For My Child And Your Child Too.

A Boy Called Christmas

I came this close, this close (holds forefinger and thumb together and squints left eye in demonstration of just how close) to writing a post about sadness. Not because I’m sad, but because I’m not, and because, when I am, I can’t write, or say, or even think, anything  productive at all. Anyway, it’s all there, written on a page with a pen, and maybe we can come back to it one day. For now, ’tis the season to be jolly.

Did you know that Santa wrote a book? It was an elf-help book called How To Be Jolly. It had a very limited release but topped the charts for its target demographic. This, and much more, I learned from Matt Haig’s thrilling  exposé,  A Boy Called Christmas.

Haig revealed, at last, the true and previously unrecorded secrets of Father Christmas’s early years. You may wonder how the author learned these facts. Haig, rather honourably I think, refuses to reveal his sources. He argues that you shouldn’t really question such things. He just knows, otherwise why ever would he have written the book?

A Boy Called Christmas

Whether you call the great man Father Christmas or Santa Claus or Saint Nick or Sinterklaas or Kris Kringle or Pelznickel or Papa Noël, the important thing is that you know he exists.

“Can you believe there was a time when no one knew about him? A time when he was just an ordinary boy called Nikolas, living in the middle of nowhere, or the middle of Finland, doing nothing with magic except believing in it? A boy who knew very little about the world except the taste of mushroom soup, the feel of a cold north wind, and the stories he was told. And who only had a doll made out of a turnip to play with.”

Nikolas’ childhood was none too promising. His parents, Haig tells us, were kind and loving but very poor. His mother was a jolly soul, with red cheeks and a warm laugh. His father, Joel, was an industrious woodcutter with only 9 ½ fingers and very tired eyes. Nikolas had no brothers or sisters or friends. His only childhood companion was a small, very hungry, brown mouse called Miika who, even though he had never even seen it, or even smelled it, believed in cheese.

A Boy Called Christmas

Our first clue to Nikolas’ destiny is the fact that he was born on Christmas Day and, for that reason, nick-named Christmas by his parents. Joel even made Nikolas his own wooden sleigh and painted his name, Christmas, on the back of it.

Haig’s account introduces us to Nikolas at eleven years old, soon after his mother had died in a tragic accident. Despite determined efforts to be happy, Nikolas was a bit sad, and maybe a bit lonely, and really, extremely hungry. Little did he know, things were about to get much worse.

Lured by the promise of a rich reward from the King of Finland, Joel the woodcutter undertook a dangerous expedition to the Far North to find proof of the existence of elves. He took with him the Christmas sleigh (but at least not the turnip doll) and left Nikolas in the care of his miserable and ancient (she’s forty-two) Aunt Carlotta.

“Everything about her, even her voice, seemed covered in frost.”

Aunt Carlotta’s shocking deeds do not make easy reading. Suffice to say, Carlotta was greed incarnate, so unbearably mean that poor Nikolas gathered his courage, put his mouse in his pocket, and simply walked away.

“Then, with Miika peeking out at the road ahead, Nikolas turned and headed north through the trees, towards the place he thought he might find his father and the elves, and tried his hardest to believe in both.”

It would, I fear, be irresponsible of me to reveal what Nikolas found at the Far North. You’ll have to read the book. I won’t even whisper a word about the flying reindeer, the truth pixie or the exploding troll. I will not give credence to the miserable lies extolled by The Daily Snow newspaper, or give my opinion of the media mogul elf who believes that goodwill is just another name for weakness.

What I will tell you is this: Nikolas found food. He discovered gingerbread and sweet plum soup, jam pastries and bilberry pie. And, Miika found cheese. While those things may not constitute a happy ending, or a happy Christmas, they are a very good place to start.

This book is so good, it gave me chills. I loved it so much I crocheted a set of the characters for the Small Girl.

A Boy Called Christmas, crochet

The reindeer at the back is Blitzen. Yes, I made him last year and he has changed his name by deed poll at my request. Anyone can have a red nose at this time of year. Standing on Blitzen’s left foot is Little Kip, a very small elf with very big ears. Next to Kip and staring thoughtfully into the middle distance (what my children call the smell the fart pose) is our hero, Nikolas. My best attempt at a tiny turnip doll lies below his hand and Miika, the mouse, is on the chair. Father Topo, Mother Ri-Ri (with the plaits) and Little Noosh make up the cast. I stopped short of Father Vodol, the media Mogul. I made the decision that, for Christmas, it’s as well to believe that he and his ilk don’t exist. Also, I ran out of yarn.

