I’m quite often hot and cross, more often due to the menopause than baking deliciously spiced buns, cakes or fragrant breads for others to eat. However, we have reached the time of year when it is incumbent on me to bake some Hot Cross Buns for our beloved customers (and of course my own beloved), it being close to Easter (wasn’t Christmas only 5 minutes ago?) and that time when we all make traditional food with no idea why the tradition is there since we are all pagans and atheists these days.
Baking these gorgeous cushions of delicious doughiness makes me happy, not cross. Most forms of baking make me happy actually, it is incredibly therapeutic and you get to eat the results. Which obviously means eating baked goods quite a lot when I have been on a roll (s’cuse the pun) at the cafe, and soon thereafter comes promises to self never to eat any more cake/ice cream/chips/mayonnaise and all other things that make life worth living again, ever. It’s a circular thing, I get over it.
Just FYI, the hot cross bun’s story goes back to pagan times and was apparently a tribute to Eostre, the Saxon goddess of light. The buns were baked to ‘mark the return of the dominance of light following the vernal equinox’. Easter clearly led to the Christianised ‘Easter” but was probably derived from the goddess Hausos, of the dawn, who was associated with fertility linked with rabbits and eggs. And so now of course we know which came first. The egg. And the rabbit. The cross on the bun was adopted by the Christians, in that clever way they had, but was actually a Celtic cross with equal length bars representing the intersection of earth (the horizontal line) and Heaven (the vertical line), the human and divine. So it can be all things to all anybodies, and no need to get into a pucker about whether you are going to be hauled into the local parish church and charged with satanism for making your crosses out of icing instead of tasteless pastry either. Apparently some people used to nail them to the walls as well, for luck, or something. Never can tell about people.
This is a recipe I have found by Richard Bertinet, which I think looks perfect, mostly because there is rum involved. I am going to make these little darlings, so if you do too please let me know how you get on. (I found it on a site that also had a bit about Raymond Blancs kitchen secrets – don’t get me started, his biggest secret is how to sell out while still appearing smug and saint like. CANNOT bear him). By the way if you don’t have a mixer, or dough hook if you do have a mixer, don’t panic. Use your hands, the best tools in any cook’s drawer (erm…) as almost said by brother chef Barny, and never mind the speeding up and slowing down thing, mix the ingredients in the bowl and then tip out onto a floured surface and get kneading.
0.5 tsp Mixed spice
80 g (2.8oz) Mixed peel
180 g (6.3oz) Currants or sultanas
250 ml (8.8fl oz) Full-fat milk
3 Large eggs
60 g (2.1oz) Unsalted butter, diced
500 g (17.6oz) Strong bread flour
2 tbsp Caster sugar
20 g (0.7oz) Fresh yeast
0.25 tsp Salt
100 g (3.5oz) Plain flour – for the cross paste
1 Pinch of salt – for the cross paste
1 tsp Vegetable oil – for the cross paste
100 g (3.5oz) Sugar – for the rum sugar syrup glaze
100 ml (3.5fl oz) Water – for the rum sugar syrup glaze
2 tbsp Dark rum – for the rum sugar syrup glaze
1. First make the cross paste. Sift the flour into a bowl. Add the salt and oil, then add 4 tbsp water a little at a time to form a paste that can be piped. Set aside until required.
2. To make the buns, put the mixed spice, mixed peel and currants or sultanas into a bowl and set aside. Tip the milk and 1 egg into a mixer with the dough hook attached. Add the butter, flour, sugar, yeast and salt and mix slow speed for 5 minutes, until the mixture forms a dough. Increase the speed to medium for 6–8 minutes, or until the dough comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl. Add the spice and fruit mix on a slow speed for 1–2 minutes.
3. Turn the dough out onto a worktop and form it into a ball. Put it back into the mixing bowl, cover with a clean cloth and leave it to rest in a draught-free place for an hour.
