Monday, 29 January 2018

Family Concerns (An Eccentric in Lucca Book 3) by Stuart Fifield

books set in Italy, books set in Tuscany

Family Concerns (An Eccentric in Lucca Book 3) by Stuart Fifield was one of the books I've won on Goodreads last year.
Though it is a third book in the series, it reads perfectly well as a standalone.

The main protagonist is La Contessa di Capezzani-Batelli, who lives in Lucca with her short-tempered and spoilt dog and dyspeptic maid Elizabeth. All three can be called characters in equal measure. Elizabeth is a veritable harridan, and it's not quite clear why she is still keeping her job, when she is as lovable as a bubonic plague. She might have been with a family for half a century, but she is rather obnoxious.

The Contessa - the eponymous eccentric - is well known among the Lucchesi as a benefactor for many a charitable project.
In Family Concerns she is organising her next big fund-raiser together with Arthur Crowe who is a conductor of Banda Inghiltalia.
With her son Luigi's support, they embark on a project of extending the local hospice premises. They buy a house next door to redevelop it as part of hospice. The story of the house and the family who lived there is touching and immensely sad. It reminded me of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis which chronicles the lives of the Italian Jews.

You will meet all the members of the Contessa's Chamber Opera Group of Lucca, whom she calls her angels. They are far from being angels, however, and their private lives are complicated and definitely not angelic.
There are lots of individual stories, and at some point I felt rather confused, going back to the beginning to figure out who is who.
The Italian setting is enjoyable, you will soak up all the sights and smells.

Years ago I was a guest at a British-Italian wedding held in a small Tuscan village, outside Pienza. The food and scenery were spectacular, the wedding guests were like characters in an opera. I was an outsider, as I hardly knew anyone but it was an interesting anthropological experience. A pity, the marriage didn't last a year. But the setting was marvellous.
The book brought back memories of those few days in the Tuscan countryside. I think we travelled through Lucca, but had no time to explore this historic town.

There are also murders and a mafia business subplots, a newly opened fish and chips shop which proves to be a total disaster, love affairs and a love child, and a glorious concert to attend.

Spoiler alert:
I found the end of the book a bit rushed. The murder mysteries are not solved satisfactorily. And I was rather shocked that one of the characters goes scot free for the brutal violence against his wife.

If you enjoy books set in Italy, Family Concerns is an entertaining read. I am definitely going to find the first two books in the series.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Chocolate polenta cake

easy chocolate cake

Typically I belong to a school of thought that there's never enough chocolate, but actually on rare occasions I look at my stash, and think, oh well, is anyone going to help me with that?!

I've opened a tasting set from Divine the other day only to discover that some of the mini bars had expiry dates from before Christmas, while the others were still fine until June.
I also had a big box of Seasonal Selection from Thorntons, which nobody wanted to finish, as the chocolates were way too sweet, and tasted more of sugar than anything else. Not the best chocolate box.
Baking a chocolate cake is always a good way of using any chocolate leftovers. I fancied a cake with polenta for extra texture, but not a totally gluten free cake, as I find a pure polenta-based cake a bit too gritty and grainy. A little bit though adds a lovely crunch and crumb.

I have googled for chocolate polenta cake recipes, and came across Raspberry Chocolate Polenta cake on Tin and Thyme blog (from the days when it was called Chocolate Log Blog). Choclette's beautiful cake is gluten free, and is made with a mix of polenta and ground almonds.

I adapted the recipe to suit our tastes, but overall it is Choclette's cake recipe. I couldn't find any ground almonds, looks like I need to buy some more.

easy chocolate cake

Chocolate polenta cake
115g mixed chocolate (dark, milk and assorted)
150g butter (I used a mix of butter and margarine)
150g demerara sugar
50g dry polenta (for example, Polenta Valsugana)
2tbsp whisky (like Bell's)
20g cocoa powder
110g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
2 medium eggs

Melt all the chocolate in a deep bowl over hot simmering water, add the butter to the chocolate and let it melt too. Take off the heat. Mix in the sugar and polenta. Sift in the flour, cocoa and baking powder, and add whisky (or brandy). Finally beat in 2 eggs.
Line a spring cake tin with a cut out parchment paper circle, and oil the paper and the sides of the tin. Pour in the cake batter.
Place the cake tin in the oven preheated to 180C. Bake for about 40 minutes. Check if it's ready, using a wooden toothpick, if it comes clean, the cake is ready.

The aroma of chocolate wafting around the house was amazing.

easy chocolate cake

Sprinkle it with icing sugar before serving.
I baked the cake yesterday afternoon, and today there's hardly anything left. Looks like we all loved it.

easy chocolate cake recipe

I have a variation of a chocolate polenta cake recipe on my blog, which is gluten free.