A Boy Called Christmas is a fine story with a very important message, actually several vital messages:

“We must never let fear be our guide.”

“An impossibility is just a possibility that you don’t understand.”

“Humans are complicated.”
“Elves too.”

“Life is pain.”
“But it’s also magic.”

“Perhaps a wish was just a hope with a better aim.”

“…and hope is the most wonderful thing there is.”

With each new book I read from this author, I find myself believing more and more in Matt Haig. To a world darkened by fear-mongering, where fake news is the order of the day, Haig delivers a message of hope, of generosity, of inclusion, and of kindness. You might choose to believe that this book is a fairytale, written just for gullible children. You could believe that this is book is allegorical, that Nikolas’s journey reflects a pilgrim’s progress from friendless boy to benevolent father figure. If you are very brave, you can choose to simply believe, as I do, in a boy called Christmas.

Now, on to that food…(but first, Blitzen and Nikolas doing the King Of The World pose)…

A Boy Called Christmas

An Elfin Feast.

Gingerbread.

Ingredients.

3 oz (80g) butter
3 oz (80g) soft dark sugar
2 oz (55g) golden syrup
1 egg yolk
8 oz (250g) cake flour, sieved
2 oz (55g) crystallised ginger, chopped into small dice
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger.

300g icing sugar and the juice of 1 lime to make icing
Icing pens, baubles, sprinkles, jelly tots, etc.

Method.

Cream the butter and sugar together until the sugar crystals dissolve and the mixture gets pale and fluffy.
Add the golden syrup and the egg yolk and mix well.
Mix the flour, ginger, bread soda, cinnamon and ginger together and then tip the lot into the butter mixture. Mix to combine and then knead the mixture lightly into a ball.
Leave the dough to rest in the fridge in a covered bowl for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and cut out shapes using cookie cutters.
Bake at 180˚C (350˚F) for 10-12 minutes, depending on the cookie size.
Leave to cool completely on a wire rack.
Add the juice of a lime to the icing sugar and mix vigorously. Add more icing sugar if the icing is too runny. Allow your creative juices run riot. Failing that, enlist children.

A Boy Called Christmas

Plum Soup.

Bramley cooking apples are sour and cooking down to a mush. If you can’t find bramleys, use soft cooking apples and perhaps less sugar. At worst, cook the plums in good quality apple juice and omit the water.

Ingredients.

1 ½ lb (650g) plums
1 lb (2 medium sized) bramley cooking apples
6 oz (150g) sugar
5 oz (150ml) water
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 orange
3 cloves
whipped cream to serve.
 

Method.

Cut the plums in half, remove the stones and place them in a saucepan.
Peel, core and chop the apples and add them to the plums.
Cut a slice from the centre of the orange, stud it with the cloves and add this to the pot.
Cut some strips of peel from the orange, as long as you can make them, and add them to the pot too.
Squeeze the juice of the orange into the pot.
Add the water, the cinnamon stick and the star anise.
Cook over a low to medium heat for 20-30 minutes until everything is soft.
Fish out the spices and pieces of orange and peel.
Whizz up the soup in a liquidiser or with a stick blender until smooth.

You could serve this soup warm but we like it chilled, with a blob of whipped cream on top and a garnish made of the cooked orange peel. We, the grown-ups, also appreciate a slug of sherry stirred in to the chilled soup.

Bilberry Pies and Mince Pies.

Bilberries are the Northern European cousins of blueberries. They look and taste almost the same. If you can lay your hands on bilberry jam, by all means use it. Blueberry jam was the closest I could find. This pastry recipe has been handed down through the generations of my family under the title “pastry for mince pies.” It makes a delicious, sweet and buttery pastry which is easy to handle and reheats perfectly.

Ingredients.

1 jar of blueberry jam
1 jar of mincemeat
8 oz (250g) flour
2 oz (55g) icing (confectioner’s) sugar
5 oz (135g) cold butter
1 egg yolk (save the white for glazing)
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp ice-cold water

Method.