4. When the dough has risen and nearly doubled in size, carefully tip it out on to your work surface and divide it into satsuma size balls. Roll each piece into a tight ball and place them on a buttered baking tray, close to each other.
5. Make an egg wash by beating the remaining 2 eggs with a pinch of salt. Brush each bun with a little egg wash and place in a warm place for about 11/2 hours, until risen.
6. Preheat a fan oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas 4.. I f you don’t have a fan oven, adjust the temperature according to your oven manufacturer’s instructions. Brush the buns again with the egg wash and pipe a cross on top of each one, using the cross paste. Bake in the oven for 18–20 minutes. Remove the buns from the oven and transfer them to wire racks to cool.
7. For the rum sugar syrup glaze, mix the sugar and 100ml/31/2fl oz/1/2 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to the boil for 4 minutes. Add the rum. Brush over the top of the cooled buns. Serve immediately, or store in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Alternatively freeze and defrost at room temperature before serving.
How are you? I’m fine, sitting in my kitchen, granola base slowly toasting in the oven, looking out into the street through a veil of rain/sleet/dirty window.
I use the word fine loosely. I have discovered it’s my ‘go to’ word, whatever the circumstances. My shield if you will, against more questioning. Fine has many meanings, and for the most part doesn’t fit me or my state at all, although I quite like the idea of containing a specified high proportion of pure metal. It can also mean satisfactory or pleasing (how are you? I’m pleasing… hmmm). Anyway, I’m fine, thank you for asking.
I wrote the above paragraphs a week ago. I burned the granola. Today is the 1st of March. Is it the first day of spring? I am assuming so since no one ever mentions March and winter in the same sentence (see what I did there?). This is my view right now, sitting in bed, post Archers omnibus, pre getting up and putting on day time clothes in readiness for, you know, the day time.
Not too shabby. So, I am ‘fine’ today as well. But finer than when toasting granola to charcoal last week.
In the last week I have read one of the best and most thought provoking books I have ever read, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (thank you Sarah). Perhaps I am susceptible to the idea of apocalypse and renewal of the world and human species thereafter, because god knows it doesn’t have a lot to recommend it right now, or maybe it’s just a damn good read, but it has got me thinking and pondering and waking up to things that matter and things that don’t. On pondering life before virtual obliteration of humans a character in the book thinks about how he used to put ‘thx’ in an email to say thanks, as though leaving out three letters would save some time for something useful or more important.
It made me think about something I have been thinking about recently (so much thought going on in this head it’s getting very crowded) which is that we, the humans who are awake and not too stupid (ukippers and isis need not bother) should be writing, by hand if possible, more letters. All our communication is on email or text or Facebook, or blog… What if the apocalypse does come and there is no more technology? Those clouds of information, thoughts, questions, agonies will simply dissolve. Does it matter for posterity? Possibly not. But a hand written letter, landing on the door mat with all the junk mail and bills… what excitement, curiosity and feeling of mattering might that engender? Do you scan the postmark with a little frisson of Miss Marple doing detective work running through you? Do you know immediately who it’s from by the handwriting? Do you rip it open hoping for a cheque? Posterity schmosterity, do it for the now.
Writing a letter, even the most banal, requires effort and thought. Remember those thank you letters we had to write as children, and which in vain we tried to get our own to write? They meant something to the recipient. More than a text saying ‘thx’ anyway. I have a bunch of letters that I wrote to my Dad, that he kept. Mostly asking for money (what was I thinking?), but they are like a diary in some ways and clearly meant something to him otherwise why keep them? My adolescent self writ large in ink pen on foolscap.
Remember Basildon Bond writing paper? Then upgrading to the really posh stuff with water marks and ridges? Remember the joy of stationary?
So, I will write a letter today. To my mother because she taught me good manners and right now is very far away when she would much rather be at home in her cosy cottage with Nancy, watching the crocuses emerging from the chilly Yorkshire soil. My mother writes letters, illegible mostly, but proper ones on paper, in an envelope with a stamp on it.