Adding this recipe to #KitchenClearout linky hosted by Cheryl at Madhouse Family Reviews, as I managed to use a good amount of chocolate in this recipe.

Also joining in with Choclette's We Should Cocoa linky at Tin and Thyme with great thanks for reminding me just how good a chocolate polenta cake can be.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Photo diary: week 4 (project 365)

On Sunday morning I was still in bed, when super excited Eddie ran into my bedroom: "Mummy, snow! snow!" Ever an optimist, he was hoping for more snow and no school the next day. Alas, the snow melted by late afternoon, being all wiped off clean like a slate by an incessant drizzle.

On Monday I was returning home from the school run, and realised that our street was almost void of all traffic or parked cars, which basically never happens. It makes you think just how it must have looked like centuries ago (minus antennae and asphalt). Most of the houses in our street are 200-300 years old.

Our garden is starting to awaken a little bit, and I can see snowdrops poking their spiky green tops everywhere. I also spotted a few primroses and even a couple of crocuses.

The river Windrush has been put on a flood alert last week. A few days ago it even spilled out of its banks in the flood fields. On Wednesday it was raining almost non-stop. I snapped the river on the run home from school. These are raindrops on the camera.

The next day it felt very much like spring in the air, fresh and clean.

Friday is Eddie's favourite day of the week, as it's the beginning of a weekend, and also he has his best friend over after school, and the guys talk Minecraft and other important business. They asked me to buy a Cheese feast pizza for them, to which I added some ham, and they demolished it quickly. For dessert, they had a mango sorbet (Eddie's favourite ice cream).

After a quick grocery shopping and a visit to Gregg's for Eddie's weekly treat of a sausage roll, we came home, and I baked a chocolate polenta cake. The smell of chocolate was drawing people in the kitchen like a magnet, Sasha couldn't wait until the cake was ready. He kept poking into the kitchen, and I kept telling him to wait a bit. He was the first one to get a big slice of cake, when the cake was still warm.

best chocolate cake

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Toy Wonderama 500-pc jigsaw puzzle from Ravensburger

jigsaw puzzles as gifts

Years ago, when I was a young teacher, I accompanied a group of school kids on a visit to a private collector of toys. Their apartment was an astonishing museum of dolls and toys from all over the world. All walls were hidden behind the shelves with exhibits. It was a fascinating place. The collector knew so much about the history of toys, and children were very excited.
Why am I suddenly reminiscing about it?

Toy Wonderama 500-piece jigsaw puzzle from Ravensburger reminded me of that private museum.
This colourful puzzle will keep you entertained and engrossed for hours.

I started it, once my children were back in school after the winter holidays.

best jigsaw puzzles

This is the latest design from popular American artist Aimee Stewart.
The main image shows shelves, packed with vintage toys and games.

best jigsaw puzzles

You will find old-fashioned dolls there, vintage trains and airplanes, all kinds of vehicles and moving toys. Space age transport like rockets are crammed together with robots and fairground attractions as well as clockwork characters.

best jigsaw puzzle

Like all Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles, Toy Wonderama is made of high quality cardboard, with linen finish to minimise glare on puzzle image.

best jigsaw puzzles

It is suitable for 10+ years, but my 7-year-old was happy to help me with finding pieces.
The finished puzzle measures 49x36cm when complete.

This puzzle will make a lovely gift to any jigsaw puzzles fan.
Toy Wonderama was my first puzzle of 2018, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But then, I always enjoy Ravensburger puzzles, they are my way of relaxing.

Disclosure: I received the puzzle for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are my own.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Photo diary: week 3 (project 365)

Last week was mostly spent in bed, as both Sash and I were having a pretty bad cold or maybe a mild flu. Sasha seems to have recovered, I'm still convalescing.

Eddie is very partial to Gregg's sausage rolls, so as a Sunday treat I sometimes take him to the local Gregg's cafe. He deems their sausage rolls to be the best (alas, mine are apparently not as good).

We go across the bridge over the Windrush river every day on the way to school and back home. I love looking at the colourful houses, but always wonder if it's too damp to live there, with the river rushing just underneath the windows.

Many buildings in our town are related to the history of blanket making. Several houses in our street belonged to the Early family which owned the famous business including many mills in town. The Captain's Mill is now a block of flats. Every time I look at it in the evening, it reminds me of the paintings by Magritte (like Empire of Light, or Light and Dark).

This year Eddie takes guitar lessons at school. My husband has bought him a guitar of the wrong size (don't ask), and the teacher has kindly offered a guitar on loan for Eddie to practice at home. Here he is, playing the Minecraft theme.