Sieve the flour into a large bowl. Sieve the sugar on top and mix through.
Cut the butter into cubes and add to the bowl.
Wash your hands in cold water and then use the tips of your fingers to rub the butter into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.
Mix together the egg yolk, the lemon juice and the cold water. Add this mixture to the flour and butter and fork it through until the dough begins to clump together.
Gather the dough into a ball, pressing it together gently. Use your palms to flatten the ball into a disk shape ready for rolling out. Wrap it in cling-film and allow to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and use a suitably sized cookie cutter to make circles to line a bun tray or mini-muffin tin. There is no need to grease the tray as the pies will come out quite easily. Cut out stars, or any shape you like, to make a lid.
Fill the cases with jam or mincemeat and pop the lids on top.
Brush the lids with the leftover egg white.
Bake at 180˚C for 15-20 minutes depending on the size.

A Boy Called Christmas

My title, by the way, is taken from the song Peace on Earth best enjoyed in the gloriously daft and magical Bing/Bowie duet.

I pray my wish will come true, for my child and your child too
He’ll see the day of glory, see the day when men of goodwill
Live in peace, live in peace again.

P.S. The eagle-eyed will have spotted that I took the food photos while I was only halfway through the crochet project. Poor Nikolas is, literally, legless. I blame the optional slug of sherry in the plum soup.

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How Lovely Are Thy Branches.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree…

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It was a fiasco. (See instagram post here)IMG_0642

Every light that could break, broke. IMG_0646

Some lights died, were resuscitated and died again. Others came out of their brand new packages dead. IMG_0661

It took seven hours, three visits to the local hardware, and a partridge in a pear tree to get it going.IMG_0651

But, despite the chaos and frustration, the mess and expense, the torment to small children waiting with baubles at the ready, for hours, it was a memorable day for all the right reasons. We kept it together. We laughed. We ate cake. We had a couple of stiff drinks. IMG_0657

We kept in mind that, even when it all seems to be going wrong, these days are precious. So very much depends on how you look at things.

This is the view from the kitchen window, street lights versus Christmas tree with honesty (lunaria) inside and teasels outside. I considered writing a whole post based on this photograph. I might yet. IMG_0673

Then I turned on my heel and took this photograph. I love the way the street light still threw its shadows on to this one.IMG_0676

The tree is up. Let the festivities begin.

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Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

Nigel Slater's Fig tart

Right so, who’s up for a frank and honest conversation about perimenopausal symptoms, the perils of freelance writing, and the politics of who is going where on Christmas Day?

No? No. Me neither.

Can we escape, instead, into a book? Come with me, please, this one is worth it.

The books. There are books in the kitchen, books in the study and books in the drawing room. There are books in my satchel, books on my desk and books by my bedside. There are novels and short stories, biographies and diaries, haikus and travelogues. There are gardening books and poetry and of course there are cook books…”He was never without a book.” I can see it now, carved on my gravestone.

He had me at “drawing room” and doubly so at “satchel.” That’s Nigel Slater using some of those words in the English language that we Irish have never felt fully entitled to use. It is an excerpt from a chapter, or entry really, as The Christmas Chronicles is more diary than cookbook, entitled A Sweet Moment. Slater describes the simple pleasure of sitting in a comfortable chair to read a book.

Howling wind or falling snow aside, the best reading companion is the smell of something baking in the oven.

No arguments here.

This is an extraordinary cookbook. I’ve never read any other cookbook that felt so intimate, so genuine, so much like an invitation to step inside a real kitchen and make myself at home.

“Come in.” Two short words, heavy with meaning. Step out of the big, bad, wet world and into my home. You’ll be safe here, toasty and well fed. “Come in.” They are two of the loveliest words to say and hear.

Can anyone else hear the ghost of Christmas present laughing in the background?

And yes, I know the world is a shit-storm at the moment, but we all need a safe harbour.

Nigel Slater’s writing would verge on maudlin, if it wasn’t tempered with such enthralling honesty. He doesn’t pretend that his memories of Christmas past aren’t tainted by grief. He doesn’t pretend that he always makes his own mincemeat. He doesn’t blithely ignore the existence of his competitors on the cookery bookery shelves. He gives credit where credit is due.  He mentions, and thanks, his followers on social media as though they were flesh and blood people.

All of this adds up to something that feels fresh and immediate and very modern. At the same time, by some sorcerer’s trick, Slater endorses time-worn traditions and exudes acute nostalgia. He made my chest ache. Ah, listen, let me cut to the chase. He made me cry. A flaming cookbook made me cry, IN THE SHOP, before I even paid for it.

If you are expecting a book of practical instructions on how to cater Christmas, you may be disappointed. The chronicles take the form of a day-by-day diary, beginning November 1st and ending on the 2nd of February. There is a lot to learn from this book: anything from the history of tinsel, Christmas stamps and pantomimes to the burn rate of candles to the best Brussels sprouts.