Who will you write to?
Lots of love,
…to be exhausted. Have a cold. Eat too much. Drink too much. Watch too much telly. Sit in bed and think about going for a walk in the lovely crisp, wintery sunshine and not do it. Look at Facebook so long you actually know other people’s Christmases as well as your own.
On the orders of my husband I am in bed today. Anyone who knows Russell knows he doesn’t actually issue orders, and even less likely am I to follow them if he did. However, I am in bed as he suggested I should be today, because it’s a damn good idea and not one I generally ever have the opportunity to follow. I am closed to the world, not in, not ‘at home’ to anyone. It’s very, very nice.
WARNING this post is about my Christmas so if that might bore you close this page now.
If I had access to cinematic equipment I would do a montage, a la a Richard Curtis film – driving through the night on Christmas Eve to the large country pile in deepest Essex, the warm welcoming lights, the laughter and hugging and delicious fish pie, last minute wrapping of presents, a small exodus to midnight mass… cut to Christmas morning, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even… oh, wait, there’s Harper and his drone, oh, no… wait, it’s stuck up a tree. And so begins the battle of the kids vs grown ups (why can’t I open it, please can I open it, I am opening it, yes, I am…) in the present war, and of presents vs kids (no batteries, wrong batteries, faulty mechanisms and stuck up trees tactics were in abundance).
The country pile is Beeleigh Falls, home to Ron, Jasper’s Dad, the lovely Sue (who clearly has the secret of everlasting youth) and Megan, a tiny, scruffy little dog that had been abandoned and ended up at their door one dark and stormy night – there is no luckier dog in the entire universe.
It is a stunning old Edwardian (I think) house, with enormous, welcoming rooms and front door big enough to drive through; the front door key is so big it could easily be used as a cosh for an unsuspecting burglar. It is near Maldon, where the salt comes from, in Essex, a very pretty part of the world, where land meets sea via estuary. Ron’s business is in Mini Mokes, specifically their spare parts. Our dining room was usually his parts store and had been cleared out and transformed into a country house dining room, complete with help yourself breakfast kit at one end.
The rest of the party was made up of Rowena (Sue’s daughter), George (Rowena’s husband and giver of the famous Bulgarian firewater), their two boys Roman and Ollie, Jasper (Ron’s son) and Sophie (my niece), their two children Harper and May, Stormy (Jasper’s and my son), Russell (who takes everything in his generous stride, always) and me. An unusual mix some might say, and that is without adding other historical details because of no time/room/right to share. It works for us. I looked around the gathering at one point and saw a family, happy and at ease with itself, for all the issues and difficulties of the past, present and future, we know, like and love one another and on that basis metaphorical mountains can and will be moved.
I was chief cook, delegating chopping, dicing and slicing to number one (and mine only) son, peeling to George and clearing of debris to Rowena, and so I didn’t have to deal with the war zone apart from ushering it out of the kitchen every now and then. My main job was to stand about looking worried, writing lists which were promptly binned by the keen bean Rowena and poke the fowl with a meat thermometer every now and then.
Before the feasting began we had presents in the sitting room (cut to montage of roaring log fire, champagne in slender glass flutes, enormous packages tied up with ribbons and glittery stuff, paper being ripped and thrown in a mild, joyous frenzy). Russell spoiled me completely and I am still in awe of his thoughtfulness and extravagance. It was the kind of insane fun its meant to be and the children were kept occupied for at least ten minutes with trying to locate where the batteries were meant to go.
The table was laid by beautifully by Sophie and Sue, with pretty candles, ivy and silver stars. Dinner was a triumph of luck over judgement and no one minded that the birds were a bit overdone. Fireworks replaced pudding as no one had any room for any.
