Wednesday, December 30, 2009


This bookcase contains my recipe books.  I have a sort of embargo on buying any more unless I get rid of something to make room.  I broke this rule a couple of years ago by buying a book at a car boot fair that just would not fit in.  The trouble is that I'd be able to get rid of some of the smaller books relatively easily but new ones tend to be bigger. I have now put this book in the bookcase. How have I made space? Ah. Well. I suppose I have broken the rules still further.
For years I've had an A4 ring binder containing plastic wallets full of collected recipes. Naturally, the collection is a growing one. Recently it's been getting difficult to wedge the folder back into the bookcase and some of the compartments have been so full that it's taken ages to find a particular recipe. Some serious sorting was called for!
I now have two A4 ring binders of recipes. Eek! How did this happen? Surely the trail of cuttings covering the study floor must mean I have more space in the folder? On closer examination the trail of cuttings proved to be only one sheet thick and when collected together there really were very few pages that I had steeled myself to get rid of. On the other hand, in the interests of clarity I have subdivided the recipes into much smaller sections so there are more layers of plastic wallets and the finished whole just wasn't going to go back into one folder.
Well, there certainly wasn't room for two A4 ring binders in the bookcase so I made a decision to put the folders somewhere else and just reinforce the rule that I must not own more recipe books than will fit in the bookcase.
Where are the folders going to live? Haven't a clue, I'm afraid. 
In case it's of interest, the sections I have divided my recipe collection into are as follows:

  • soups
  • starters 
  • fish
  • chicken
  • duck & game birds
  • beef, lamb, pork, venison & rabbit
  • Indian
  • vegetarian main dishes
  • vegetarian pastry dishes
  • vegetable side dishes & salads
  • dressings, sauces, marinades & stuffings
  • cold puddings
  • hot puddings
  • cakes & biscuits
  • preserves & snacks
  • sweets
  • drinks
I think I will bite the bullet and see whether I can't get rid of some recipe books, even if it means typing out the one or two recipes I use from the book. I think if you've had a recipe book more than ten years, you know how useful it is - or not.

Monday, December 28, 2009

'Tis the season

Not the very best robin pic you ever saw, possibly, but not bad considering it was taken through a double-glazed door.  We spent Christmas with my parents in Henley which, weirdly, really was one of the snowiest places.  As we travelled down from Gloucestershire on the 24th, we decided that there must have been a big thaw since we spoke on the phone the previous day - until about 5 miles from Henley when suddenly fields were completely white and the road was bordered by those small banks of re-frozen snow and slush that you get when roads have been cleared but temperatures have not risen.  This was a totally different landscape from the one we had left in Gloucestershire, in a reversal of the normal distribution of snowy, icy weather.  The main road might have been cleared, but residential roads certainly weren't and we had some trouble getting off the cul-de-sac onto the driveway.  Christmas day was sunny and the thaw was certainly under way but there had been plenty of snow and so we had a traditional-looking White Christmas.

I've always felt that the week between Christmas and New Year is a season all of its own.  It's one I really like, though I don't get to spend it quite the same way as I used to now that I live with someone else.  There is a level of consciousness which hovers about the line between conscious and subconscious where one finds ideas and feelings which are recognised if thought about but operate anyway if they're not thought about.   For me, ideas, feelings and resonances about seasons are in this place.  Below is a list that belongs to this particular season.  It's a list of things I like to do during this week.  Maybe it will ring some bells with you too.

  • Tidy the filing cabinet and weed stuff out
  • Re-print my filofax address pages
  • Read more than I usually find time to
  • Eat goodies like fudge, chocolate and Turkish Delight
  • Listen to music
  • Write down ideas for new shapes for pottery
  • Rootle through my cuttings box
  • Tidy sewing stuff
  • Make lists of meals I want to make
  • Make lists of friends I want to invite for meals
  • Make some new clothes
  • Go through piles of old magazines
  • Make lists of things I want to do in the coming year
  • Reorganise files on computer
Looking at the list, most things seem fairly prosaic and many don't seem to have much in common.  For me, though, there is a general feeling that runs through this "between" week that is often prompted by the activities above.  It's a time when new ideas pop up.  Clearing out the old, slowing down and relaxing or just noticing things are all good ways to open the mind to possibilities, probabilities and general looking forward.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas decoration

Over the past eighteen years, I have developed some of my own traditions for Christmas decorations in this house.  I love using candles around the house and there are always some in front of this mirror in the study but at Christmas I like to use gold ones if I can.  I tend to buy things like that when they are reduced to half-price in January.  Another of those many times when I feel sorry for people who don't have much space at home so they can't store much stuff.  I am very lucky that way; I can always take advantage of half price or BOGOF offers, even for ridiculous quantities of things.  So here are the gold candles that I probably bought last January!