Nigel Slater's Fig tart

You don’t know what you are going to get from one day to the next and at times it reads as though it was a surprise to him too. Some of the entries bear all the hallmarks of a sleepy head – half formed thoughts jotted down by candle-light before dawn. A less well established author might have been compelled to edit, to tighten up, but these sleepy paragraphs, to me, were beguiling.

The only fault I found was that the book ends rather abruptly, as though he simply tore this clump of pages from his diary and sent them off to his publisher. One can only presume that we will pick up with him again, on February 3rd. It works, it leaves you wanting more, but it’s a bit too low key for me. I’m needy.

The food? I have two words for it. Comfort and joy.

Have you ever roasted a head of cabbage and then smothered it in cheese sauce? It is, without exaggeration, a cruciferous revelation.

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You’ve heard enough, I think, ( here) about the Jerusalem artichoke soup. Perhaps less of the comfort on that one but certainly joy, or maybe glee. It was worth it for the laughs.

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Cauliflower soup with a cheesy sourdough crouton was an equally delicious and less incendiary option.

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Toad-in-the-hole is not something we habitually eat in Ireland. Like drawing rooms and satchels, and Paddington Bear, this is a particularly British thing that we are not certain we are entitled to enjoy. It’s funny, when you think about it, how distinct are our cultures. I like it that way which, I suppose, is why I resist the blending of them. Regardless, this was undeniably comforting on a wet Saturday night.

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Slater’s recipes are mostly very easy and undemanding. What he offers are suggestions for a way of eating, and a way of enjoying the winter, rather than prescriptions for what is correct, or seasonal, or must-have or must-do or must-make.

My six-year-old made the Lebkuchen Chocolate Cream, all by herself…a triumph!

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The Stollen was my own particular triumph – a first but my no means last attempt. I even made the marzipan. It doesn’t look remotely like Nigel Slater’s stollen but it was very good to eat. Yes, I am quite proud.

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The Ricotta Filo Tart, a sort of Sicicilian baked cheesecake in a crispy shell was almost too pretty to crack open. Almost, but not quite.

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My forays into combining fruit with brandy have already been well-documented (here) but, I assure you, the joy continues.

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I made four jars of Slater’s quince mincemeat. It may not look beautiful but this stuff has been the mainstay of my mental health in recent days. Jar, spoon, Poldark book 10…I may just survive.

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This afternoon, by popular demand, after my girls have had their piano lesson (the piano is in the kitchen which is a very good thing with only occasional drawbacks), I shall make another batch of these quincemeat and mascarpone pies. They are exquisite little self-contained puffballs of Christmas cheer. You do have to eat them while they are still warm. Does that sound like a problem?

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I have only one other Nigel Slater cookbook on my shelves. It is called Real Food. I hardly ever cook from it, I’m not sure why not, but it contains my most favourite ever recipe –for a perfect chip butty. It’s not really a recipe, it’s a poem.

The fact that I didn’t cook much from that book has thus far inhibited me from buying any other of Nigel Slater’s books. That and the inescapable fact that they are quite expensive. Nonetheless, Item 1 on my list of New Year Resolutions is to source (hopefully second-hand) more of his books and to devour them just for the pure pleasure of it.

Slater’s is the sort of writing that makes me feel better. His words provide a sort of nourishment for the weather-beaten soul. I found this book both enlightening and inspiring. I want to eat like this, have a garden like this, make a wreath like this and yes, more than anything else, I want to write like this.

While Nigel Slater may not have the power to halt the shit-storm, he might empower you to shut the door on it. If nothing else, here is a book full to bursting with tidings of comfort and joy.

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A Ray of Sunshine and a Free Bench.

I’ve indulged myself for a few weeks in writing up an account of our weekend in Paris. It has been such a joy, not just because I succeeded in mentally air-lifting myself to a bistro in Montmartre, but because I wallowed in the freedom to write exactly what I wanted to write. I simply sat at the keyboard and told myself to ‘just get it down’, that’s all, nothing more. It’s not fancy but it’s honest and it says something, I hope, that I needed to say.

My desire was to package up something that we might take out in our dotage to read and remember a time when life was full to bursting. I gave it to Husband for his birthday, yesterday.

I also got him a book from Shakespeare and Company. I included a note in my order (there’s a space for notes in the online order form – of course there is!), thanking them for the tea and biscuits they gave us and they sent back a sweet handwritten note.