Boxing day was all about pyrotechnics, pipe bombs and cannons, abandoning broken drones, figuring out how the robot dog actually works, a walk down memory lane for me to my old alma mater, more glorious food, finally eating Christmas pudding with the most delicious brandy butter ever made and saying goodbye to our Christmas family as we headed off into the rainy night to the Brighton family, colds and sniffles, cosy fire, more delicious food, wine, films, walks and talks.
And so here we are, Wednesday, 31st December 2014, back in Bristol. May your New Years Eve be joyful and fun, but more importantly the New Year one of health, peace, hope, and love. Oh, and prosperity, wouldn’t mind a bit of that too please.
Over and out.
There was a chair. It was a lovely, shabby, comfortable and familiar chair which I was given by my Aunt Ginnie when she sold her family home in 1982 (?). It was in my room, known as the blue room, when I lived there with her, my Grandfather and my two cousins back when I was 13, so she felt I might like to have it. It was a gesture typical of Ginnie, repeated many times over the years as she divested herself of other bits and pieces of family treasure to all her many relations. Her last and most incredible gesture was to leave us all some money when she died, and it was then I decided to turn that shabby little chair into a jewel-like, slightly bonkers, for-for-a-princess chair, in remembrance of her and my time in that lovely house.
I signed up for a course in upholstering with the fabulous and appropriately jewel-like Leigh-Anne Treadwell. I chose come fabrics. I took a deep breath and ripped away some history.
Here’s how it went.
It all stops… I missed the last two classes due to snivelling cold and general harrassedness and my project ground to a halt. I took the incomplete chair home with an envelope full of upholstery tacks, some good intentions and a slight doubt that I could actually finish this on my own.
Upholstery is not for the tired, weak-willed or faint hearted. It is incredibly satisfying to do, very physical work which give almost instant results, but sometimes they are not the results you want, hence a pleating effect at the base of the seat was unwelcome and very hard to get rid of. I gave up and called Leigh-Anne, who like the jewel that she is cam e and took away the chair which she said she would finish for me, in between running her courses, finishing her course at The School for Social Entrepreneurs, move house, live her life etc.
In the meantime I catered four weddings, was a guest at lovely niece Olivia’s wedding, saw beloved son off to the USA, visited the USA to see beloved son and see the wilderness, and Canada to visit beloved friend Jaqua and see log flumes; went to Paris with beloved husband and saw PARIS; I made cakes and granola, visited family in London, family in Yorkshire, grew tomatoes semi-successfully and beans unsuccessfully, shared meals with friends, ran my business, rented out a spare room, watched the complete series of Breaking Bad and Deadwood, witnessed the transformation of my garden from jungle to open space by the ever fragrant Maire, son Jack and beloved husband (mine, not theirs), catered Triodos Bank’s AGM for 500 people, had my thyroid removed, started therapy, carried on spasmodically with yoga and promised myself I would start pilates.
Then Leigh-Anne brought the chair back.
I have a trial session of pilates this afternoon.
Oregon to Paris. What? Well, with two weeks full tilt work in between, but yes. I went to Paris for a whole week with the man in the hat. We were tourists and loungers and beer drinkers in the sun. It was fabulous. It was noisy, smelly, expensive and glorious. It’s a living, working, bustling cliché. My French is rubbish, but now marginally better rubbish than it was before. My vow is to learn French and go back to Paris and stun them all with my insanely vast vocabulary, accent, wit and style. On the other hand I expect I will simply go back as a tourist again and fumble and mumble and still be slightly intimidated by the elegant shop assistants in their black outfits and sharp, red lips.
The first four nights were spent at the Eldorado Hotel, a legendary golden king or for our purposes a bonkers hotel in the northern part of the city, near the Place de Clichy. We were on the third floor, overlooking the street and if we craned our necks far enough you could see the tippy top of the Tour Eiffel, at night anyway, when it was lit up like the brazen trollope she is.
