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15 posts from September 2011

30 September 2011

Adventures in Baking – The Best Chocolate Brownies in the World

 

I seem to have been making rather a lot of chocolate brownies this summer, which is strange as I’m not supposed to be eating them on this diet (though one or two might have accidentally fallen into my mouth on occasion).

 

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They were my contribution  for the Food Bloggers Bake Sale and the Husband also requested some for his birthday, where I copied Nigella’s idea of piling the brownies up in lieu of a cake.

 

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After extensive taste testing, I have found no better recipe than that for Chocolate and Sour Cherry Brownies from Unwrapped – Green & Black’s Chocolate Recipes which is a fabulous and much underrated cookbook. (I can’t get Nigella’s brownies to be anything other than dry and cake-y)

These brownies have just the right gooey interior and firm, crusty, satisfying edges, while the cherries impart an extra chewy dimension. And the sultry dark chocolate and sweet, tangy cherries are of course a match made in heaven.

It’s not surprising they’re so good, since the ingredients are insane. If you’re on any sort of diet, I suggest you walk away from the computer now  and go get yourself a nice cup of cottage cheese.

 

Ingredients

300g (11oz) unsalted butter

300g (11oz) top quality dark chocolate

5 large eggs

450g (1lb) granulated sugar

1 tbsp vanilla extract/essence

200g (7oz) plain (all purpose) flour

1 tsp salt

250g (9oz) dried cherries*

Extra chocolate chips for topping if you’re greedy like me

 *dried sour cherries are easily obtainable in the US but maybe not so easily in the UK, though I’ve definitely found them at Waitrose. However, I’ve successfully substituted dried cranberries and you could also use any other dried berries, nuts or just leave them out altogether. 

 

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Method

Preheat the oven to 180 C/ 350 F. Line a 34x25cm / 13x10in rectangular baking tin with baking parchment.

Melt the butter and chocolate together in a bain-marie or heatproof bowl suspended over barely simmering water.

Beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla until thick and creamy. Then beat the egg mixture into the melted chocolate.

Sift the flour and salt  together and stir into the mixture until smooth. Stir in the cherries.

Pour the liquid mixture into the baking tin and then bake for 25-35 minutes until the whole thing looks like a giant brownie with a slightly cracked surface.  When you start to smell them, it means they’re almost done. 

Try not to overcook the brownies.  If they seem too squidgy after you’ve taken them out, it’s not a problem to put them back in the oven for a few more minutes.  But if overcooked they get cake-y.

Just after you’ve brought the huge brownie out of the oven, sprinkle the whole thing with chocolate chips.  They will partially melt in the heat and slightly embed themselves into the mixture but then cool back down into chocolate chips again, imparting an extra chocolatey crunch to the surface of the already perfectly textured brownie. I got the idea from the brownies served at Pret a Manger, and it’s well worth the extra calories.

Leave the giant brownie to cool for about 20 minutes before cutting into large squares in the pan.

23 September 2011

Adventures in Knitting – Mystery Shawl Clue 2

 

I’ve just finished clue two (of five) of the Mystery Shawl knitalong and very much like how it’s shaping up.

 

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If you remember I was thinking of knitting it with three different colours of beads, and with the pattern becoming clearer I swapped out the orange seed beads for larger coral Swarovski pearl beads (I’m lucky enough to live 10 minutes walk away from here).

 

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I tried to incorporate the copper beads, but they seemed a bit too blingy for what I’m intending to be an ‘everyday’ shawl and not a glitzy evening affair. My plan now is to try and find one more place for the coral beads in the bottom lace section of the shawl, and also try to incorporate them in the lace edging which there apparently is along the top.

Next clue is due in about five days time. If you’re interested in joining the knitalong, it’s not too late.  Full details here (Ravelry link).

It also looks fabulous next to our new Missoni duvet cover.

Missoni for Target

 

So have you got over the much-hyped, much anticipated PR-disaster, retail extravaganza which was Missoni for Target? If you ended up disappointed you may want to stop reading this post now.