Honest to God, I think I left a piece of my heart behind in that shop. Can I just show you the packaging of their parcel? Look at this:IMG_9796

Would that not make any book-lover’s heart tick a little quicker?

Again, the online order form has some options to request a few little extras, a spritz of perfume, a poem typed up on the shop’s old typewriter, or just some random scrap of wordage they think you might like…

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It is surely for these small moments of contact, even virtual contact, with flesh and blood book people that independent bookshops MUST continue to exist. I’m not trying to sell you anything, well, I am, but I have nothing to gain other than that they continue to exist.

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The Paris write-up is far too long for a blog post. It would run to twelve blog posts, I think, which strikes me as ridiculous. Also, as I said, it is (even) more self-indulgent than my average blog post and includes minute details of no interest to anyone other than us.

The Paris write-up, which I titled A Ray of Sunshine and a Free Bench (it makes sense when you read it, I hope), does contain some photos. Most were snapped on Husband’s phone and some were taken by kindly strangers. This one is my favourite:

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Hope life is treating you all kindly this murky Monday morning.
Lynda.

PS. Teenage Daughter made iced buns for her Dad yesterday and there is just that one left over and now I have to eat it. Oh, woe is me. #dietshmiet

Cookbooks Tried and Tested: Rory O’Connell’s Cook Well, Eat Well.

Sicilian Cassata Cake. Rory O'Connell.

For the sake of full disclosure, let me remind you all that I live in Cork and that Rory O’Connell is a local food hero. I am, in this case, a biased reviewer. Fortunately, his book lived up to expectations…and then some.

Rory O’Connell’s first book, Master It, won the prestigious André Simon Food Book Award in 2013. It is, in essence, a concise cookery course with sections devoted to various techniques: stocks and soups, pan-frying, casserole-roasting, hot puddings, a few cakes, and so on. In his second book, Cook Well, Eat Well, O’Connell continues in the role of teacher but this time presents his recipes in a series of separate menus.

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Each menu contains three courses, a starter, a complementary main course and something sweet to close. The meals are arranged according to the seasons and for each season there is one vegetarian meal. O’Connell takes seasonal cooking as his starting point …Click here to read on.

Looking Forwards.

Flabbergasted. That’s the best word to describe my response to this package, delivered by hand, last weekend.

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It contains a stack of my own letters, written twenty years ago to a dear friend. Confiding, probably moaning a lot, grieving, figuring stuff out…at least that’s my best guess because I haven’t managed to take more than a cursory glance. I read two lines and felt dizzy. 1996 to 1998 took me from a failing PhD project, through a bereavement, to engagement, marriage, moving to Italy and my first pregnancy.

I hate reading back on my writing. It’s like hearing a recording of yourself, ugh.

Still, that stack is just sitting there. I’m not sure I want to look back? What would you do?IMG_5555 (2)

The break from making school lunches and the Mummy-Taxi service has gifted me lots of quiet moments to faff about with my camera.

Filling a vase with flowers from the garden is one of my greatest pleasures and the first Spring gatherings seem the most joyful of all. These small flowers don’t have a huge impact in the garden but, gosh, don’t they look lovely when you take a close look.

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This tiny jug belongs to Small Girl’s doll’s house. It hardly holds a drop of water but can accommodate a teeny weeny bouquet of forget-me-nots. Good things, small packages, a little silliness, big smiles.

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All that’s missing is a chick…IMG_5478 (2)She’s eyeing up that egg with a suspiciously greedy look.

Oooh, and this one too:IMG_5539 (2)

I didn’t spot the greenfly until just now!

I spent an evening happily churning out little baskets from Eleanora at Coastal Crochet’s lovely pattern. Small girl happily accepted the task of filling each basket with mini-eggs and then we used them to decorate our Easter Tree. It’s a bit wonky and things keep dropping off it with a thud. IMG_5568 (2)

But still, it has made me happy.IMG_5556 (2)

Prepare yourself now for the silliest, cutest picture this side of Easter…this put such a smile on my face…ta-daaah:

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The evenings have stretched and we’ve had glorious golden light streaming in. Our den, a miserable dark cave in winter time, has come back to life. This is the view from my desk if I swivel right. Everything seems lighter, brighter, a little bit easier.

It’s time to look forwards.

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Have I mentioned how much I love April?! I have? Can you blame me?

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Crystallised Flowers.

crystallized flowers.

And breathe.

Last week was a bit nuts. I interviewed Darina Allen (Genie Mac, I can still hardly believe that really happened), published what is without doubt my favourite of my Cooking The Books projects so far ( I truly adore that book) and, AND saw my name in print, for the first time, in a magazine.