I trail ivy, harvested from the garden, round the top and sides of the mirror and always buy a little holly with berries to decorate the top of the mirror and other bits and pieces round the house.  The gold baubles and red ribbons stay tied up in their bunches in a box and are ready to hook round the ivy and there's my Christmas decoration for this room.

This year I added one extra thing.  Normally there is a wind chime near the door and you can see that I have replaced it temporarily.

One year I held my Open Weekend at a time when I had already put up the decorations and someone wrote a lovely poem about the feeling of coming into the house and this room in particular.  I always do mulled wine for the Open Weekend and I think the smell of it added to the atmosphere.  At any rate, I was very pleased to know that I had created the ambience I had set out to create!

This year I haven't done as much decoration as usual.  There's still time, and I haven't ruled it out completely, but I haven't yet decorated the stairs in the way I normally do, with trails of ivy, bunches of holly, fir and juniper, red ribbons and strings of metallic red 'pearls'.  I often decorate the dining table in the same way, with bunches of greenery and red ribbons at each corner of a white cut-work cloth over a red one.  I haven't done that either, yet, since we will be having Christmas dinner elsewhere this year and I haven't decided whether to do the same thing for our New Year's Eve meal. 

Sunday, December 20, 2009


We interrupt the general preparations, festivities and frivolities with a practical post. Shandora asks for an easy recipe for beginners (with measurements in grammes.) This is a tall order as making fudge is something that can easily be not quite right, so I will divide the post into two parts, recipe and helpful hints.

Chocolate fudge (why start anywhere else except chocolate? )

450g granulated sugar
150ml full cream milk
150g butter
150g plain chocolate
50g runny honey

Grease a tin approx 18cms square or equivalent.
Heat all the ingredients gently in a large heavy-based sacepan, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil to 116 deg C (soft ball stage).
Remove from the heat, stand the pan on a cool surface for 5 minutes, then beat the mixture until thick, creamy and beginning to 'grain'.
Pour into the tin.
After a few minutes, mark the fudge out in squares.
When completely cold, turn out and cut through into squares.

Tips for fudge-making.
grease  - use butter as there is always butter in fudge.  Use plenty, especially in the middle of the tin, as this will help when it is time to turn out the fudge at the end.

boil - don't be tempted to have the heat up too high.  All fudge recipes are prone to sticking, some more than others.  The reason for specifying a heavy-based pan is to minimise the mixture sticking, so a lot will depend on the type of pan you have. 
You need to achieve what is often described as a 'rolling boil' where there are continuous bubbles but not too much more than that.  It's better to take time and need patience waiting for your fudge to cook than to have burnt fudge.  Stir from time to time, using a wooden spoon. 
If you have the heat too high, you will notice that when you stir across the base of the pan, you will feel the mixture lifted off the bottom of the pan and the bubbling will become much fiercer.  If this happens, turn the heat down a little.  Towards the end of cooking time this may happen more often and the fudge will tend to 'catch' and little brown overcooked bits will start appearing in the mixture.  This isn't a disaster, usually, but if it starts to happen you should turn the heat down and stir more often.  If this is all that happens then the worst result would be a slightly more caramelised flavour to your fudge.  If you don't take care with this, though, you will get really burnt bits, which will spoil the flavour and make your pan difficult to clean!