 

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Given the exuberant pattern, colours and Italianness of the Missoni aesthetic, you would be right in thinking that the collection was right up my alley, and I made a resolution to get up early on the 13th and get in line.  I even went through the lookbook carefully to plan my shop, with the fabulous espresso cups at the top of my list.

Of course I forgot all about it (I’d be such a crap fashionista) and only remembered when I got on Twitter at 8.30 am.  I decided to make an unprecedented effort, MISSED BREAKFAST, and chased up the freeway to my nearest Target.  When I arrived at 8.45 am the whole place was picked clean. No womenswear, no homewares, no menswear, no. espresso. cups. Just long lines at checkout of women with their carts piled high with thousands of dollars of Missoni stuff.  I picked up a couple of skirts and sweaters for the Minx, two pairs of socks for me, nearly had a fight with the woman in the check out line who tried to pinch my meagre pickings and returned home feeling that being a shopaholic really is much too much like hard work.

I halfheartedly opened the website and was of course greeted by the irritatingly cute dog.  So I thought no more about it and got on with grumbling about Target on Facebook and Twitter.  And then my habit of not closing a browser window paid off, when the Target website flickered tantalisingly to life around 11 am.  And there was still lots of stuff left because no one else could access it either.  Not much womenswear, not much dinnerware, no. espresso. cups, but bedding and towels, and kidwear and poufs.

So I may have got a little carried away. 

 

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It’s all surprisingly well made and extremely good value for money.  I hope Target can find a way to restock in a month or so, as there are still a few bits and bobs I wanted (women’s ballet flats, tumblers and loopy pillow).  Harriet likes it too.

Did you wait in line that morning? Did you get what you wanted? Do you think this has been bad PR for Target? I have to confess to doing what I never do, and resorting to Ebay for the espresso cups which are apparently on their way.

Things I Am Loving – Mary Katrantzou Spring 2012

 

I’ve featured her before but I can’t help loving Greek designer Mary Katrantzou’s gloriously colourful prints, shown at London Fashion Week, which this season are inspired by flowers and crushed car parts (natch).  I just want to take all the models home and hang them on my wall.  I obviously also need to rush out and buy some turquoise lipstick.

 

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21 September 2011

Yellow Goes Surprisingly Well With Everything

 

In her eyewateringly hilarious neo-feminist diatribe How To Be A Woman, UK journalist Caitlin Moran mentions in passing that ‘yellow shoes go surprisingly well with everything’.  And, though I’ve never owned a pair of yellow shoes in my life, I can see that this may very well be the case.

I’m also wondering if that is also case for interiors, but I suspect that is mostly so I can have an excuse to buy this – the IKEA Trollsta sideboard (which is apparently now only available in black instead of yellow, seriously guys, the yellowness was by far the best thing about it).

 

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{From Planet Fur via Designer Junk Finder}

 

Perhaps fortunately for the people who have to live with me, we have absolutely no space for this – otherwise I’d be sorely tempted to drag home the black version and a pot of yellow paint.

So is it true? Does yellow go with everything? Should I buy yellow shoes? Do you want to sell me your yellow sideboard? Got any other examples of fabulous yellow accent pieces?

20 September 2011

Van Halen Socks

 

I daresay I’m too old for them, but I really need to knit these socks as a matter of urgency. 

 

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Why am I still only thirty in my head? I think I’m starting to veer into mutton dressed as lamb territory.

   

19 September 2011

Barbie Got Married

 

Ken has finally made an honest woman out of Barbie! (When did he start looking like someone out of a boy band by the way?)

 

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Fortunately wedding photographer Beatrice de Guigne was commissioned to record the occasion. Check the album out to see Barbie getting ready – close ups of her dress and shoes, the bridal party, the flowers and and the table decorations.  All the details of how Beatrice coped with such a famous and temperamental bride are here.

