing miserably. That, and I quite want to be approached and asked about the book I'm reading- which is one of many reasons why I have Date A Girl Who Reads bookmarked. (As an aside, I remember reading that when Meg first posted it. Could I really have been reading her blog for two years?)

From here
I devour books. And not just books, actually- I'm a devourer of any written word. I'm constantly saying "Oh I read something about that somewhere..." then struggling to remember where I picked up that particular piece of useless knowledge.

I also re-read an awful lot though. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the office's little kitchen/ staff room, re-reading The Time Traveler's Wife for what felt like the hundredth time, when a colleague came in and asked what I was reading. When I told him I was reading it for the thirtieth time, he said "There are hundreds of thousands of books in the world, and you choose to read the same one over and over? Baffling". Which is a good point, really, but then I could so easily spend all of my disposable income on books and that probably isn't sensible. I went into Waterstones in Cardiff and had to force myself out before I left with armfuls of the things- Bonjour TristesseFranny and Zooey, and A Dance with Dragons were all calling my name.

I remember reading something once (see?!) about an American woman who had to ration her reading time on her extraordinarily long commute, which I think it was something like six hours a day. (And I thought mine was bad) She read books slowly, and re-read them over and over, so she wasn't spending all of her disposable income on books. Isn't that kind of sad, in a funny way? Having to force yourself to read more slowly?

I don't discriminate with books because of what I "should" like. I happily read Jane Austen, couldn't bear Catch-22, am currently reading The Northern Lights again, and read Doctor Zhivago in two days. I just like words, to be honest.

From here
And the most unattractive thing to me is someone who says "Oh, I don't read". I just can't comprehend it- even my brothers don't read, and I hate that. I'm trying to encourage my little sister to become a reader by buying her books for Christmas and birthdays, but to be honest, I  think she liked the roller skates better this year.

But anyway. I love books. I would be lost without them. Do you have any you'd particularly recommend?

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Waiting

Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth
We've all felt like that, right? I know I have. 

In fairness, this is to a lesser extent now, but I still have a little fear of being "wrong", of not making the right decisions, and I'm scared of the "what ifs". But generally, yes, I've often felt as though I'm waiting for a new life to begin.

And there are certainly things I won't take the initiative in. I won't approach the cute guy. I get awkward and pretend I haven't seen someone I vaguely knew in the pub (in that situation, I chose to be mature, pretend I hadn't seen him, and then make the guys I was with laugh by regaling them with stories of the latest thing to go wrong on my car and trying to talk about football).

I'm not sure that I'm brave. If anything, I'd actually say I'm a little bit of a wimp. I like to have someone alongside me to hold my hand, or to shove me in the "right" direction, but I think part of being an adult is manning up and dealing with some of these things by ourselves, rather than waiting for someone to come along for the ride with me. In a small way, I think my Thailand trip was a step in the right direction- getting on that plane all by myself and making my own way halfway around the world was something I would never ever have done five years ago.

I wait. I wait for things to happen to me, rather than forcing them to happen. But now, I think I am about to make a bit of a leap, possibly have a bit of a change of direction, and a little bit of a new start. And I'm really very excited about it. Terrified, yes, but I'm so excited. I feel like I'm taking a step in the right direction, and getting on with life. Because realistically- we can't just sit back and wait for life to happen, because it won't. Nothing winds me up more than people who spend their lives whining about the things they don't like about their lives on Facebook or Twitter, and who don't do anything to alter it.

So yes. I'm starting to make things happen. I'm starting to cause change, rather than let it happen around me.

And I can't wait.

From here

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Sundays In The Park

Or Roath Park, to be precise.


Growing up on Dartmoor, I never really had occasion to visit a park (other than play parks, obviously) until I started university in Cardiff- with seemingly endless countryside for miles around, who needs an enclosed chunk of green space?! But when I started at University, our halls were right next to the gorgeous Bute Park, and when being in a city got a little bit much, being able to go for a stroll/ run/ sunbathe there was absolute bliss. 

In second year, we all moved out into the big bad city and ended up closer to the beautiful Roath Park. And now, whenever I'm in the city, I like to go for a good meander around to soak up the atmosphere and breathe in the quiet.



Every now and then, those of us who have left Cardiff descend on the city to visit those who have remained or returned since graduating in 2012, and last weekend was one of those weekends. And after a night out on Friday, and a drunken supper party on Saturday (two bottles of Cava, five bottles of red wine, and then the sloe gin came out...), a stroll around the park to clear our minds and get some fresh air was sorely needed. 




My favourite thing about Roath Park is the beautiful big lake, and on Sunday, it was full of swans, coots, gulls, geese and model boats. We took a stroll the whole way around the perimeter of the lake, and I kept stopping to take pictures of the birds, trees, and the lovely company. But the little guy below was my personal favourite. I do hope he doesn't end up as someone's Christmas goose... 