116 deg C (soft ball) - you are often advised to use a sugar thermometer for making things like fudge, as you are supposed to be able to judge the temperature more accurately.  Over the last thirty years or so I have had several sugar thermometers and without exception have found them more trouble than they are worth.  For jam, I use the saucer test and for sweets I used this method:
Half-fill a cup with cold water.  To test the temperature of your fudge, drop a little off the wooden spoon into the water.  Using your thumb and forefinger, collect the fudge together to form a little ball. 
The temperature needed for fudge is described as 'soft ball'.  The next stage (for some toffee) would be hard ball.  What you are aiming for for the best fudge is as firm a soft ball as you could still describe as soft ball without it turning to hard ball!  Imagine hard ball as feeling a little like the sort of toffee you have to break up with a hammer.  Soft ball is like what I would call caramel. 
If you cook your fudge too much, it will not have the right texture when set and will be more like toffee except that the beating you've done will break it up into fragments.  If you don't cook it enough, though, you will never get the fudge to really set properly.  I don't think I have ever overcooked fudge, but I have undercooked it through impatience.
If you are thinking you have done something completely wrong because all you have in your cup of water is a sugary, buttery mess, then it is just much too early!

cool surface - you can use a stainless steel draining board for this, moving the pan from time to time onto a cool patch once the heat has transferred to the draining board.  Best of all, though, is a marble slab.  This really speeds up the cooling process and saves beating time.  If you can, keep your marble slab in a very cool place, or if you are making the fudge in the winter, take it outside to get really chilly while you are waiting for the fudge to cook.  

beat - there are no shortcuts to beating fudge that I have discovered.  You just have to beat with a wooden spoon till your arms are thinking of dropping off!  Do not be tempted to use an electric beater; the beaters really don't aerate the mixture in the right way and when it starts to thicken, even a really sturdy electric beater isn't really up to the job.  The five minutes standing on a cool surface will save you beating time.

beginning to grain - when you're making fudge, beating really does mean beating.  What you are supposed to be doing is introducing plenty of air into the mixture as it cools and begins to set.  The first sign that this stage is near is when the fudge starts getting rather crystallised around the sides of the pan.  The mixture itself should be developing very fine lines through it as you beat.  These are in fact small areas of cooler, slightly crystallised mixture.  As soon as you see this happening and feel the mixture becoming noticeably thicker, pour your mixture immediately into the greased baking tin. 
If you do this too early, your fudge will be more creamy but also possibly not quite as firmly set as it should be.
If you do this too late, your fudge will be too crumbly and it will be impossible to cut it into squares.

mark - I have found that the best way to get the maximum number of whole squares of fudge (rather than triangular pieces and crumbs!) is to mark the squares out when the fudge has been in the tin for about five or ten minutes.  You should be able to get the knife to draw through the top of the surface and leave a clean line behind.  If you try this too early, the fudge will just settle back into the line.  Too late, and you will not be able to mark the squares easily.  Having done this marking out, the final stage will ensure beautiful squares.

turn out and cut - once the fudge is completely cold, I turn the tin upside-down onto a wooden board.  If you have greased the tin properly, the fudge should just turn straight out onto the board.
Using a very sharp, large knife, cut through from the 'back' of the fudge to meet the lines you have marked out on the top earlier.  This is fairly easy to do if you have a good eye and have divided the widths up evenly. 
You will always get some crumbly bits, especially round the edges, and some cuts will not go straight so that you end up with more triangular shapes, but with practice you should get more and more skilled at this.

As to what fudge should be like, for those who've never tasted it, I shall invite other readers to supply descriptions in comment form!

Sunday, December 13, 2009


It's that time of year when the word 'tradition' gets taken off the shelf and paraded round by all and sundry. At other times there can be a downside to describing things as traditional because others see it as an argument against modernisation, progress and improvement. At Christmas, though, tradition is a buzzword. I grew up with a very narrow world view, in that it did not occur to me until my very late teens that there were different ways of looking at things. I thought traditional Christmasses were all exactly like ours. Only later in my adult life did I begin to appreciate the value of small-scale traditions such as develop within family or friendship groups, or even for the individual. I expect to be writing about my Christmas traditions off and on for the next couple of weeks.

Traditionally, as I mentioned a week or two back, I've always made my own Christmas cards and I've also always made presents. At different times in my life the made presents have become greater or smaller parts of what I've given, according to disposable income and disposable time. Unfortunately, a lack of either of these is usually accompanied by a lack of the other as the more I depend on my artwork for my income, the less time and money I've had! This year, though, having been unable to make pots, I've been able to enjoy making a proper job of making presents and things are progressing not just on time but ahead.

