I wasn’t sure if I would bake this weekend, but then the new series of The Best Home Cook started with Mary Berry. This series is celebrities only, although I didn’t know who half of them were. Anyway, for the eliminator three of them had 30 minutes to make a raspberry ripple Swiss Roll. A quick look on our shelf of cooking books and what do you know, there’s a recipe for a Swiss Roll in a Mary Berry cake book. All I needed was some eggs and caster sugar. My lovely wife already had a perfect Swiss Roll tin.
My first attempt was a disaster. It looked and tasted like an eggy pancake. Once back from the shop with more eggs it was time for Swiss Roll Take 2, this time with help from Helen. First mistake was that I hadn’t whisked the eggs and sugar together for long enough, and then I had been too exuberant with folding in the flour.
Once the second version was out of the oven it was carefully rolled while still warm and left to cool, before spreading raspberry jam. End result was a magnificently looking cake which also tasted good.
Absolutely couldn’t have made this without help from the best woman in the world, my lovely wife Helen B.
I don’t generally stick to just one genre, but I don’t read a great deal of fantasy. Not because I don’t enjoy it, it is more because I don’t know who the good writers are and who to avoid. 30 years ago a friend recommended that I should read the Discworld series of books by Terry Pratchett. At the time there were only 4 or 5 of them, but I continued to read and enjoy each and every one of them. At school friends raved about the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but I couldn’t get past the first few pages. I tried reading the Mission Earth series by L Ron Hubbard way before I had heard of Scientology, but I found them to be bland and formulaic. The 6 book Dune series by Frank Herbert however was everything I wanted in a book. When the internet exploded a few years ago when Sean Bean’s character in Game of Thrones died I knew that I had to give the first book a try. Subsequently I have read and enjoyed all of the Game of Thrones books, and I admit I was tempted not to watch the last series on TV until the book had been released. As many of you will know, George R R Martin isn’t the most prolific of writers so we could be waiting a while for the series to be concluded. The Winds of Winter is now expected in May 2021.
This was a roundabout way of saying that I don’t know much about the fantasy genre, so when the Guardian published a top ten fantasy list I was very interested. Two authors/books caught my eye. The Stormlight series by Brandon Sanderson and the Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. Currently I’m about a third of the way through the second Stormlight book, Words of Radiance.
Anyway, this blog entry is about the Kingkiller Chronicles. So far there are two full books, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. There are also a couple of shorter books, The Lightning Tree and The Slow Regard of Silent Things, which are books 0.5 and 2.5 in the series, although as explained by Patrick they are not essential the main story arc. I’ve also not included book 0.5 as I haven’t yet read it.
The name of the Wind stars Kvothe, our hero who became a legend, an assassin, a lover and a wizard. The book starts slowly with Kvothe in semi-retirement working as an innkeeper. The Chronicler arrives and Kvothe agrees to tell his tale, from losing his parents at an early age and becoming a feral beggar/thief before enrolling at the university.
I was sucked in immediately and couldn’t put it down. I loved how expansive the realm was and how there are sudden leaps in Kvothe’s life. The university is also nothing like Hogwarts.
The second book isn’t quite as good, as it falls into the trap of being the middle book in a trilogy, in that there are loads of loose ends that will need to be tied up in the final book. It also felt that maybe the start of the book should have been when Kvothe leaves the university for the first time, but that would have added a couple of hundred pages to book one.
The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a stand alone shorter book starring Auri, a strange girl who hides away beneath the university and befriends Kvothe. This book is completely different to the main two as she is the only character. Patrick Rothfuss stated that he loved writing this book but didn’t think anyone else ever would, especially as he takes 8 pages describing Auri making soap. This book was a delight, even though it didn’t add too much to the larger story.
All I can say is that if you’re looking for a good fantasy series, then you can’t go wrong with the Kingkiller Chronicles, although like Mr Martin, Mr Rothfuss isn’t the fastest of writers and it could be a while before book 3 arrives.
My lovely wife’s youngest son and his partner just moved into a new house and started to use Hello Fresh. They were positively raving about it, so we decided to go for a trial veggie box. Note, we’re not vegetarians, but for a variety of reasons we eat very little meat.
A little background about Hello Fresh first. Basically, each week you get a box of food delivered split into separate bags for each recipe, along with step by step instructions. You can chose to have as many meals as you want each week and go veggie, full meat and even add premium extras if desired. We had a look on Trust Pilot and there were some very mixed reviews. Despite that we went ahead and ordered our free trial box, which would normally be £40.
When it arrived we were both a little underwhelmed as it really didn’t look like £40 worth of food. Additionally, as it was a free box we didn’t get to chose what we had. I don’t like mushrooms and two of the five dishes included this abomination of a vegetable. More serious though, Helen is allergic to cannellini beans which was also in one of the recipes. If we signed up for a weekly delivery we would obviously be able to pick exactly which recipes we wanted. Two of the recipe cards were also missing, but we were able to print those off.
