November 25, 2015
I don’t want to bring you down or anything, but this is a post about death. And farming.
I’ve been thinking about how to broach the subject of death with Little e, since she’s now of the age when she notices and questions and ponders things like this. And the reality of death is sometimes so hard to grapple with even as an adult that I want to be honest and careful in how we present it to her. It’s no big deal; it happens every day. It is a big deal; it happens every day.
This feels especially important right now, when we see things like this.
November 18, 2015
A while ago I promised to share with you “THE BEST CHOCOLATE THING!!” or some such huge claim and I hope you didn’t think I was going to break my word. Apologies this recipe has been a long time coming but I’ve had trouble with the window between making this great chocolate thing and devouring it. Let’s just say the window is, ummm, narrow.
Why is Chocolate Salami the best chocolate thing I have made all year? Several reasons I will henceforth list because lists are ace:
- It is not too sweet
- It is filled with nuts and fruit, so kids don’t tend to love it (paws off, tiger cubs)
- It makes a portable, delicious host gift and looks The Business on a cheese board
- It is treacherously easy to make; you don’t even have to bake it.
Plus, as a bonus, I have adapted the recipe, originally from the Little and Friday Celebrations Cookbook (which you MUST buy, it is sensational) to include pistachios and cranberries. The red + green combination makes it a great Christmas gift or addition to your Christmas dinner menu.
(makes approximately 3 x 20cm logs)
250g Super Wine biscuits (or similar thin, plain, mildly sweet cookies)
1/2 cup caster sugar
110g unsalted butter
1 cup good quality cocoa
100g good quality dark (at least 60%) chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup pistachios, chopped roughly
1/2 cup mixture of crystallised ginger and cranberries, chopped roughly
3 Tablespoons of rose water
Process biscuits in food processor / blender until fine crumbs form
Put the eggs and sugar in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Whisk until sugar has dissolved and mixture has thickened (stay close during this step!)
Add butter, 1/2 cup of cocoa and chopped chocolate and whisk for two minutes or until smooth. Remove from heat and stir in biscuit crumbs, pistachios, ginger, cranberries and rose water
Divide mixture into halves or thirds and turn each lot onto a sheet of cling form and shape into a log. Wrap and refrigerate overnight.
To serve coat with remaining 1/2 cup of cocoa. If presenting as a gift wrap in baking paper and secure with twine or ribbon. Serve in 1 – 2 cm slices. Can be served in mini patty cases if you prefer.
Voila! It even looks like salami, which satisfies my inner Heston Blumenthal.
What are your go-to foodie gifts? Which easy recipes are on your Christmas menu?
November 11, 2015
She wanted a penguin cake. On Tuesday, that is. The week before it was an octopus (I’m so glad we moved on from that). Before that it was to be a butterfly. But by Wednesday, for certain, she said: it must be a turtle. A sea turtle, not a tortoise. Which is an interesting distinction to make, I found out, while googling images of turtle cakes–many people seem to think tortoises are turtles. (We try for species-correct cakes around here, if not colour-correct.)
I have learned from a few past cakes to enlist the help of my brilliant, artistic husband and to set aside much more time than I think it will take. And one could suppose that turtle birthday cakes should be rushed even less than, say, a tiger or ostrich cake (yes, there is such a thing). One needs the proper amount of time to carve flippers and negotiate the architecting of the carapace. (Shouldn’t we be able to verb ‘architect’? And verb the word ‘verb’?)
I began with Deb Perelman’s yellow cake recipe from her fantastic cookbook, doubled. I always worry I won’t have enough cake to work with (which never turns out to be the case) or that something terrifying might happen during pan-removal (which was the case, see first installment). This recipe is also delicious and moist and works well with all icings.
Then I made a regular butter cream, splitting it into two portions, one for the green body and the other for the chocolate carapace. I’d thought long and hard about how to get the roundness of the carapace on the turtle cake and what I came up with was chocolate whipped cream. I mean, isn’t that the answer to everything? I didn’t add much sugar to the whipped cream because I wanted it a little bitter from the (large quantity) of dark cocoa powder in it, to balance out the sweetness of the icing on the cake.