Great British Food Magazine. April 2017.

 

Actually, I have been published before. My last publication was in 1997, in the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiolgy, and looked like this:

A Mutant of Listeria monocytogenes LO28 Unable To Induce an Acid Tolerance Response Displays Diminished Virulence in a Murine Model
LYNDA MARRON,1 NATHAN EMERSON,1 CORMAC G. M. GAHAN,1,2 AND COLIN HILL1,2* Microbiology Department1 and The National Food Biotechnology Centre,2 University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
Received 27 June 1997/Accepted 25 August 1997
Exposing Listeria monocytogenes LO28 to sublethal pH induces protection against normally lethal pH conditions, a phenomenon known as the acid tolerance response. We identified a mutant, L. monocytogenes ATR1, which is incapable of inducing such tolerance, either against low pH or against any other stress tested. The virulence of this mutant was considerably decreased, suggesting that the acid tolerance response contributes to in vivo survival of L. monocytogenes.

Feel free to indulge in the full article here. Are we still awake?

I’ll put it on the record here that L. monocytogenes LO28 nearly killed me. I so desperately wanted to be scientist and I really thought I could be. I was really good at learning stuff but it turned out that I wasn’t very good at the nitty gritty of discovering stuff and that flipping bug refused, stubbornly, for three stinking years, to do what it was supposed to do. Anyway, I think we can agree that my more recent publications are a good deal prettier and probably more useful too.

Great British Food Magazine. April 2017. Sultanabun.

That’s Mark Diacono, by the way, of River Cottage and Otter Farm fame, who’s sharing my page! My only grip is that they never used that bio pic that Middle Daughter and I went to such great lengths to produce.

Sticking with a theme of prettiness, I want to share the method I used to make those crystallised flowers on top of my ultimate chocolate cake (for recipe see Cooking The Books, here).

The ultimate chocolate cake.

Fittingly, the method is from Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course book but she shares it in this Easter Baking post from the Irish Examiner. (Honest to God, the good people at Ballymaloe are not paying me to advertise for them!)

crystallized flowers

Crystallising  flowers is not difficult, only a little fiddly. You simply paint the flowers gently with egg white and then sprinkle them with very dry caster sugar (dried in a low oven to make sure). The flowers should then be allowed to dry in a warm place.

You can learn from my mistakes: I grew impatient (a perennial flaw of mine) and stuck my flowers into my oven at the very lowest setting. It worked well enough but the colour was dulled and they lost their vibrancy.

Teenage Daughter made a much better job of hers. The Small Girl made some too but ate them before she could be asked to pose for a photograph.

crystallized flowers.

Teenage Daughter has the practical part of her Junior Cert Home Economics exam today. Her task (it’s a lottery) is to make a main course and a dessert from fresh fruit or vegetables. Her dessert will be her own variation of Lilli Higgins carrot cake , this time making one layer carrot and one of courgette cake – it really works! We’ve been eating it on a regular basis for the last few weeks while she practised. My expanding waistline is evidence of my daughter’s diligence. It’s a delicious cake and she will decorate it with this icing and her gorgeous flowers.

I’ll collect her later on with all her bowls and paraphernalia and, fingers crossed, a successful cake with just one neat sliver eaten by the examiner!

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Excellent Irish Fiction.

Excellent Irish Fiction

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Lá Féile Pádraig Shona daoibh go léir.

I thought I might mark the day by telling you about some of my favourite Irish authors. These are contemporary authors whose books I have loved over the last few years.

Excellent Irish Fiction

Sebastian Barry writes poetic, sparse, spine-tingling books. The Secret Scripture is built around conversations between a very elderly resident of a regional mental hospital and her doctor. We know by now that, in Ireland, you didn’t have to be crazy to wind up in a mental hospital. You can watch a trailer for the up-coming Jim Sheridan film adaptation here. It looks good and Rooney Mara’s Irish accent passes the grade.

You can read my review of Barry’s magnificent latest novel, Days Without End, here.

Sebastian Barry. Days Without End.

John Boyne. I have to steel myself to read his books because they invariably leave me in tatters. I’ve heard that his new book, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, has a bit of humour so maybe he has been listening to reader feedback!

Everyone knows The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. If you haven’t read it, you simply must.