 

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I love how this set features (as is only appropriate for Barbie) every wedding album cliché in the book. How many of these poses do you have in your own album? (Beatrice dG really is a great photographer though. I loved this Parisian wedding album on her blog). 

 

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17 September 2011

Julep Maven

 

There’s quite a lot of self-reinvention going on around here.  I’ve lost 26lbs and counting since June 1st on the deadly but effective Dukan diet and am the thinnest I’ve been for about eight years (and yes, I will blog about it early next week).

This time I’m determined to see this thing through to the end, and as a result am holding off on buying too many new clothes as I’d still like to lose another 16-20 lbs. Instead I had to find another way to up the glamour factor round these parts – I’m feeling better about myself than I have in a LOOOOOONNNNNNGGGGG time – and give myself a bit of a reward.  And this treat fits whatever size you are.

 

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I’ve been a fan of Julep ever since entrepreneur Jane Park opened her first salon about ten minutes from my house. They now have a presence throughout Greater Seattle and have launched their line of nail polishes online throughout the US.  These are beautiful polishes in glorious colours with lots of seasonal changes, all named after Hollywood stars.  I’m shallow enough that I find this occasionally problematic – I don’t care what colour it is, I am not wearing ‘Keira’ or ‘Gwyneth’.

They’ve also launched a monthly subscription service called Julep Maven.  You do a fun quiz to find out your style and they email you every month with personalised colour selections.  You can choose whether to take the colours, request another ‘shelf pull’, have the box sent to a friend as a present or just skip the box altogether.  And for around $20 a month, they guarantee at least $40 of product, including two nail polishes in either new seasonal colours or cult favourites, together with other hand care products.  Shipping is free and you also get 20% of other products on the website.

The quiz decided that I was an ‘American Beauty’, somewhat amusing as I’m neither leggy, nor blonde, nor even American, and the website said they’d be sending me ‘Alfre’ – a cool dusty lilac and ‘Carrie’,  a useful innocuous pink.  Since I have no idea who ‘Alfre’ is, and since I still have some residual affection for ‘Carrie’, despite SATC2, I thought these sounded good.

Everything arrived beautifully packaged, with a letter from the owner. As well as the two polishes, I received a bottle of Nail Therapy nail strengthener (which has been GREAT for my brittle nails), a full size 3 oz glycolic hand scrub and a couple of little samples.

 

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The only problem was that they weren’t the right two polishes.  I’d been sent ‘Zoe’, a gorgeous autumnal copper and ‘Molly’ a true red, which isn’t really me.

I emailed instantly to inquire after the whereabouts of cool and beautiful Alfre, to be told that I’d signed up just as the monthly colours were changing. However they did offer to send Alfre to me free of charge, which was rather nice of them.  So here are my three ladies (plus nail protector) in all their glory.

 

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Here I am modelling Zoe and wishing that I wasn’t such a f*cking amateur when it comes to giving myself a manicure.  I love her as she is glamorous, yet neutral and seasonal, and not a colour that I would necessarily have picked out for myself, which is sort of the point of doing this sort of thing.

 

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I find myself strangely excited to see what colours are in my next box (I’m such a sucker for good marketing).  If you live in the US and want to give yourselves a little monthly treat then here’s where you can sign up.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I get $15 in store credit if you sign up through the link above.  However, as usual I haven’t been paid for this review, nor have I been sent free stuff, it’s something I decided to do for me).

   

16 September 2011

Food Photography Challenge – Chocolate Banana Bread

 

I’m still trying to work on my food photography – don’t know why, love doing it.  I’m going to set myself a weekly challenge to photograph a ‘difficult’ food subject. 

 

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This week’s was Chocolate Banana Bread, which is basically a big brown blob.  I wanted to show the fudgey moistness and gooiness of the cake whilst introducing a bit of colour and getting everything properly exposed.

The colour bit was difficult – I had no fresh bananas left in the house, none of the other fresh ingredients are particularly colourful and flowers seemed a bit random.