Once we’d carved out the body of the turtle, I took all the scrap cake pieces
minus the ones we snacked on ourselves, cut them into one inch pieces and folded them into the chocolate whipped cream. Then this heavenly mixture got piled on the cake and rounded into the shape of the carapace. I wasn’t sure how well the icing would go directly onto the whipped cream, so I put the whole thing into the freezer for 30 minutes (I always freeze my cakes and work on them once frozen. SO much easier.). DH and I had tea and and a completely uninterrupted conversation about something other than kids or cakes. I have no idea what it was about.
Then out came the cake and we iced that turtle like nobody’s business. Press on the eyes and: Done. Goodnight, Irene. It was midnight, after all.
And I’m pleased to report that my next-morning fears that the whipped cream would have soaked through the cake beneath it or puddled the icing above it were unfounded. It behaved heroically. This trick might be my very favourite thing to do to a cake–even one that isn’t a turtle. It lightened up the whole thing and took the sugariness down a notch in the best way.
So one more epic birthday cake down…next up: The Tiger’s second birthday in June. Sob! How they do grow!
November 4, 2015
Today I am exhausted. Last night my agent called me and we talked through the issues with a new manuscript. Big issues. Big, fixable issues, but fixes that will take (a lot of) time and energy and determination. I hung up the phone at 10.30 at night – we are not in the same country or timezone – and went to bed with thoughts and worries firing off like misdirected arrows. ‘Don’t think too much about it.’ Matt advised. So I didn’t and went straight to sleep (OF COURSE I DIDN’T).
This morning I have other things to tackle. Specifically – another manuscript. One with a deadline and a structural edit report many pages long. One of the to-do’s is re-writing a chapter and when I look to outsource that particularly gnarly job there is no-one else to do it for me. There is never anyone else to do it for me. There is just me and my deadline and eyes that feel like they’ve been rubbed with sand. Insert Expletive. I am so tired. I am so tired just thinking about it all. I want to go to bed. I start working on a tiny piece of the manuscript, trying to fool my brain into thinking we don’t have to think about The Big Picture, that we can just work one tiny little sliver at a time. I work so slowly it’s painful. It feels like dental surgery.
On days like these I want to go to work in an office. Or rake leaves in a park. Or become a security guard in an art gallery. I want to seek out the easiest, dullest job on the planet and do that. I want to do something that requires zero skills, talent or effort. I want to go to the movies. Mainly, I want to run away. I do not want this great job that I love, that feels so precious. I do not want to work hard. I do not want to strive and succeed. I want to give up. I want to not try.
Of course, this was not in my plan. When I sought out the work that would make me whole and complete and happy, I thought it would do just that. You know, All The Time. I believed that when I found the right work I would be happy and fulfilled and, I don’t know, somehow rested, like lying on a tropical beach with a Mojito in hand. I would be sorted. I would be content. It would be easy.
As it turns out, the work I love to do, the work I am supposed to do, only feels easy very, very rarely. Almost as rarely, disappointingly, as the work I don’t love to do. What is that about??! My work doesn’t feel at all like lying on a tropical beach with a mojito. It isn’t easy. And that rubbish about “find the work you love and you’ll never work a day in your life?”. Um, yeah, no. Writing feels like work to me. And right now – hard, physical work like shifting bricks one by one. In the rain. With someone yelling at me.
But, I am having a bad day. This work isn’t always so miserable. On good days writing is hard but rewarding like a good, effortful run through tree-lined streets. I might ache, I might get tired, but it feels good. It feels right. On good days I am productive and satisfied, pausing every now and again to feel a pinch of pity for my past self, who had to dress up and go to an office, had to sit, bored, in board rooms or fire people.