The most recent of his books that I’ve read was A History of Loneliness. This is all I managed to write about it at the time:

‘If you want a true insight into the Irish pysche you should read John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness. I’ve been intending to write about it for weeks but I get a pain in my chest every time I think about it. It is funny, laugh out loud hilarious at times, but don’t read it unless you are prepared to know the worst of us, the evil we accepted in this country and to which we turned a blind eye. The worst was not being shocked by it because this history, to our eternal shame, is embedded in us.’

John Boyne's A History Of Loneliness will break your heart.

Roddy Doyle. A national treasure. I think the nation as a whole loves Roddy Doyle to bits. We quote him regularly but most particularly when announcing the birth weight of new babies. We are a country populated by small turkeys. There is a funny article here on Doyle’s contribution to Ireland. I think we should have a new national holiday called Roddy Doyle Day when we all listen to the soundtrack of The Commitments and eat chips from chip vans.

But seriously, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is superb.

Colm McCann. Let The Great World Spin is centred on an account of a high-wire walk which took place between the twin towers in 1974. You just have to read it. It’s brilliant.

Paul Murray. I’ve only read one of his books but I enjoyed it very much. Skippy Dies is best described, I think, as an Irish answer to Dead Poets Society. It’s very sad but very funny. More people should read it.

Graham Norton. To be honest, I just didn’t see this coming. I read Holding mostly out of curiosity but I was captivated from the word go. The book gives an honest but gentle view of Ireland rather than the harshly critical study presented by so many Irish authors. We are our own worst critics but Norton writes about West Cork with genuine affection. I wrote a review which you can read here.

Holding by Graham Norton

Liz Nugent. Again, I read Lying in Wait with reluctance (‘domestic thriller’ is not my cup of tea) but I couldn’t escape the hype. It turns out to have been well-deserved. Liz Nugent is a rising superstar. I don’t have a photo because I borrowed this one from the library (which, I’ll have you know, involved adding my name to a LONG waiting list). I’m already anticipating her next book with bated breath. You can read my review here.

book review of Liz Nugent's thriller Lying in Wait.

Joseph O’Connor. I’m a massive fan. I’ve been reading and loving his books for my entire adult life. I wrote a bit about my idolisation of Joseph O’Connor here when I read The Thrill of it All. I’ve chosen The Star of the Sea as the one I would recommend if you were to read just one of O’Connor’s brilliant books.

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Colm Tóibín. Brooklyn. My maternal great-grandparents emigrated to America as newly-weds and settled in a handsome brownstone building somewhere in Boston. My great-grandmother, according to my Granny, loved America. In 1921, my great-grandfather was summoned home to Ireland after a series of tragic accidents made him heir to the family farm. They sailed home with their small family, my Granny ‘on the way’, and as much of their new American furniture as they could manage. Granny always said that her mother bitterly resented that call to come home until the day she died, in her forties, from a brain hemorrhage. Colm Tóibín captures that tug on Irish people, to stay or to go, to stay away or come back, that has become an intrinsic part of being Irish.

It seems an opportune moment to remind you of my previous St. Patrick’s Day posts:

Teeny Weeny Shamrock Pattern. remains my only original crochet pattern. It is, as you can imagine, ridiculously easy.The work of ten minutes or less. My Small Girl has one of these clipped in her hair today and it looks lovely.

Tricolour Toast is a tasty snack in the colours of the Irish flag.

If you have 8 minutes to spare, I recommend taking this link to TodayFM and clicking on the podcast of Ireland’s Greatest Song Lyrics. Spine-tingling stuff. ‘Where’s me jumper?,”Give it to me raw, I’ll take it home cook it myself,”You’re the chocolate at the end of my cornetto,’…ah yes, we are a nation of poets, or foodies, probably both. It all comes back to the famine. But what about this :‘You are the measure of my dreams, the measure of my dreams,

Here’s the one that had me doing my best solo bop about the kitchen table. Love this:

Have a great weekend.

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Soup and a good book.

I have forsworn cake for lent. It’s not that I am worried about my eventual entry through the gates of heaven (though it could be a tight squeeze) but that I am concerned with the close-fitting nature of my jeans.

I have tried re-introducing the family to salads but the family was having none of it. They complained vociferously and informed me that it’s still too chilly for cold dinners. They have a point. It is surely the season for soup.

Aztec Soup

For my March edition of Cooking the Books, I have devised the ultimate soup recipe. It was almost too easy this time. The book, Umami by Laia Jufresa, practically spelled out the recipe to me. It all came together like some sort of literary magic.

 Find the review and the recipe for Aztec soup here.