I was feeling rotten all day, and didn't take any photos on Thursday, so here is the 2nd photo from the previous day.
Sash has been hardly eating at all, and to tempt him to have something, I baked a pine nut and chocolate chip honey cake.

Still quite unwell, I spend all the day at home. In the morning my husband took Eddie to school, and after school he went to stay at his friend's place and even had dinner there, which was a big relief for me, as I could hardly lift my head off the pillow.
This is one of the orchids in our kitchen.

My Mum told me I should cook some chicken soup to help fight the cold. Yes, Mum!
I've been cooking it and reciting to myself Maurice Sendak's classic "Chicken soup with rice":
In January
It's so nice
While slipping
On the sliding ice
To sip hot chicken soup
With rice.
Sipping once,
Sipping twice,
Sipping chicken soup
With rice.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Pine nut and choc chip honey cake

best honey cake

We woke up this morning to a miserly smattering of snow. On the way to school, I grabbed my camera, hoping to find a bit of snow, but the amount of frost was minuscule.
Sash is feeling poorly these couple of days and staying at home with high temperature and cough, and I am not feeling my best either. He is hardly eating anything, and I decided to bake a cake to tempt him to eat a little bit. He loves pine nuts and chocolate chips, so these would go in the cake for Sasha.

A couple of years ago I bought a WI Big Book of Baking for less than £3, and have bookmarked a few recipes to try. One of my non-resolutions for this year is to use my cook books a bit more.

This is my adapted version of a recipe for Honey and Pine Nut Cake.

best honey cake

Pine nut and choc chip honey cake
zest of 1 orange
2 medium eggs
100g caster sugar
50g honey (I used chestnut honey for flavour)
50g polenta (I use Polenta Valsugana)
175g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
4tbsp pine nuts (2 for batter and 2 for topping)
3tbsp chocolate chips
2tbsp natural yogurt
120g butter, melted

In a deep mixing bowl zest an orange, and beat two eggs with sugar and honey. Add polenta, sift in flour and baking powder.

Scatter 2tbsp of pine nuts and chocolate chips, and mix in well. Add yogurt and melted butter, and mix again.
Line a round spring cake tin with a parchment paper and slightly oil. Scoop in the cake batter.

Scatter the remaining pine nuts.
Place the cake tin in the oven preheated to 180C. Cook for about 40-45 minutes. The cake is ready, when a wooden toothpick comes clean. To prevent the pine nuts on the top of the cake from burning, cover the cake with a foil half way though cooking.

Eat warm or cold, with tea or coffee. It is very tasty,

honey cake, best honey cake

As I used the Italian chestnut honey, the aroma was absolutely amazing. Chestnut honey has a distinct flavour and smell, so if you're using plain honey, or mildly flavoured, like acacia honey, then you might want to add a tablespoon of cinnamon, or vanilla paste.

Yogurt was used to loosen the cake dough, but milk would be another option. I've seen a new Early Man competition on Yeo Valley products, so most likely will be buying their promotional products a lot, and will be using yogurt as much as possible too.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Emil of Lönneberga by Astrid Lindgren

I grew up with Astrid Lindgren's books, which are well-known and much loved in Russia. Here, in the UK, for some unfathomable reason, she is less popular. Quite a few times when I mentioned Astrid Lindgren to my British friends who have young children, they hardly recognised the name or even never heard of this brilliant Swedish writer. Some might recollect Pippi Longstocking, but that's about it.
There are so many books for young readers these days, which can only be described as dumbing down. They might be mildly amusing, but they lack in sensitivity, compassion, intelligence and learning.

Eddie and I spend every evening reading together before bedtime. I have been revisiting my childhood favourites including Karlson on the roof trilogy and recently - Emil of Lönneberga.
There are three volumes published by OUP - Emil and the Great Escape (translated by Lilian Seaton), Emil and the Sneaky Rat (translated by Susan Beard) and Emil's Clever Pig (translated by Michael Heron).
All three books are illustrated by Tony Ross. And while they are quite engaging, they lack the authentic flavour of the original Swedish illustrations by Björn Berg.

best children's books

I was disappointed with the OUP's translation of Karlson on the roof, but they did a good job with Emil's trilogy.

If you're not familiar with Emil, he is a 5-year-old boy (in the first book) who lives with his parents, younger sister Ida, farmhand Alfred and maid Lina at Katthult farm.
He "got up to more mischief than there were days in the year".

