books

What are you reading?

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Are you a reader?

I grew up in a house of books; obscure and familiar, high-brow and low-brow, trashy and treasured.  An egalitarian wall of bookshelves meant that there was always something to read, and new discoveries to be made.  The collated volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica informed numerous homework assignments, Judy Blume navigated me through adolescence and later a diverse collection of philosophers fuelled my existential angst and earned me a university degree.  Even now whenever we come together as a family, someone will always ask on the first evening ‘what are you reading at the moment?’.

Discovering new authors is always a joy; exhausting the works of others always a sombre moment; Nora Ephron and Carol Shields feature prominently in my collection.

This Christmas and New Year break, I seized the chance to catch up on some great reads, old and new.  The Rocks and Fates and Furies were novels I’d read rave reviews of and which didn’t disappoint; both span decades and navigate the intricacies of marriage and friendship.  As a contrast, Julia Child’s autobiography of her years living in Paris and discovering – nay, Mastering! – the art of French cooking was a mesmerising read and made me immediately want to relocate to France and change career  (p.s. have you seen this film?  I watch it again and again…).

great novels to try

I was given some beautiful books for Christmas, including this one…

French laundry Cookbook

I’m smitten – and also completely outclassed – by the beautiful, complex recipes and preparations outlined in The French Laundry Cookbook, which is essentially a coffee-table cookbook, if such an idea were not intrinsically absurd.  Most of the cookbooks I read end in phrases like ‘… Made Simple’  or begin with ‘How to Cheat at…’, so this was a delicious and aspirational read.  Apart from posing with the book above, I have so far only mastered the important step of learning how to fold a napkin with a clothes peg, of which I am very proud.  Sauces and soufflés can wait for the springtime.  Or maybe never.  We’ll see.

Another gift; this gorgeous interiors book which celebrates imperfect homes and the contrast of old and new; flawed and smooth.  It’s made me wander thooughtfully around the house and move things around, to the great consternation of my husband, who finds nothing where he expects it to be these days. ‘Wabi-sabi‘ I whisper to him confidently as I waft past. ‘Transcience is the essence of beauty’.  I would best describe his expression as Unconvinced.  Two other recent, covetable reads; this book on colour which makes me want to paint my walls a deep, inky blue, and this one by stylist Sibella Court that’s an escapist work of art in itself.

Perfect Imperfect1

The last book I bought – two copies in fact – I haven’t yet read.  Harry and I have a new tradition; whenever I am travelling for work, I send him an iphone audio clip each day of me reading a chapter from a new story book, so that he can listen at bedtime each night, hearing my voice and following along at home under the covers.  It connects us and spans the distance of oceans and timezones.  Last time we read Jeremy Thatcher: Dragon Catcher (boys and pet dragons; what could be better?) and this time it will be James and the Giant Peach.  I’m looking forward to it as much as he is…

Roald Dahl

But now I need a new novel; my bedside pile is running low.  What are you reading right now; do you have any recommendations?

p.s. The ten most beautiful libraries in the world; I want to visit them all…

p.p.s. Top photo of Nigella Lawson in her library at home c.James Merrell for House and Garden 2004; all others my own.

Have a wonderful week!

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Tales from a vintage kitchen

Tales from a vintage kitchen

Last month, I was browsing in a local antiquarian bookstore and chose a couple of old paperback novels.  When I got home, I flipped one open and this carefully folded letter fell out…

vintage letter with recipes

‘Dear Miss Cole..’ it began, and then carefully detailed several recipes for sweets that the two correspondents had obviously discussed.  It’s a charming, curious letter so redolent of a bygone era when new friends would still address each other as ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ rather than use first names; I’m guessing it must be at least several decades old.

The other thing that struck me is how simple the recipes were.  Where today you might find an elaborate list of ingredients (‘scrape a vanilla pod’ …’add a pinch of sea salt’), the caramel toffee described by the author Nancy Evans contains just butter, golden syrup, sugar; a gloriously simple trio. Nancy goes on to describe ‘American Sweets’ such as nougat, marzipan, cream almond and peppermint creams, warning with admirable self-control that ‘all of these sweets are better if not eaten for 24 hours’.  Nancy strikes me as a woman of discipline who would find the impulsiveness of our household a challenge…

vintage american candy recipes

So of course, I had a go at making the caramels, to see what happened.

The instructions are sparse (rather like the technical challenge in TV’s Bake Off programme, they leave much to the wits and imagination of the cook), offering only that you melt the butter, combine with the other two ingredients, boil and stir.  I duly did this – whilst uncorking a bottle of wine with my other hand and pouring a glass – and then poured the boiling caramel toffee mixture into lined loaf tins to set.  Once cooled, I placed them in the fridge for 30mins, at which point they looked like this (below); a shot that will not win any mouth-watering food styling awards..

making caramels

…and then I sliced the caramel into inch-long pieces with an oiled knife and rolled each one in a small piece of greaseproof paper.