Today is World Book Day. Small Girl is very excited about finally qualifying for a free book voucher and I’m happy to have an excuse for a bookshop outing. The books look great this year. Take a look at the list on WorldBookDay.com. I won’t be able to resist the Famous Five stories and I suspect Small Girl will want the one about underpants.The gallery of World Book Day doodles by well known illustrators is also well worth a look.

I like lists. I am a maker of lists and a dedicated ticker of lists. Best of all the lists, of course, are book lists and there are some fantastic book lists out there. If the internet had been invented just for the book lists it would have been worth it. These are some of my favourites:
The Agnes Reading List. I’m blowing my own trumpet here since I compiled this list of books for teenage girls. My all-time most loved books are on this list.
The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge. Rory Gilmore is one extremely well-read young (and fictional, by the way) lady. These are all the books she reads or mentions over the seven seasons of The Gilmore Girls. You can tick the books you’ve read on this VERY good list (SO satisfying, I’m at 64 of the 339 books).
The Guardian’s list of 100 best novels ever written in English is a SERIOUS list, developed over two years by Robert McCrum. It’s compiled in chronological order. I’ve read 25 which is hardly very impressive.
The 100 Best Children’s Books from Time.com is a thing of beauty. I could flick through this quite contentedly all day long.
The 25 greatest cookbooks of all time is calling to me. So much temptation. The only one of these I own is Moro. My birthday is coming up soon…hello, family…can you hear me? Hint, hint, etc.
My favourite cookbooks are listed here.
Barack Obama’s Reading List: The 79 books recommended by a very bookish president during his time in office.
J.K Rowling’s Reading List: The books which have most influenced the world’s most successful author.

If you don’t find what you’re looking for in any of those lists you could take a glance through the books I’ve read since starting this blog in May 2015.
I hope you find a book you love today.

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When kids take advantage of Instagram.

Happy Pancake Tuesday.

‘Great news, Mum,’ announced Middle Daughter late last week.
‘Hmmmn?’ I might have had my head stuck in Instagram.
‘It’s Pancake Tuesday next week.’
‘Oh, great.’
‘And we’re off school so we can have pancakes All DAY LONG!’
‘OK.’ Like I said, Instagram.

The seed was sown. I got up on Tuesday morning and I made pancakes. I made pancakes ALL DAY LONG!

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A workman was painting the wall at the front of our house and, feeling proud of my copious crêpe creation, I brought him a pancake with his three O’Clock cuppa.

‘It’s not Shrove Tuesday, is it?’ he enquired with a concerned frown, as if he should have been at mass or something.
‘It is!’ I replied wondering if he would judge me for not being at mass or something.

I got straight back to the cooker to stack up more pancakes for dinner.

Three crêpes later (time having become meaningless, my day portioned into piles of pancakes) my workman returned his tea tray with a smirk.

‘Your kids are having you on, Missus.’
‘Excuse me?’ Mother Lion, ready to leap.
‘I’ve asked five different people walking by and they all said Pancake Tuesday is next week.’

So, not only had my children fooled me, maintaining straight faces all day while they debated the virtues of chocolate/cream over jam/yogurt or lemon/sugar, I was pilloried across the neighbourhood as the woman who doesn’t even know what day of the year it is.

Happy Pancake Tuesday.

I clearly need to leave the house more often.

I repaid my children by layering up the dinner pancakes with salmon, steamed broccoli, béchamel sauce and a sprinkle of cheddar (half an hour at 180ºC). They were less than pleased but Husband and I agreed that the dish was a triumph. I’ll take my wins where I find them.

pancake lasagne with salmon and broccoli

While the kids have been a-lazing (and a-scheming) in front of the TV, I have been hard at work (ahem) reading books.

The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser is a superb book, the sort that stays with you and changes the way you see the world. I wish I could make it required reading for schools, for parents, for politicians…for everyone who eats. Read my full review here.

The Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser, book review

I’ve read most of Robert Harris‘s books and always look forward to a new release but Conclave was a big disappointment. I had heard Harris interviewed and loved the idea of a novel based on the election of a new pope. He writes with great style but the plot went completely awry. The full review is here.

review: Robert Harris, Conclave.

Storm Doris  is still swirling around the garden in a most menacing fashion so I’m about make a massive cup of coffee and retire to bed with Kate Atkinson‘s Life After Life. It’s shockingly good.

(PS. The pantry is done but it’s been so dark, I can’t get any photos that do it justice. Next week, I promise!)

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