In the end I settled for using my embroidered Mexican tablecloth, though I’m still wishing I had a brightly coloured cake stand or a knife with a brightly coloured handle. (More prop shopping obviously required.)

Anyway, did my photo succeed?  Does it make you want to eat the banana bread? What would you have done differently?  Critique away, I want to LEARN.

The recipe I used is here.

15 September 2011

Fancy Hotel of the Week – Hotel Monaco, San Francisco

 

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For my recent escape to San Francisco, I was looking for a hotel that was not TOO pricey, centrally-located and yet still a luxurious treat.   Through various Seattle foodie events, I’ve had the great good luck to get to know the wonderful Sheri Doyle of Pacific Northwest Journeys, who specialises in travel-planning throughout the Pacific Northwest.  What she doesn’t know about travel throughout the region and booking hotels in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria really isn’t worth knowing.

So I followed her advice and booked the Hotel Monaco (a sister hotel to the Hotel Triton, where we’d enjoyed staying before).  Sheri made the arrangements, got me a great rate, asked if I wanted a goldfish in my room (!), and passed on a secret password which would get me a ‘nice treat’.

The treat proved to be an upgrade to a Junior Suite, the goldfish was delivered to the door of my room with a note telling me his name was Speedy, and I spend the next 24 hours just WALLOWING in the hotel. The staff were all delightful – friendliness and helpfulness personified - which is great if you’re travelling on your own.

 

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I have to admit upfront that the décor – like the lovechild of a louche gentlemen’s club on acid and a fantasy French chateau - wasn’t really my thing and seemed a little dated, but it was bright and supremely comfortable and had that touch of crazy fantasy that characterizes all the best hotels. You may not want to try this at home, but goodness it’s fun to visit.

 

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My room was very, very, very stripy. No other adjective seems appropriate somehow.

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As for Speedy the goldfish?  Well, he’s about the weirdest gimmick I’ve ever encountered at a hotel and I only said I wanted one so I could blog about it, but there was actually something strangely companionable about having a fish in the room. And he did have the most excellent manners – no snoring, no farting, very quiet.  I was sad to leave him behind.

 

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If ever you’re thinking of travelling around the Pacific Northwest, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Sheri. You’ll end up with a detailed itinerary, the best recommendations out there for accommodation, eating out and things to see and do, and the savings that she’ll get you on room rates will probably more than pay for her services. Oh and she is incredibly organised, friendly and helpful and a pleasure to do business with.

Adventures in Knitting – Mystery Shawl Knit Along

 

Those of you who know me in person know how much  I DON’T like surprises. I’m the sort of person who sends the Husband long lists of links for potential Christmas presents, who plans trips with meticulous precision and who always reads the spoilers.

So I surprised myself last week by joining in with a mystery knitalong on Ravelry. This is where a designer releases a ‘clue’ (a few lines of a pattern) every few days or so and a bunch of people knit along and chat about the process online.

So here’s my latest knitting project after the completion of the first clue.  All I know is that it’s going to be a crescent shawl, can be knit on laceweight or fingering weight yarn and has optional beads. I thought it might be fun to post up my progress so we could all see what it turns into.

 

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The shawl is by the same designer who designed my Annis and my Abrazo so the chances are that I’ll like the finished product.  I have also satisfied my inner control freak by choosing a comparatively cheap wool/silk yarn for the project (I’ll only need about a third of the skein). No 100% silk for this one.

As for the beads, I’d love to incorporate three colours, however, I’m not sure that I’ll be able to work out of the symmetry and pattern of the bead placement with the next clue, so I might stick to turquoise.

 

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The next clue comes out on the 19th and then I have 10 days to knit it up.

   

14 September 2011

Sia Does Crochet

 

I’ve always found it difficult to describe Aussie singer Sia Furler’s music – it’s somewhere between dance-pop and soulful jazz, with an almost folksie vibe thrown in.