As we made our way back into the city to warm up over coffee and carrot cake, we passed underneath the trees which miraculously are still holding on to some of their gorgeous foliage. And as we kicked our way through the leaves, I couldn't get over the size of some of them- to put the size of these into perspective, I have size 5 feet. They were enormous, and contrasted so prettily with the red acer leaves.


Most awkward picture in the world alert...


I'm so pleased that in the midst of the cold grey, there's this final fling of colour. And hey- I have daffodils on my kitchen table already, so maybe this winter won't be the long slog that last year's was?

Either way- if you find yourself in Cardiff, and fancy a little inner-city escape, I'd seriously recommend heading up to Roath Park. Then make your way back to Crwys Road and The Pot, or Wellfield Road for Coffee #1, or if you fancy more of a stroll, Waterloo Tea Gardens. Perfect Sunday afternoon fare.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Happiness Is... (vol. 43)

As I was driving back from visiting friends in Cardiff this weekend, all I could think was "happy happy happy" (and "tired tired tired" but that's standard). Obviously I wasn't happy to be leaving them- though I will be seeing most again very soon- but I had such a lovely weekend, I'm going into this next week at work feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world. 

Some weeks, therefore, finding happy things to write about really isn't difficult. This week is one of those, and this week, happiness is...

From here
... finding out the collective nouns for things- like a ballet of swans, a bouquet of pheasants, and an exultation of skylarks. They're such fantastic phrases for things- I wonder who comes up with them!?

... the After Eight game. You know, that dinner party game where you have to try to get an After Eight from your forehead to your mouth without using your hands? We did this at Saturday night's dinner party, and it was hilarious- I strongly urge you to give this a go.

From here
... red wine. In the summer I tend to drink more white wine, but I am probably a red girl at heart. In particular, I am a very big fan of the delicious Bordeaux red M brought to dinner on Saturday night- you really can't beat it.

... enjoying yourself too much to check your phone. Normally, I am attached to my phone, and it really isn't ideal- I often don't feel like I'm really present, because I'll be texting, or instagramming, and so on. This weekend, I was too busy having fun to actually do very much on my phone, and it was lovely. Seriously, I barely even took photos on my phone, and that's a really unusual one for me.

From Rasberri Cupcakes
... carrot cake. As much as I love chocolate cake, and there's a permanent soft spot in my heart for a classic Victoria sponge, I actually think carrot cake may have sneaked up and become my current favourite cake. Maybe it's because I don't eat it very often? Either way, it's absolutely delicious, and feels like a real treat whenever I eat it.

What's making you happy this week?

Saturday, 23 November 2013

York


Last weekend, I got up at 4:30am to catch the 6:25am Plymouth to Glasgow service in order to visit the lovely Bess in York. Seriously- I think that's what you call dedication. But regardless of the crazy early start, it was so worth it to see Bess again, and meet the gorgeous Ellie in person for the first time.

The girls met me off my train (Ellie had arrived a little while before me, and had been taken for a drink to help her recover from her antics the previous night), and we headed straight back to Bess' lovely little place to drop out bags off (we are both clinically incapable of travelling lightly) before heading out for an explore of York's pretty little streets and beautiful shops.

And from there unfurled one of the nicest weekends I've had in a long time. 



I like to think this sign is not naming a street, but describing us...
We grabbed a quite bite of lunch, where E and I both found ourselves subject to a stern talking to from Miss Thoroughly English, and which sparked hysterical laughter from which we couldn't quite recover all afternoon. I'm not entirely certain that I didn't stop breathing at one point.

Bess decided that we should go and visit the Shambles, which is apparently the most picturesque street in Britain, for a few photos. But for some reason I got the most uncontrollable giggles of my life, which set Ellie off, and resulted in many a picture which looked something like the below. Seriously, of the several hundred pictures Bess took, a good 80% of them involve us laughing.


 Fortunately, she also managed to capture a couple of us looking like sort-of normal people too, for which I am eternally grateful, because I bloody love the two pictures below.



As night fell, we wandered back to Bess' before changing, putting on lipstick, drinking a bottle of pink fizz, and heading back out for the biggest, most delicious Chinese meal I've had in a rather long time. Seriously- it was pretty damn amazing, and afterwards we were all in slight food comas- to the extent that all we could do was head home and snooze...


Bess had booked the most gorgeous place for brunch the next morning- seriously, if you're ever in York I sincerely recommendThe Star Inn The City. It's the cutest, most delicious place I've eaten at in an age, and with the two beautiful girls for company, could you expect anything other than brilliance?



Bess decided she wanted a few action shots of me pouring tea. Cue me pouring tea more slowly than I ever have in my life, and squealing "I'M RUNNING OUT OF CUP!" much to the confusion of our lovely waitress.