First night of cooking and I’ll admit I was quite excited. Helen was still at work so I was left to my own devices. I picked butternut squash curry.
The other side of the recipe card had simple step by step instructions, which were very easy to follow and 40 minutes after starting I had cooked an excellent meal. Not only did it look just like the picture it tasted amazing. The next evening I made grilled haloumi with lentils. Once again it was incredibly simple and the end result tasted even better than the previous evening. The portions are also fairly generous.
Last night and it was Helen’s turn to cook and she went with spicy cauliflower with courgette and beans. Again the meal was restaurant quality. The florets were coated in Panko breadcrumbs!
The step by step instructions do take a little getting used to, as they are very thorough. I’m used to winging it to a certain extent. Other pluses are the lack of food waste and not having to spend ages looking through recipe books trying to decide what to cook. Additionally you don’t need to go shopping as often. Drawback is the price. £40 for 5 meals is quite high. However we’ve been so blown away by the quality of the meals that we’ve produced we’re going to go with a 4 meal weekly box.
There are loads of other recipe boxes out there to try, so if you fancy the idea you don’t need to stick with Hello Fresh.
I’m really enjoying baking every weekend and today’s bake was yet another new one for me. I’ve made banana loaf cakes a few times in the past, mostly very successfully, and our lovely neighbour gave us two slices of an amazing banana loaf just yesterday. There’s definitely a little friendly competition going on here.
Anyway, today was another Lorraine Pascale recipe, although she suggested lemon instead of lime. First off you need to grate the courgette and squeeze as much of the moisture out as possible. I only had one courgette so I used a carrot as well. Then melt some butter and mix it with sugar, add three eggs, the courgette (and carrot) and the zest of three limes, combining it well before adding self raising flour. This was poured into a loaf tin and baked for almost an hour.
Once out of the oven, icing sugar and the juice of the limes was poured over the cake. The end result was a mighty fine looking loaf cake. Tasted pretty good too, although it probably would have worked better with more courgette and less carrot, or no carrot at all. Possibly also a little more lime, but minor issues. I also knew that the cake mix was right when I was pouring it into the loaf tin, not too dry and not too wet. It would appear that slowly I’m learning stuff.
Another new bake for me, and one that I have to say was a little disappointing. I’ve never even eaten cornbread which probably didn’t help as I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to taste like. This was another Lorraine Pascale recipe, and in theory it looked easy and tasty.
First problem was with the cornmeal, which isn’t readily available under that name in the UK. Instead it is known as polenta, and it could well have required soaking or cooking before being added to the other ingredients. Anyway, as well as the polenta, the recipe required bicarbonate of soda, regular flour, an egg, milk, sweetcorn and jalapenos. The mixture was far too wet. I should have added the milk in stages. As a result the bake took much longer to cook, and ended up with a layer that wasn’t cooked enough, but was dry and almost burnt on the outside.
I had a couple of pieces and my lovely wife struggled with a slice, before most of it was placed on the bird table, who also decided they didn’t like it. I will have another attempt at cornbread again, as I think it could be a great tasting and fairly easy bake; possibly an American version of soda bread.
The day wasn’t a failure in the baking department, as Helen made a batch of lamingtons, which despite being fiddle monkeys, were one of the best cakes I have ever had.
Another weekend of lockdown version 3 and another weekend of baking. Also, a return to Lorraine Pascale’s baking recipe book, which I used way back in September when making a Battenburg (read about it here). I was looking for something fairly quick and easy to bake, which would also hopefully look good. Generally on a Friday afternoon I would meet up with my lovely wife in Lancaster and we would have a mooch in a book shop and then cake and coffee in a local cafe. Lockdown means that book shops are closed and cafes are take-out only. My plan was therefore to set up a small book shop and cafe in our home to surprise Helen when she returned from work.
Anyway, back to the cookies. As always, cream together butter and sugar, and then add flour, ground almond and an egg yolk. Bring it all together into a dough, wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge for an hour. That left me enough time to go out and buy gin. I’ve added a post-it note to the recipe indicating that the dough was dry and crumbly, and that possibly I should use a little less flour next time.
Back home and a small lump of the dough was rolled into a ball, placed on grease proof paper and a thumb pressed into it. I used my own thumb but anyone’s clean thumb would do (ask permission first and use a thumb that is still attached to it’s owner). The hole is then filled with apricot jam. I was possibly overly generous with the apricot jam.
The end result is a very tasty soft cookie, which also looks good. As for the fake book shop/cafe, Helen absolutely loved it.
Hares are without doubt my favourite animal. I never fail to smile if I’m lucky enough to see one when we’re out cycling, running or walking. Unfortunately they are becoming rarer and rarer due to a number of reasons.
The Private Life of the Hare is one of a series of books by John Lewis-Stempel who is a farmer and nature lover. It isn’t a long book but it fascinating. It includes the history and breeds of hares found in the UK, along with numerous poems and sayings; Fast as a Hare being one of the best. Hundreds of years ago hares were considered a pest because of their huge appetite and because there were millions of them.