Suffice it to say though that she has an amazingly powerful, rich yet tender voice with an appealing break and I adore her music.

A week or two back the Husband and I escaped for the evening to go and see her on tour in Seattle. The music was amazing; the band was cute; the support act (Danish singer Oh Land) was fabulous, Sia herself is as nutty as a fruitcake, with an appealing whimsical Aussie bluntness which made me laugh more than most stand-up comedians, and as the total icing on the cake, she had decorated her set with crochet. granny. blankets. Be still my beating heart. Really, who needs fancy lighting and special effects when you can have CROCHET?

Here are some photos of the awesome. Please excuse crappy phone photos

 

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The backdrop comprised two huge granny square blankets on painted stripes, with ‘Sia’ picked out in balls of yarn.

 

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Everything – amps, stools, mike stands etc. was wrapped in crochet.

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Here’s Sia in concert at the London Roundhouse from the same tour. You can just about see the set in action.

   

13 September 2011

Blueberry Boy Bait

 

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Speaking as we were about baking with kids, the Minx and I had very fun day for the last day of ‘mummy’ camp before starting school.

We went with friends for some pick your own blueberries (thanks Mercer Slough Blueberry Farm!) and then decided to do a spot of lunchbox baking afterwards.

The recipe for Blueberry Boy Bait from Smitten Kitchen seemed ideal lunchbox fare – easy to bake, easy to pack, not too sweet and packing enough blueberries that it could almost be counted as a healthy option. At least that’s what this mother tries to tell herself.  Oh and did I mention that they’re rather delicious?

First pick your blueberries.  I love how pretty they are.

 

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Then mix up a plain-ish yellow cake batter (the full recipe is here) made with butter, a little soft brown sugar and half a cup of blueberries. The cake is then topped with more cinnamon-flavoured sugar and another half cup of blueberries so that the fruit is  evenly dispersed throughout the cake. This is an ideal job for small fingers.

 

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You should end up with a golden rectangle of purple-flecked yumminess with a slightly crisp crust.  Cut it into small lunchbox-sized portions. Ours is now in a big ziploc bag in the freezer. Add a frozen slice to the lunchbox the night before and it will be fresh and ready to eat in time for lunch.

 

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Incidentally the fabulous name was apparently bestowed by the fourteen year old girl who devised the recipe and came second in a baking competition back in the Fifties.  She was obviously a marketing as well as a baking genius. Mr T, the only boy in our family aside from Flora the cat, confirms that the name is appropriate even though it doesn’t contain either beer or bacon.

07 September 2011

Decorate!

 

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Holly Becker of Decor8 fame has been an online friend for the longest time. I started blogging a little after she did and she was one of the very first people to comment on this blog nearly six years ago. 

I’ve done her Blogging Your Way course and cheered her on from the sidelines as she has gone on to her incredible and very much deserved success.

Holly is one of those people who is always generous with her time, her encouragement and, latterly, with the enormous reach and power of her blog.  She’s one of those people who always seems to have time for a friendly word or blog comment, however phenomenally busy she is and has created a huge network of friends, followers and devoted admirers across the globe.  And I’m not sure whether she ever sleeps or manages to have any leisure time as her output and the number of projects she’s involved in has always been prodigious.

I find her inspirational on so many levels and have always been sad that she managed to skip to Europe not long after I arrived in the US.  We’ve never been on the same side of the Atlantic for very long.

When plans for her book tour were finalised, she invited me to come down and see her in San Francisco. And at first it seemed like a crazy idea to fly down just for a book-signing and a dinner.  But a little voice in my head kept saying ‘why not’ and then Virgin America was offering great deals on flights from Seattle and before I knew it I’d booked flights and a hotel and was lined up for my first night away from the family in ages.

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Holly and yours truly

And, all you mothers out there, I seriously don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner. I had totally forgotten the joys of plane travel without a fidgety six-year old; of mooching aimlessly round shops without being in a terrible rush or having to march a six year old to the toilet; of eating a most amazing lunch (thanks Boulette’s Larder) without having to worry whether the Minx had brought her DS or a book.  For 36 hours I was single again, and goodness it was BLISS.

