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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas...

Thanks Francesca for reminding me about this lovely Christmas treat!

What a lovely surprise I had when I logged on this morning and saw this post over at Cooking Up A Storm in A Teacup. I think you can tell from Deb's words just how much we value the friendship we've forged this year. When I first started this blog 12 months ago I really had no idea that I would meet so many wonderful, warm, talented and generous people. People like Deb, Lucy, Francesca, Tracey, Sandra, Estelle, Fourth Daughter and katiecrackernuts who have inspired me, made me laugh, made me feel welcome and most important of all taken the time to regularly comment on my posts. In fact, a big thank you to everyone who has read, commented or glanced at these pages over the year.

As the days and hours whiz by I'm thinking this may be my last post for the year. There's a pavlova to make today; roast chicken, stuffing and vegetables to prepare for Christmas Eve; presents that still need wrapping and children whose excitement is so contagious I can think of nothing more wonderful than just sharing this precious time with them.

I'm pretty sure we all want the same thing for Christmas - a day filled with love, laughter, good food, an afternoon nap and no family faux pas so that is what I wish for you. Have a happy and safe holiday season and I'll see you all again very soon.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A little bit of Italy for Christmas...

A bit fuzzy but you get the idea!

Like many people I decided to make sweet treats as Christmas gifts for friends this year. It's been was touch-and-go as to whether or not I'd be able to find the time so I wanted to make something quick and easy (preferably made from ingredients I already had in the cupboard) but exotic enough to stand out from all the gingerbread and shortbread. For some reason I seem to have an enormous variety (and quantity) of nuts in the house at the moment and I always have cocoa and spices at hand so panforte seemed the way to go. Then I read Lucy's funny post about her panpepato experiment gone wrong and remembered how good (if ugly) panpepato can be.

I didn't have time to shop for specific ingredients so I adapted Antonio Carluccio's Panpepato recipe from 'Carluccio's Complete Italian Food'. I didn't have any hazelnuts so I upped the amount of almonds I used and as I'd bought some glace apricots last week for some unspecified Christmas cooking I used them instead of mixed candied peel.

Panpepato (Peppered Bread)

170g blanched almonds, toasted & chopped
85g walnut halves
55g pine nuts
55g raisins (soaked in a little Muscat then drained)
60g cocoa
100g glace apricots, chopped
1/2 tsp each cinnamon, ground coriander & nutmeg
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
125g honey
enough plain flour to bind


Preheat the oven to 160C/325F. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl adding enough flour to form a stiff mixture. Using wet hands form mixture into a round loaf and place on a tray lined with baking paper. Bake for 30 minutes (you'll know when it's cooked because your kitchen will be filled with the a wonderful spicy aroma) and leave to cool, dust with cocoa and serve in thin slices with coffee or dessert wine.

How easy is that? If you need a last minute gift to take to someone's house over the holiday season this could be just the thing.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Four Simple Goals Update III

Image via

Time for another update on the Four Simple Goals Project. Way back in September my first goal was to 'bring music back into my life'. I'd envisaged doing that by finally getting the iPod I got LAST Christmas up and running but that still hasn't really happened. Instead I've found inspiration in some unlikely places.

The first place was my car. For the first time in my life I have a car with a CD player (sure it has iPod-compatability too but I digress...) so I've been able to drag out all my old, unloved CDs and play them end-to-end to see if there is anything worth saving. Turns out there is and I've been mentally compiling flamenco, big band, 60s and indie pop playlists ever since.

The second place was watching Glee and listening to the Glee CDs with the kids. The great thing about kids is they have no pre-conceived ideas about what's cool and what isn't (Henry took a 'Chicken Dance' CD to daycare last week and a Debussy CD this week). Through Glee they've become very excited about KISS, Madonna, U2, Lady Gaga, The Beatles and Ella Fitzgerald which I think is great.

The third, and perhaps most unlikely place, was the Rock Chicks concert where I saw Nat Allison wielding the most beautiful guitar in the world - the Gretsch White Falcon. I simply could not take my eyes off that guitar (which is almost as big as Nat!) and went home and dragged out my own acoustic number for a bit of a strum. Like many things (the tennis racket, sewing machine, flamenco shoes...) my guitar has spent way too much time in the cupboard over the years. I used to love playing guitar alone in my room and it seems my newfound enthusiasm has rubbed off on the kids because they've both asked Santa for guitars! Who knows perhaps we'll start our own retro band...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

You Know Christmas Is On Its Way When...

...the kitchen is filled with the heady aroma of ginger and cinnamon, cardamon and cloves...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Roll Up, Roll Up!