Once we'd had our fill of Eggs Benedict (me) and Full English Breakfasts (the others), we headed back out into the city to marvel at the beauty of the Minster, and for a little more shopping. I was coerced into buying this and this as Joules had 25% off- I wasn't complaining (much).


All too soon though, 4pm rolled around and Bess and I waved Ellie off on her train after lots of hugs and admonishments to behave herself, before heading to Starbucks to await the train that would (very slowly) whisk me back to the South West. 

Seriously though- I absolutely loved my weekend in York. Partly because of the city, but mostly because Ellie and Bess are two of the most brilliant people, and I cannot wait to see them again. So I'm sure I'll be braving the epic journey back to the frozen reaches of the north before too long...

Friday, 22 November 2013

Christmas Cake

Wouldn't you agree that Christmas cake seems to be a rather typically British thing? 

I could be wrong, but I don't seem to remember having seen a recipe for one on any American food blogs (and I read a fair few). But that's OK, because when it comes to the traditional things, you can't go very far wrong with a certain Ms Delia Smith.


For the past five years, I have been tasked with making the family Christmas cake. It started when I was very seriously struggling after coming home from Oxford Brookes, and Mama thought it would be a good thing to get me to do one day. And it was. The Christmas cake became my project from there on in, despite the fact that I've always been rather convinced that I don't actually like Christmas cake. While I was at uni I would always make it when I came home for Reading Week, then leave it with my mother, with firm admonishments to feed it, as if it was a beloved pet. I'd then decorate it when I came back for Christmas, and it would be devoured before I went back to Cardiff in the New Year.

I've tweaked Delia's recipe very slightly here, but to be honest, the original is a very very good cake. If you want to make this, I would suggest that you make a start tonight, as it will need a few weeks to mature. I'm also told that if you are a complete teetotaller (and more power to you if you are), tea makes a very good substitute for the soaking liquor and to use to feed it. I'd imagine that Chai, with its wintery spices, would work really nicely.

Additionally, you do have some leeway with the dried fruit. I always think that dried cranberries would be perfect in this. But a health warning here- if you are planning on putting dried cranberries in this, please make sure you don't feed it to anyone taking warfarin (like your grandparents), as you are told to avoid cranberries when taking this drug. Silly I know, but I would hate to suggest something which could then make somebody poorly!

You will need:

6oz currants
2oz dried apricots, chopped
3oz sultanas
3oz raisins
1 1/2 oz glace cherries, finely chopped
1 1/2 oz mixed peel, finely chopped
3 tbsp brandy/ amaretto/ cooled tea
4oz soft brown sugar
4oz butter, softened
2 eggs
1 tsp black treacle
1 1/2oz flaked almonds
Finely grated zest of 1/2 a lemon
Finely grated zest of 1/2 an orange
4oz plain flour
1/2 tsp mixed spice

Equipment:
A 7in round cake tin- as deep as possible
Greaseproof paper
Brown paper
String
Scales
Bowls

You need to make a start with this the day before you actually want to make it- so start tonight and make it tomorrow. Weigh your currants, apricots, raisins, cherries, and mixed peeled out, and finely chop your peel, cherries, and apricots. Put all of this into a bowl, and add three tablespoons of brandy (or tea, if you're using that. My aunt uses Amaretto which is also amazing, and I imagine a spiced rum like Captain Morgan's would be cracking. Whatever floats your boat). Cover with a clean tea towel, and leave for at least 12 hours. I left mine for three days and it certainly didn't hurt.



On the day, make sure you either leave your butter out of the fridge for a few hours, or soften it in the microwave. I am a firm believer that if there's ever a time to make a cake by hand, it's when you're making your Christmas cake- so put your mixer away, please, and pre-heat your oven to 140C.

Beat your butter and sugar together until light and fluffy- this will take a while, but persist. When it's looking all fluffy and lovely, whisk your eggs together in a mug/ small bowl, then add to the sugar and butter a little bit at a time. When this is all very well combined (and don't worry if it splits slightly, it will be OK!), add your black treacle and flaked almonds, and beat in to the mixture.





Sift together your flour and mixed spice, the fold this in to the mixture. Finally, stir through all of your lovely dried fruit. It really is as simple as that.





Now- lining the tin. Your tin must be greased and lined with greaseproof paper, as standard. I tend to actually double line the sides of my tin, and make sure it goes to about double the height of the tin. Then pour in your mixture and smooth the top over- this cake has no raising agent, so it needs to be smooth or it won't look great when it's finished- then put cuts into your excess greaseproof and fold this down over the sides of your tin, to protect the outside. Then wrap brown paper around the tin, and secure with string. Finally, pop a double-layered square of greaseproof on top of the cake, with a hole cut in the top.







(Before you ask, yes this is all necessary. Due to all the dried fruit, if you don't do this, the fruit will scorch, the cake won't be cooked, and all will be sad times indeed.)