Holly’s book signing was at Anthropologie (beautifully decorated with these garlands and bunting from Paper Source. Note to self, must buy for the Minx) and she was accompanied by Leslie Shewring from A Creative Mint, who had also taught on the Blogging Your Way course.  I also got to meet the very charming Victoria, of sfgirlbybay fame; the delightfully effervescent Alix (who had been a very fun team mate on the Blogging Your Way course) and Dottie from Modern Kiddo; the lovely Maja Brugos from Tikoli and Crystal Gentilello of Rue Magazine among other luminaries of the San Francisco design and blogging world.

 

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Leslie Shewring and Alix from Modern Kiddo with Holly

All in all I had a fabulous couple of days and came away tremendously inspired to work more on this blog and throw myself more fully into the design world.  It’s time for this Mamma to have some ‘me’ time. 

Oh and the book?  Well, it’s fabulous of course.  Unlike many decorating books which are all about recreating the author’s own style, Decorate is all about uncovering and developing your own personal style and vision.  It is chock full of gorgeous pictures, inspirational quotes and tons and tons of innovative, accessible and eminently do-able ideas for every room in the house.  The book is sitting on my nightstand and is perfect way to unwind with a little bit of pretty at the end of a long day. And my house will definitely benefit in the long term. 

As for Holly herself, well, she is as warm, charming and thoroughly lovely as her online persona. But then you knew that already.  And also very tall.

And now I really must stop gushing and have a lie down. All this being nice does not come naturally at all.

01 September 2011

Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer

 

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I set myself a low bar when it comes to mothering.  If the Minx grows up to have good manners, to love books and to be able to cook then I figure she’ll probably always have friends, be passably well-educated and never go hungry. And that way it seems to me happiness lies.

Certainly I can think of few greater pleasures in life than devouring a good book or some good food. So you can imagine how much I enjoyed reading Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer by Yarnstorm’s Jane Brocket, which discusses all the delectable foods found in classic children’s literature, accompanied by scrummy-looking recipes and pen and ink illustrations from the works in question.

The Minx and I are currently on a bit of an Enid Blyton jag at present and revelling in descriptions of fabulous picnics with boiled eggs and sticky buns, Aunt Fanny’s cakes and of course lashings of ginger beer (which according to Brocket, Enid Blyton never actually says in her books).

 

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I am amused to note that, while the plot intricacies of many of these books have completely receded into the mists of time, I can remember almost verbatim many of the food descriptions, such as this one from What Katy Did.

“.. and there – oh, delightful surprise – were seven little pies – molasses pies, baked in saucers – each with a a brown top and crisp, candified edge, which tasted like toffee and lemon-peel, and all sorts of good things mixed up together. There was a a general shout… a tumult of joy… in an incredibly short time every vestige of pie had disappeared, and a blissful stickiness pervaded the party.”

Oh how I wanted to taste one of these pies – ‘molasses’ sounded so delicious and exotic to this little British girl – and now I can, because I have a recipe.

Unfortunately the book is already out of print and quite difficult to get hold of – I suspect the market for it was rather too esoteric. American readers might be particularly frustrated as it focuses primarily on British children’s classics and old-fashioned British baking, though Little Women, Little House on the Prairie and What Katy Did all make an appearance.

But buy this book if you, as I did, grew up with the likes of The Famous Five, My Naughty Little Sister, Pippi Longstocking, Milly Molly Mandy, Paddington Bear, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and Malory Towers. Get it doubly fast if you are re-reading these books with your kids and enjoy baking with them.

What do enjoy cooking and reading with your kids?  The Minx and I are sorely in need of recommendations in both categories.

Oh and speaking of the Minx, she went back to school yesterday, oh frabjous day! So now I’m back blogging properly.