I am grateful for this work. More grateful than I can properly express, and truly relieved and excited when I get a book deal. It does feel like a prize to get to do this job, keep doing this job, when I regularly feel so inadequate and novice and unworthy. I am usually very happy to get up and out of bed on a Monday and often bummed when Wednesday, my final work day, draws to a close. I feel an electric buzz of pride when author copies of my book arrive in the post, am thrilled to have my name on something so tangible and so full of my hopes, tears and efforts. This work, this not-easy, sometimes-very-hard, work, I would like to keep doing for the rest of my life. Like a deranged masochist.
So perhaps what I am trying to say, if you happen to be looking for a dream job, or have one in the palm of your hand, and hope it will feel dreamy and wonderful every day, is that I am obliged to report this will not be the case. Apparently it’s the same case for a number of things – love, family, marriage, parenting, wealth, travel….having All The Things. As the great and wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert says “…every single pursuit—no matter how wonderful and exciting and glamorous it may initially seem—comes with its own brand of shit sandwich, its own lousy side effects. (But) if you love and want something enough—whatever it is—then you don’t really mind eating the shit sandwich that comes with it.”
True that, Liz.
October 28, 2015
Call me old-fashioned, but I love letters. That now-ancient form of communication, e-mail’s great-grandmother. The smell of paper, pen, feel of envelopes, the time pared off from the rest of the day to write, to put thoughts onto paper for someone else. I know we do this all the time–more so, even–by electronic means, but there are things about the old-school letter that just pull me. The snail mail part of it. The anticipation of opening part of it. The possible stains or crumbs on the paper part of it. The humanity of it. [This reminds me of Hannah’s beautiful post about Sei Shonogan.]
I was browsing in my favourite local secondhand bookshop the other day and came across a Folio Society edition of Jane Austen’s Letters. How could I resist? I mean, Jane Austen and her letters. It’s estimated she wrote around 3000 in her lifetime, many to her sister, some to other friends and family. I bought the book and thought all the way home about its charming cover, its fascinating and secret contents. (Doesn’t reading other people’s letters seem even more intimate that reading someone’s diary? A diary is not really a conversation, but a letter, with a recipient, feels like eavesdropping on a phone call. And the writer in me loves eavesdropping. Especially when the conversation, the delicious details, are from over two hundred years ago. With names like Mrs. Honeywood, Mrs. Heathcote and Mr. Portal. As well as lots & lots of ampersands…)
Driving home with this book of letters, I thought of how I would have loved this book as a young adult, as obsessed as I was with literature & history & England in general. I might not have read every letter, might have gotten a little tired of all the descriptions of parties and attendees and minute details of daily life. But the style and thoughtfulness, the voice of Jane Austen in these private letters, coming across time, would have impressed me very much. And I would have kept the book forever, for that alone.
So I decided, before I’d even parked my car in the garage, to give the book to my daughter for her birthday.
But not for her birthday coming up next month. Not just for that one. I’m going to give the book to her every year until she’s sixteen. She just won’t know it until then. (Unless she finds this blog post…hmm.)
For her fourth birthday next month, I’m going to write her a letter–on real paper! with an ink pen!–and put it inside the book. Next year I’ll do the same, and the year after that, until she’s sixteen. I want to tell her why I think Jane Austen’s letters are important, and why her own voice is important. I want to capture time for her–a small sketch of her growing up each year that she won’t otherwise get from photographs and videos.
But I don’t know if she’ll like it. Maybe she’ll have become an English literature hater. Maybe what I’m doing will seem so antiquated and cute that she’ll want to bury it at the back of her closet. But I don’t think that’s the point. Because in trapping life on the page the way I see it, I’m just offering what was once true, from my point of view, and it’ll be there whether she reads it or not. Just as the once-true details and people and relationships in Jane’s letters are still there. And that’s what I love about them: all those intricate connections and meetings and tiny details that seem mundane day-to-day. Those are what we savour years later, as our personal history. I won’t be offended if she doesn’t much care for old-fashioned letters or for glimpses of her six-year-old self. But I hope she can understand why I’m doing this, see the ideas behind it all. That our history is valuable. That stories matter. That women telling stories–to each other, to themselves–is ancient and fundamental.
Do you put things aside or write notes to your children or family members? I’d love to hear your ideas.