Following a giddy first couple of days of tramping the streets of Monmartre, looking at glorious paintings, churches, windows, streets and witty street art, basking in the sunshine, drinking cold beer, eating insanely good and also some mediocre food, people watching and inbibing the romance of the city by osmosis, we finally remembered how old we are and virtually collapsed. It wasn’t helped by the ardent nature of the Paris recycling department who collect their items separately from about 3am every morning – that’s about four different different bin lorries down a very narrow street one after the other EVERY morning; not to mention the scooters with their waspish noise and unfriendly hooters and the shouty early morning Parisiens right outside our window, EVERY morning. I had asked for room with a view (I know, I know) and got a view of a shop called ‘Bunny Faux Ongles’ with noise thrown in as bonus. Actually our view was perfect given where we were – bit edgy, bit scruffy, very Parisien.
It was despite all was a really fabulous and sexy place to stay with it’s own little bistro and bar, great food, perfect wine, lovely staff, and very cheap. If you ever go there ask for a room at the back is all.
We hit a wall after a visit to Versailles. I think in fact that Versailles was so disappointing that it depressed us a bit. All the hat man wanted to do was sleep – I don’t think the appearance of Ms. Antoinette herself would have helped much frankly. It’s vast, and confusing. You are never really sure what you are looking at and there is none of that stuff you find in English palaces and grand houses where they show you the nitty gritty of daily life in the ‘olden days’, like the kitchens or the loos, or any clothes of the era. I know it all probably got burned by the proletariat, or made into cushions or something, and it might have helped to strap on a recorded guide to my head, but what with the heat, the millions of tourists looking as bemused as we did and the garden which appeared to be under construction it all just seemed a little bit undecided as to what it was actually presenting. And you couldn’t even get an ice cream there! All told I was infinitely more impressed by the Carnavalet Museum in the Marais, a visual history of Paris jam packed with gorgeous paintings and nick-nacks to satisfy even my addiction to domestic detail and nit-pickery.
On to the next place I had booked to stay. This was to be our bit of luxury, a bit pricey but very central, very chi-chi, old world charming etc etc. The room was billed as ‘small’, and indeed it was. I have no problem with small, IF there is a window that opens onto something more than a terrarium which is itself at the bottom of a five story inner building well. There was light, but it was five stories away and coming thorough a hole that was approximately five inches wide. The room itself was very comfortable and cleverly fitted our so that despite being weeny there was a place for everything and everything in it’s place. Everything was also monogrammed to within an inch of it’s life. The walls were old worlde French flower prints – pretty but claustrophobic in such a small space. Our bedroom door opened into the reception area. Very odd place. Not sexy.
We did manage to catch up on a bit of sleep but poor old hat man got a bug and an evening at the Scottish Pub (referendum day), meeting up with an old friend of his was spoiled by him feeling very poorly indeed. Trooper that he is we carried on with touristing the next day and he got his mojo back by our last day. That evening we went back to a restaurant, Le Coude Fou (the Crazy Elbow!), we had stumbled on before, hoping that a second visit wouldn’t disappoint, and it didn’t. Not only did both the food an wine match up to the previous visit but we made friends, perforce as the tables were very small and very close to each other, with a couple of New Yorkers who were also on their last night in Paris, before heading to London. As hat man said after, no matter how much you love someone it is nice to talk to someone else after a whole week of just each other’s company, and after sharing wine too we were declared family and now have an invitation to join them for dinner in New York, which I hope we can do one day, but until then…
I am in Oregon, USA as I tap this into my ipad. To be precise I am in Bend, Oregon. So far I have seen a strip mall and my room in the Shilo Hotel Inn and Suites. The room is dingy and dated but it doesn’t matter since the reason I am here is to visit my son, not luxuriate in hotel freebies and crisp white linen. Although a bedspread that didn’t spark with every shuffle would be nice.
Oregon is stunningly beautiful. I drove the coast road once, long ago, and today drove from Portland to Bend though hills, mountains, forests and what looked like African savannah. I hired a car. I’m driving on the right. By myself. Big thing this. It feels very odd to be in his homeland without my husband.
