Retail therapy

Our house is full of boxes and my head is full of decisions. Do we keep this? Is it too soon to pack that? The man from the charity shop has come and taken a load of stuff away and I’ve dutifully recycled dozens of glass jars that were waiting for preserves and little plastic containers that were breeding at the top of the pantry while they waited to hold things in the freezer.

In some ways I love moving. It’s a deadline-driven process, like my work, and it’s a great opportunity to cast off all the stuff we seem to accumulate that serves no real purpose. I try to do this while thinking of that William Morris quote – ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’ – sometimes that’s easier said than done.

Useful AND beautiful

But at the same time, there’s something about moving that compels me to acquire more stuff. Yesterday Rachel and I finally managed to achieve our year-long aim of trawling a couple of our favourite charity shops together. I gave myself a stern talking to before we left, but it wasn’t entirely successful. I had to bring this silver-plated cake tray home because I couldn’t bear the thought that I might never get to this particular shop again. It will be just the thing with some little fancy cakes on, don’t you think?

I was quite pleased with my little treasure (and how strongly I had resisted a set of tiny martini glasses that Rachel thought were for vodka-loving small children) but then I saw the gorgeous finds that Debby at Cooking Up A Storm In A Teacup has found. And then I remembered that there’s a charity shop at the end of my new street. Such fun awaits!

Are you addicted to charity shops? What have you found recently? Go on, make me jealous!

A Zombie Ate My Cupcake

We get plenty of scary things in the post (our last gas bill was like something from a horror film), but nothing as frightening as this…

Run, don’t walk, it’s A Zombie Ate My Cupcake by Lily Vanilli!

Now, neither sugarcraft or zombies are really my cup of tea. In fact, I’d rather eat cupcakes that look like these ones at LouLovesFood, and I dream of making ones that look as good as these ones at Adventures in Cake, but there’s no denying that Lily’s little cakes have something about them.
Ms Vanilli (real name Lily Jones) is a graphic artist-turned-cupcake-queen from east London (where else?), who has a suitably chic back story. She started from humble beginnings, selling her wares in a little-visited market off Brick Lane, and is now the darling of the cupcake eating set. She makes all sorts of fancy cakes for the rich and famous and even stars in a Levi’s ad. The press release with the book calls her a ‘cake sculptor’, which is a pretty cool title.

But what I like about this book is that beneath the (fake) blood and gore lie some really good cake recipes, like Honey and Almond and Pecan, Nutmeg and Cinnamon, along with more usual suspects like Chocolate, Red Velvet and Vanilla. I’m not about to attempt ‘Zombie Hands’ or ‘Sweeney Todd’s Surprise’ just yet, but Hallowe’en is just a month away…

Pea Souper

I’m sorry to be a weather bore, but really, there is little else in my life at present. (Well, apart from writing and packing and trying to see people and remember errands and wrangling wet washing and convincing the Small Girl that she doesn’t need Hop On Pop read to her for the tenth time in 20 minutes. But I digress.)

I know it’s very Anglo-Saxon to discuss atmospheric conditions but I just can’t help it. The wind! The rain! The brief bursts of sunshine that make me think it might be ok to hang the washing out or go for a walk, only to get drenched or tossed about like an autumn leaf.

On the upside, it’s perfect weather for soup – and I have just the thing. It might look a bit sludgy in the photo but it’s full of robust, earthy flavours thanks to some good old-fashioned ingredients – bacon bones, split peas, a handful of parsley and some (frozen) pea puree stirred in at the end to make it a little less khaki. It’s almost worth the weather. Almost.

PEA SOUPER
This recipe can be adapted to suit your fridge or garden, but the split peas and bacon bones are essential.
Take your biggest pot (or borrow one from next door) and set it on the stove. Add 2 cups split peas, 2 large onions, finely chopped, a stick or two of celery, de-strung and finely chopped, 2 carrots, peeled and diced, 500g bacon bones (or a small ham hock), 3 litres of cold water and a bay leaf.
Bring to a simmer, skim off any scum that floats to the top, and simmer gently for about one and a half hours until the peas are soft. Add a cup or two of frozen peas and cook for five minutes more. Let it cool a little, then remove the bones and bay leaf (pouring it through a coarse sieve is the easiest way to do this and will protect you from the terrible fate of putting a bacon bone through the blender).
Puree, then return to the pot and reheat to serve.
Makes lots – freeze some for your next rainy day.

Musical Monday: Écoute moi camarade

Last night, doing the dishes, I suddenly realised that this is the first time in five years that we haven’t been in France in mid-September. This time last year we were in a tiny apartment in Paris and the Small Girl had slept through the night for the first time (her exhausted parents lay awake anyway, because they couldn’t believe she wasn’t going to wake up). The year before that, Corsica, where I suspected I might be pregnant but ate lots of unpasteurised cheese anyway.
September is the time of La Rentree in France – everyone gets sorted and goes back to school or work after the long summer holidays. I think September in New Zealand is about waiting for the rain to stop!

Sweet sweet Friday: We Should Cocoa – Raspberry Choc Nut Bars

Warning: this post may be dangerous to your health. But don’t blame me, blame Choclette and Chele of the Chocolate Teapot. They’ve started up We Should Cocoa, a monthly challenge to food bloggers (floggers?) involving chocolate and a special guest ingredient.

September’s guest star is raspberries, which was a bit tricky given that it’s wild, wet spring outside here and fresh raspberries are a distant dream. But then I remembered an Ottolenghi recipe that I’d lovingly lingered over but never made. Could it be adapted to include chocolate?

The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. And, believe me, this little baby will knock your socks off. It’s got nuts, chocolate, raspberry jam and rather a lot of unsalted New Zealand butter. But there are whole oats in there too, plus some milk. It’s practically healthy!
Here’s the recipe, taken from the first Ottolenghi cookbook and tampered with here and there. Wishing you a sweet, sweet Friday and a joyous weekend.

Raspberry Chocolate Nut Bars
A crunchy nut topping, a soft berry middle and a crisp, buttery bottom. Delish!

Base:
120g plain flour
1/3 tsp baking powder
60g caster sugar
pinch of salt
100g unsalted butter, diced
80g whole rolled oats (often called ‘jumbo’ oats)

Filling:
250g good quality raspberry jam
80g dark chocolate, roughly chopped

Topping:
70g flaked almonds
70g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
50g long thread coconut
100g unsalted butter
50g caster sugar
40ml milk
1 tsp vanilla essence (I actually used brandy – because that’s the sort of woman I am, the sort that has plenty of brandy in the house but no vanilla)

Preheat the oven to 170C. Grease and line a 20cm square tin.
Sift the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt into a large bowl, then rub in the butter with your fingertips until it forms crumbs. Stir in the oats to combine, then tip into the prepared tin. Don’t press down too much, so the base stays light. Bake for 20 minutes or until light brown.
While the base is cooking, place the nuts and coconut in a large bowl. Put the butter, sugar, milk and vanilla into a small saucepan and heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour this mixture over the nuts and stir well.
When the base has had its 20 minute sojourn, remove it from the oven and spread with the jam – be gentle or the base will break up everywhere. Sprinkle on the chocolate chunks, then pack the nut mixture evenly over the top. Return to the oven for another 25-30 minutes, until it’s golden brown.
Leave until cold to cut into bars. A little of this goes a long way…