‘To see a hare sit still as stone, to watch a hare boxing on a frosty March morning, to witness a hare bolt . . . these are great things. Every field should have a hare.’
Hares are also incredibly hardy creatures. Unlike rabbits they don’t have burrows, instead they find a shallow hollow to sleep in, even in the coldest of weathers. The book also talks about the myths of hares, and how they are often thought to be witches.
My lovely wife knows of my love for hares and bought this book for me as a surprise, just because she loves me. I have the best life ever. Anyway, I gave this book 4 out of 5 on Goodreads, but then I love hares.
This is an epic tome of a book, coming in at 600 pages. The definitive zombie book, mostly written by the definitive zombie writer/director – George Romero. I say mostly written, because he died before he could finish it, so his wife and long time collaborator searched for someone who would be able to pull all of the threads together and complete what George had started. Not an easy process as George’s wife found plot outlines kept separate from the book, and Daniel found a couple of chapters of a previous version online written over 20 years earlier. Daniel Kraus has published many books in his own right as well as collaborating with the writer/director Guillermo Del Toro.
The book is almost a written version combining all six of the zombie films, starting from the very first re-animated corpse to the death of the dead. There are many different characters in the book with lengthy sections for each one, which then becomes single chapters in the second part of the book, and then ultimately some of the characters meet up in the land of the living in the final part of the book. Obviously, not all of the characters survive, and some of them get bumped off quite early on. The ending is also spot on, with humans reverting to type.
There was always a depth to Romero’s films, which was often ignored. As with Clive Barker, the monsters are not always the monster. Zombies are just doing what zombies do, in that they eat human flesh. The real monsters are always other humans. This depth of character has the time and space to evolve incredibly well within this book. You really start feeling for the characters, hoping that everything will work out for the best.
There is also a great deal of humour within the book, as well as a few hidden ‘Easter Eggs’. Daniel Kraus is a long time George fan and one of the hidden eggs I found was a reference to the characters from George’s 1981 film Knightriders, which has nothing to do with David Hasselhoff, but is a film well worth looking out for. Additionally there is the introduction of zombie chickens in the book.
Zombie books and horror books are fairly niche so I won’t recommend this if you’re not a fan of the genre. However, if you love a good horror novel then this is an absolute must read. I gave it 5 out of 5 on Goodreads.
Now that we’re almost two weeks into 2021 I thought it would be a good idea to have a look back at 2020, definitely a very different year. Race wise I managed two, one in early March before the lockdown and the other a very small ultra run in October. Both of them were highly enjoyable. However, there were numerous cancelled races that me and my lovely wife had entered; the Oldham Way Ultra, Castle to Coast Triathlon and two open water swims later in the year. Another large struggle for the year was not being able to travel as we would have liked. Our annual bicycle touring week was cancelled and we’ve hardly been out of the county, so most of our mini-adventures have been closer to home.
Distance wise 2020 was the second lowest for me since I joined Strava, although I ran more than any other year. However, I only managed 30 swims over the whole year. Less than 10 parkruns as well.
It’s not all been doom and gloom. Me and my lovely wife had had some really great days out, but at the moment we’re both feeling a bit locked in. We definitely need a week away somewhere. Hopefully 2021 will be better. Anyway, at least I’ve not been banned from Twitter 🙂
Weekend baking once again, and this week I picked a recipe from Sweet by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh. It is one of my wife’s recipe books and one that neither of us use very often as many of the recipes feel complicated with loads of ingredients and multiple stages.
However, the gingerbread tiles didn’t appear to be any more complicated than a regular gingerbread biscuit. All I needed was to buy a tile stamping device (seen below).
The ‘stamper’ came with 6 different designs and an integral cutter, although it takes a bit of practice to create just the right pressure for the design to be clear, and not flatten the biscuit too much.
Anyway, the gingerbread biscuit was quite simple. First off cream together butter, brown sugar and treacle, before adding an egg yolk. One this mix is nice and smooth the dry ingredients can be added. These were plain flour, bicarbonate of soda, ground ginger, ground cinnamon, ground cloves and cocoa powder. This was all brought together, kneaded slightly, chilled and then rolled out.
Then came the fun part, using the tile stamp. Press too hard and some of the dough is left on the stamp, and then isn’t very good for the next one. Too softly and you don’t get any design. The first few were a bit rubbish. The biscuits were then baked and the rum butter glaze was brushed on before the biscuits had cooled completely.
The rum butter glaze was also fairly easy. Melt some butter and icing sugar with a teaspoon of warm water and a tablespoon of rum. Keep stirring until all of the sugar has dissolved.
The end result was another very tasty biscuit which also looks quite special. As a bonus, when I uploaded a photo to Instagram I tagged both of the creators of the recipe book, and Helen Goh not only liked my photo but made a comment as well.