Images via Windham Fabrics

I've been doing a lot of work on circus lately so it was a lovely surprise to see an article about circus history (and puppetry, toy theatres, pantomime and the Ballets Russes) in the recent Selvedge magazine. One of the things they mentioned was this incredible range of fabrics inspired by the circus poster collection at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, and made by Windham Fabrics. Aren't they just gorgeous? A bit of digging also led me to this fascinating story about how the Museum acquired some of its nineteenth century posters. They were pasted to the side of a house in 1883 when the circus came to town and found during renovations in 1991 (they had been covered over and protected from the environment). If you're at all interested in how paper conservators go about there business you can find out more here.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Vanilla Choc-Cherry Cheesecake

One of the things I love about Summer is the arrival of stone fruits - nectarines, peaches, apricots and especially cherries. It just wouldn't be Christmas without cherries. A few years ago I bought this cherry pipper (or is it pitter?) and my life changed for the better. You know how it is when you find a fabulous gadget and you wonder how you lived without it?
Recently I was asked to bring a cheesecake to a Christmas party so I decided to make a vanilla and chocolate swirl one. Being a novice cheesecake maker the top of the cheesecake cracked outrageously so I improvised a cherry topping and if I do say so myself it was the right decision. The cheesecake itself was quite sweet so the cherry topping gave it some much needed bite.

Vanilla and Choc-Cherry Cheescake

200g Nice biscuits (any sweet biscuit would do)
105 g unsalted butter
500g cream cheese (room temperature)
200g light sour cream
3/4 cup caster sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
150 g dark chocolate


500g cherries (pitted and halved)
1 tablespoon cold water
1 tablespoon cornflour


1. Line a 22cm springform pan with baking paper.

2. Melt butter in a small saucepan over a low heat. Crush biscuits in a food processor then combine the crumbs and butter. Press into base of pan and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

3. Melt chocolate in a bowl over hot water (don't let water touch the bowl). Allow to cool.

4. Preheat the oven to 160C (140C fan-forced). Beat cream cheese, sour cream and sugar until light and creamy. Add eggs one at a time beating well after each addition then mix through vanilla extract.

5. Pour half the cream cheese mixture into base. Spoon in melted chocolate then top with remaining cream cheese mix. Use a skewer to swirl the chocolate around without over mixing.

6. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until cheescake is just set. Turn off oven and cool in closed oven. Chill for at least 3-4 hours (or overnight).

7. Place water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add pitted, halved cherries. Mix one tablespoon of cold water with one tablespoon of cornflour (or arrowroot). Add to cherries and stir unitl thick. Allow to cool slightly then pour over cold cheesecake. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until set.

As this was the first time I'd made this recipe (and it was a boiling hot day) I took it to the party still in the tin so didn't get any good photos but here it is with its enormous cracks...

and with its glossy topping...

I'm pleased to say that when we did unmold it it stood up proud and was roundly praised by all who tried it so if cheesecake is your thing keep this one in mind?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Do You Remember Bruce?

Traveller, bon vivant, writer, collector, fantasist - Bruce Chatwin was my literary idol in the late 80s/early 90s. I was at university at the time studying archaeology and art history dreaming of becoming a curator (perhaps after I'd travelled the world and written a book or two) so you can see why Bruce was my man.

Chatwin was a bit of a literary rock star at the time, 'feted for his looks as much as his books'. A true renaissance man he worked at Sotheby's as a porter as a young man and quickly earned a reputation for having 'the eye'. He became one of the youngest ever directors of the venerable auction house before leaving to study archaeology and pursue a career in writing. When he resigned from his job at the Sunday Times he reputedly sent a telegram simply stating, 'Gone to Patagonia for six months'. Knowing Chatwin this is probably an apocryphal tale - he was never the most reliable of narrators.

His first book, 'In Patagonia', ostensibly a travel book, is a slippery beast (as much fantasy as fact) and although the bookstores are now groaning with books of 'faction', Chatwin was one of the first writers to really push those boundaries. He took this to new heights in 'Songlines', the book he wrote in 1987 about his travels in Australia and his theories on nomadism. After that I remember waiting with bated breath for the release of his subsequent books and I felt the same way when I heard about the recent release of 'Under the Sun: Letters of Bruce Chatwin'.

It's been 20 years since Chatwin died from complications associated with HIV/AIDS. He was only 48. Unlike his contemporaries Iain McEwan, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie who have been able to cement their reputations and ensure their legacies Chatwin was really only at the beginning of his career. Perhaps his early death and the fact that his books are devilishly difficult to categorise (his novels are punctuated with arcane facts and his travel/ autobiography/ history works often reads like fiction) helps explain why he has slipped into relative obscurity? I haven't read any Bruce for many years and I hope they really do stand up to the test of time. I think it's time I found out - perhaps you'd like to join me? Do you remember Bruce?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Surprise, surprise...

Look what I found when I got home today! Is there anything better than receiving a 'brown paper package tied up with string'? My good blogfriend Deb sent me this bottle of pomegranate syrup just so I could try out her recipe for Fesanjoon or Persian Chicken with Walnut and Pomegranate Sauce. Wasn't that thoughtful? If you haven't already checked out Deb's site you really should. It's full of warmth, wit and a wonderful sense of joie-de-vivre (as I'm sure Deb is too).