Apart from 3 small pieces which I ate, because it was the only responsible thing to do.  They were…. delicious, if a little bland.  I’d add a pinch of sea-salt, if you try this yourself, and so I duly sprinkled a little on the top of the second batch.

Then I decided to scan and print the letter to make up a couple of gift bags so that friends could glue their teeth together too, at the earliest opportunity;

A paper bag of caramels from a vintage recipe

Tales from a vintage kitchen

In truth though, the caramel toffee-making was secondary; it was finding a very old letter tucked away in an dog-eared novel belonging to the mysterious Miss Cole that was the real magic…

Have a wonderful weekend!

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and p.s. thanks for all the lovely comments on this post, which had me smiling all week  x

 

In Praise of Simple Pleasures

I finished work this week, increasingly giddy with that end-of-term feeling that I’ve never quite managed to grow out of. I love my job, but the thought of hanging up briefcase and heels and simply nesting for 3 whole weeks is a wonderful one. With the recent intensity of work and the heady social chaos of the festive period, it feels like we’ve not quite seen enough of each other of late, and certainly haven’t seen much of the house in daylight hours. As a result, this weekend has been spent decorating for Christmas, eating hot, buttery crumpets, piling logs onto the fire and just enjoying being here, with each other, with no alarm clocks and no cause to rush.

small pleasures
It’s a time of contentment in simple pleasures, like the unwrapping and rediscovery of cherished ornaments, like these Faberge-esque beauties bought at the now defunct Smith & Hawken store in Manhattan on my first ever trip to the city a decade ago, along with a box of vibrant and perfectly round glass berries which catch the light and twinkle against bare branches which I’ve propped in vases and dotted about the house

S&H eggs
S&H berries
I’ve finally brought down the last of the boxes full of books which have been hidden up in the loft for the last year whilst we tackle the renovation, and spent a lovely hour picking out some old barely-remembered favourites to re-read over the holidays. They sit stacked full of promise on my bedside table, and the anticipation of losing myself in them again is half the pleasure. This year I’m hoping that Santa brings Nora Ephron’s poignant novel Heartburn, which I’ve inexplicably failed to read in the decades since it stormed the best seller lists.

reading pile

We’ve been filling the house with some of the treats I associate with childhood Christmas, like bowls of these fat satsumas, easy enough for Harry to peel without help and impossible to walk past without taking one…

satsumas
And pots and planters filled with cyclamen, one of my all-time favourite plants, with their plucky flowers which look like they’ve been blown upwards with a hairdryer – apparently fragile yet able to withstand freezing temperatures and the accidental casual neglect they suffer at our hands

cyclamen
And we’ve begun the process of decorating the house for Christmas, little by little. Whilst I sort of admire that Marthas of this world who can magic up a Christmas wonderland in the space of one night whilst the rest of the house sleeps, for us it tends to be a very gradual build of festive accents and treasures, as we build up to the big day. This weekend our log basket has gained a garland of Japanese origami paper lights;

concertina lights
And this salvaged barn star leans casually against the kitchen skirting

amish barn star
Whilst the ancient typewriter in our entrance hall hammers out a traditional carol

remington

I’ve added a few handmade decorations too this year, like the paper stars I posted about in November, and these star garlands, made by laying two flat star cut-outs on tops of each other and stitching together before bending out to form a 3d star. These look great if you use different but tonal colours (I layered yellow and orange, and red and pink), but also beautiful in a subtle, rustic way if you use plain white paper, newspaper or muted shades. Run them through your sewing machine and just pull out about an inch of extra thread between each one.

star garlands

As part of holiday preparations I also did a tour of the house changing out blown lightbulbs, and gathered quite a hoard, so – inspired by this idea – I’ve coated the candle bulbs in white glue and dipped in glitter to make these sparkly tree ornaments. To create hanging loops, I’ll thread yarn through a small button and glue it to the top of each bulb to hold it in place. I’m just deciding whether to use these as gift toppers, tree decor or to simply place in wine glasses for Christmassy evening dinners as a sparkly place setting for guests. I tried various different colours but loved the deep graphite-like grown-up sparkle of these ones the most.

glitter bulbs DIY
And finally I’ve of course been doing a bit of festive culinary experimentation, like making these Christmas tree pie-toppers from puff pastry and pink peppercorns; use them on tops of stews and casseroles or instead of a full pie crust. For sweet pies, I’d simply dust them with icing sugar and maybe use edible silver balls in place of the peppercorns.

puff pastry trees
My favourite of all though was finally getting round to making a Bûche de Noël – the English translation of a chocolate log is distinctly inferior to the magnificent French original, and this ganache-coated chocolate sponge will I think become a family favourite for the future. I added mushrooms fashioned from marzipan and gave it a festive coating of icing sugar ‘snow’ (which also helps to hide any heavy-handedness in the rolling process..)

buche de noel
And as you know, I can never resist adding a dash of pyrotechnics..

buche de noel

It’s been a weekend of nesting, of family and friends, and of holding each other a little tighter and counting our blessings as events unfold in the outside world.  I hope you had a good one, and that the world where you are is safe and warm.