As most of the people I give made presents to also read this blog, I don't want to give too much away, but as these boxes of fudge are now traditional, they're not a secret. And think yourselves lucky that I couldn't think of anything to write under the groan-worthy title of 'Fudging the issue.'

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Being in the right place

This red hot poker plant regularly flowers in the autumn or winter here. It's just completely in the right place. Whatever the soil has here must be beneficial because I haven't done anything to look after it for some years and I'm pleased to say it is thriving on the neglect. I had the plant originally as a piece from my grandmother's garden and my mother had some too but never got it to flourish in her own garden. Things just like being in the right place.

I feel much the same and lately I have increasingly not been able to feel in the right place. The dull weather hasn't helped. Apart from preventing me from being interested in taking any photos, it just makes everything else a bit dull too. Today was beautifully sunny and this was doubly striking because of the contrast with the recent gloom.

Gloom has been some of what I've felt recently too. This rib injury has really been getting me down. Just as I think I am pretty much recovered, it has a little set-back. Yesterday I just felt incredibly angry all round and I think a lot of that was triggered by gloom about my slow recovery. Things always seem to take much longer with me.

Today, as well as a lovely dose of sunshine, I had a treatment from my chiropractor, who also practises kineseology. He is so good for me. He addresses the bits general practitioners don't and by and large what he says about body structures and healing usually turns out to be much more accurate than what the conventional medics say. So today I needed a twist in my back straightened out but I also wanted help with generally being able to heal. D thinks that rather than 6 weeks, a cartilage injury such as mine would probably need 3-4 months to both heal and settle. The need for time to settle is probably key here. It's not a unique view. My acupuncturist usually suggests similarly long times for recovery. But D talked a lot of sense and checked things out and said the healing was progressing and not stuck. He had good advice about what to try when and generally flagged some things up that offer a new perspective on healing and should make the process smoother.

So I am back in the right place. My world looks as I expect it to look. The creeping gloom and anxiety seems to have retreated and I've been able to do stuff again. Physically I'm a bit achey after the treatment but otherwise things feel right.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Feeling seasonal

If you say you are feeling seasonal at this time of year, people automatically think you mean Christmassy, but that isn't what I mean, really. I do mean that I feel "in the season." I have felt increasingly comfortable with this over the years.

I am fortunate not to be one of those people who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder (but I have every sympathy with those who do.) I have always been able to appreciate the good things about winter. It's a time for sitting indoors and doing indoorsy things like sorting out the filing cabinet, catching up with the mending, indulging in films on tv in the afternoon and drawing the curtains against the world, lighting a fire and mulling some wine. I've nothing against the world, or the rest of you in it, but I do like to be shut away sometimes. At this time of year, if there's a day on the calendar with no going out and no visitors, I relish it. Even more than that, I luxuriate in it if it's one of the rare days I'm on my own in the house.

Digressing slightly, it seems to me that only children are not just more likely to enjoy their own company and for longer but also often have a real need for it. I was discussing this earlier today with another friend who is an only child and feels just as I do. My first husband was an only child and we had separate spaces in the house, joined by an intercom. It was perfectly acceptable to turn down a suggestion by the other to do something together; we both had a need to do this sometimes. M was not an only child, though he spent much of his childhood on his own, not getting on with his sister. He has the opposite need, though: he hates being on his own. So we muddle along and compromise and have worked out a life that feels good for both of us, but I still long for more time on my own sometimes. This is complicated by the fact that I am a real home-lover so would rather be on my own at home than go out on my own. Winter is particularly the season for this. However, as I say, we seem to have grown into a life that generally suits us both.

I've always made my own Christmas cards and some presents and December is usually the time for these activities. I always give edible presents in some form or other these days. Jams, pickles, fudge and roasted walnuts all go to various appreciative homes. Some of these are made in other seasons and in particular there's nothing like a jar of apricot jam for capturing the taste of a French summer. Some, like the fudge, are made nearer Christmas. I should be getting on with that soon.

I've been busy making some other presents in the last few days too. These can't be mentioned yet as it would spoil too many people's surprises!

What I haven't done yet is to make my Christmas cards. The photo above is what I used for my cards last year. Sometimes I use photos, sometimes I cut paper shapes, sometimes I paint one design and print off copies. I don't actually know what this year's cards are going to be and the time is getting near when I should start writing and posting them.

I may be rather quiet for a while .....