Then put your cake into the oven at 140C for 3 hours, and luxuriate in the smell coming from your kitchen. If it isn't cooked at this point, put it back in for another 15-30 minutes.



When the cake is out of the oven and cooled, wrap in a double layer of greaseproof paper, and then wrap all of that in tin foil before putting it into a tin. Then once a week or so between now and Christmas, poke little holes in the top and pour over a couple of tablespoons of brandy/ amaretto/ tea- this is "feeding"  the cake. Think of it like a pet. You can then marzipan and ice the cake a couple of days before Christmas- I'll post again on decorating a bit closer to the time, if I remember.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Currently...

I'm currently in the midst of one of the busiest spells I've had in a long time. I don't feel like I've really stopped since I got back from York, and some seriously, seriously exciting things have happened since then too. This weekend I'm off to Cardiff again, and I'm hoping at some point to actually do some Christmas shopping. But here's an update on a few of the bits I'm up to at the moment...


Reading: Northern Lights- again. Yes, I'm aware it's a children's book but it's actually really, really good, and if you haven't read it, you should. I also read My Last Duchess on the train to/ from York, which was less good- a nice read, but far too many characters, so none really got developed properly. Shame, really.


Eating: Roasted red peppers stuffed with couscous and goats cheese, at The Plan in Cardiff on Wednesday, as pictures above. I love The Plan- if you're ever in Cardiff, I highly recommend seeking it out. It's tucked away in the middle of Morgan Arcade and Royal Arcade. There's lots of seating upstairs, too.

Wearing: Dresses from Joules that I naughtily bought at the weekend. They're just perfect for work! And my Christmas jumper because we're...

Celebrating: Fakemas!! We're celebrating Christmas at work today, because a senior member of staff won't be around closer to actual Christmas. And writing this reminded me that I haven't wrapped my Secret Santa gift. OOPS!!!

Sleeping: far less than I would like to.



Dreaming: Of trips to take and places to visit.

Feeling: Tired, happy, and confused, because two people have recently told me that I look like Marion Cotillard and I just do not see it.

Listening: to Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. They've played it on the radio a couple of times recently, and it makes me so happy because I remember dancing around the living room like a loon to it as a child.

Missing out on: All of your brilliant posts. Can you all do me a favour and pop a link to the favourite thing you've written/ read in the last week in the comments please?

What have you been up to? Fill me in....

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

A Delayed Look At Cake International

The weekend before last, BessJenny and I trekked from our three separate corners of the country to Birmingham for Cake International

After getting up at silly-o-clock and getting the train to Birmingham, I met Bess at New Street, where we jumped straight on a train to Birmingham International to meet Jenny, who hadn't realised that her train stopped at International before it got to New Street until I told her that morning. I was just glad I'm not the only one who does things like that...




Now I don't know about you, but when something has the word "cake" in its title, I sort of expect there to be a lot of cake. And don't get me wrong- there was. Just not enough (read: any) of the free sample variety for my liking.



We started by going for a good peruse around the competition cakes, which were exquisitely decorated (for the most part. There were definitely a couple in the cupcake class that we all agreed we could have done). However, we pretty quickly realised that the perfectly spherical cakes possibly weren't cakes, and when we saw cake dummies on sale, our suspicions were confirmed- an awful lot of the "cakes" were actually polystyrene. 

In fairness, as Bess pointed out, cake goes off reasonably quickly, and it's quite clear that some of these cakes would have taken months to decorate, so I can totally understand why people would use a cake dummy. But even still- on principle, my favourites were the classes where everything had to be edible.



Yes, my picture is slightly wonky, but that cake did actually slant...!

To be honest though, despite my love of all things baking, I was mostly just excited to meet the two lovely girls I spent the day with. Having nattered to both of them for ages on Twitter, blogs, and emails, it was so good to meet them both in person. I can confirm that Jenny is just as sweet in real life as she seems on her blog (and knows an awful lot about photography, which is why her pictures are about 10000x better than mine) and Bess is just so brilliant I had to see her again this weekend (more on that to come). I just cannot wait until I get to see them both again, because quite frankly, they are both new favourite people.



Would I recommend Cake International? I'm not certain. The stalls were slightly much of a muchness (lots of places to buy gel colouring, cake pans, and so on), but then some of the things they sold were pretty impressive- particularly the range of sprinkles and the cutters which made fondant icing look like lace. I just wish there were more places to actually buy cake- I mean, free samples would have been awesome, but even buying some would have been good. But hey, maybe I was just looking in the wrong places.

That said, it was a really good day, and I definitely picked up some great cake decoration ideas- I'm definitely going to try the mini-marshmallow cascade in the first picture! 

Now go and read Jenny's post and Bess' post, because a) their pictures are way prettier than mine and b) Bess got a corker of Jenny and I concentrating on something, and it's worth looking just for that.