Tomorrow I am scheduled to meet Birgit at 8am, at the Second Nature offices, from where we will drive about two hours into the desert to meet up with my boy and his group. I haven’t seen him for five weeks, and since then he has been out in the wilderness, trekking, making camp, building relationships with his peers, staff and therapists who are all part of this programme. There are no showers in the wilderness so he is likely to be quite ripe, which will be nice.
Why is he there, I hear you clamouring. Why are so far away, why, what, where, when?? I’m not going to write it all down here, partly because its a bit chilly in the air con and I want to go and buy unnecessary clothing from the mall, and partly because it’s not my story to tell. Suffice to say that it’s been a bumpy ride for him, and us his family, for some time now and we all wanted to fix the situation. This is him fixing the situation.
It’s a really tough thing to face, and a really tough thing to talk about to others, even to family and close friends, which is one of the reasons I am writing this slightly cryptically. Wish me well in the heat and dust, but most of all wish my boy well again, and lend your support in thoughts not words. Thank you. I will send sunshine and warmth in return.
When I was growing up we had a basket for mending. These were clothes that needed a stitch or a darn, or a complete re-think sometimes. I say we, but the only person who ever did any mending was my mother. I sewed what were, in my mind, dainty little initials on handkerchiefs for my father’s Christmas presents, or made tiny tapestry needle books for long suffering Aunt Ginnie, or teeny, weeny little doll’s clothes. We were a very industrious household. These were the days when clothes were made to be worn out, not thrown out, and they weren’t going to be worn out until they were completely threadbare, which due to my mother’s pretty good darning skills was often way past what it should have been to my mind. When the clothes finally got too raggedy they were turned into dusters. That’s how we rolled in the 60’s.
So, that’s one kind of mending. Another kind of mending is the kind I am doing right now. Last week, if you remember, I went off, a sacrificial lamb to the alter of science and surgeons, to have a what I thought was a bit of a gland taken out from my throat and off you pop home dear. Not quite how it was. Being gaga in the few hours post op was quite fun, and also quite depressing in turn. Dosed up on pain killers my son described me as looking stoned – well, I was. In and out of reality, fed ice cream and asked about my stools. There I was, high on painkillers, but not high enough to actually remove the pain, sleepy, no spectacles on hand and all unexpecting-like I was presented with the Bristol Stool Chart, and asked to choose mine from the line up.
Shift change came and no more mention was made of stools so I think I passed (ahem). A sweet nursing assistant came by and poked me with needles while murmuring soothing noises. Having only had some fruit salad and a teeny tub of ice cream since the day before I asked her if there might be a sandwich lurking around possibly, maybe, a vegetarian one (no, I haven’t turned, only on planes and in hospitals)? She brought me a coronation chicken one, saw my face and asked if I might like toast instead. Suddenly the all was right with the world. Toast, I thought. White, sliced, pap bread with lashings of butter. Heaven. And so it came to be. Heaven.
I made it through the night, and the next morning. Passed out with flying colours by my bouncy surgeon who seemed slightly disappointed that I was similarly bouncy, but he loves my scar, very proud of his work. Still in a fog, blood turned to liquid lead and feeling about 150 I went home. And slept. For two days.
Here I am one week, one day down. I have a very neat, very sore scar. I have the remnants of hormones washing about my body, unaware they have lost their home. I have thyroxin pills which I must now take forever. That’s all fine and as it should be; I am mending.
My Mum (who is 87, not 88 – sorry Mum!) too is mending. Her visit to the alter of science and surgeons was much longer and her scars are bigger and sore-er. I have no idea how her hormones are but when I spoke with her yesterday for the first time since the op she sounded bright, clear and utterly remarkable.
I am very proud of her, and proud to be of her genes. She will hopefully be going home at the end of the week, with hers and our beloved Nancy who has been, is and always will be a tower of strength, all 5′ 1″ of her, and where she will continue to mend for some goodly time to come, and where I will visit her very soon.