All the books are written with kind humour and compassion. Emil is truly mischievous but he's never nasty. He has a great talent of getting into trouble. To escape his father's wrath, Emil's Mum often takes him to the tool shed, where he locks the door on the inside. To pass the time, he carves wooden figures, and has acquired quite a collection.

He is smart and creative, resourceful and brave.
In one of the stories he saves Alfred by taking him in the sleigh through the snowstorm, when the adults refuse to act and say that there was nothing they could do, leaving Alfred to die of blood poisoning.
Alfred is very fond of Emil, he is like a big brother to him, and teaches him to swim and look after animals. Emil has a great affinity with animals.

For being a farmer's son, he accepts the brutal facts of life, but he also shows love and compassion to animals, like buying a lame hen that nobody wanted at the auction, or rescuing a piglet and raising it as a pet, and forbidding his father to slaughter it for Christmas.
The story about Piggy Beast - as the piglet is known in the family - is charming and endearing, and would warm the cockles of your heart.

Emil's parents have a big farm. Father Anton, is a church warden, who is portrayed as being stingy with money. He admonishes his wife Alma for wanting new shoes too often (once every ten years).
Alma, Emil's mother, is an inspirational lady, she is a fantastic cook, famous for her cooking throughout the region. She adores her children, and wouldn't hear any criticism of her darling Emil. She keeps writing journals about Emil's tricks, and always finds an explanation for his behaviour.

Then there is little Ida, who is mostly well-behaved. And there is a grumpy maid Lina who wants to marry Alfred and keeps pestering him about when they should get married She detests Emil (and the feeling is mutual). You feel sorry for her as well. Uneducated, she spends her days, working hard on the farm, getting up at 4.30am to milk the cows, and not even having a room of her own (she sleeps in the kitchen).

Reading Emil from Lönneberga trilogy is like stepping back in time, when life was moving at a slower pace, with the seasons. It has an old-fashioned feel to it.
Sharing these books with Eddie brought back fond memories. I was talking with my Mum on the phone and mentioned that I'm reading these books to Eddie, and she asked me Did you read about Lina's toothache and how they tried to help her?

These books stood the test of time, they are entertaining but also have serious themes which could be discussed with children (master-servants' relationship; poorhouses; lack of medical treatment).

Eddie loved these books, and I cannot recommend them highly enough. We were sad to say good bye to Emil, and wished there were more books in the series.

Have you read any of Emil's adventures?

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Wild rocket, pear and cheese soup

vegetarian soup recipe

This term Eddie is studying ancient Rome at school. We talked about foods they ate in the Roman empire, and I mentioned that rocket was one of the edible leaves they favoured.
While checking out the Sunday bargains at Waitrose earlier today, I've spotted a bag of wild rocket reduced to 25p and decided to cook soup for dinner. It is by no means a Roman recipe, especially that I use a potato in this soup, which obviously wasn't known in Europe until the 16th century.
But wild rocket would have been widely used by the Romans in salads, soups and stews.

I had a good rummage in the fridge to see which other greens and other veg I can find, and got half an onion from the day before when I fried potatoes with mushrooms, a few celery stalks, half a bag of spinach, and a handful of baby courgettes which were slightly past their best.
I also had a small chunk of cheese (Petite Basque, I think).

It reminded me of Three men in a boat and how they cooked an Irish stew, when they were putting all kinds of odds and ends together. This used to be one of my favourite books in early teens, though I haven't re-read it since then.

vegetarian soup

Wild rocket, pear and cheese soup
1/2 medium white onion
2tbsp olive oil
1 clove of garlic
1 medium potato, peeled and chopped
1 long celery stalk, chopped
about 80g of courgette
1 pear, peeled and chopped (I used a Conference pear)
1 bag of wild rocket (90g)
1/2 bag of baby spinach (about 60g)
a small chunk of cheese (about 50g)
1 cube of vegetable stock
sea salt

Finely chop half an onion, and fry it with olive oil for about 5 minutes, until golden brown. Add a finely chopped garlic and fry for another minute. Peel and chop one potato, and put in a pan with a stock cube, add the celery, courgette and pear, as well as onions and garlic, and pour enough water to cover all the vegetables. Cook for about 20 minutes, add rocket and spinach and grated cheese and cook for another 5 minutes. You might want to add more water if the soup is too thick.
Once cooked, blitz the soup with a hand blender and serve hot, with a spoonful of single cream, Greek style yogurt or soured cream (optional).
This is a tasty vegetarian soup.
For a vegan version, skip the cheese and any other dairy.

vegetarian meals, vegetarian soup

Adding this recipe to #KitchenClearout linky hosted by Cheryl at Madhouse Family Reviews, since like George from Three men in a boat I've added all sorts of odds and ends to this soup.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Photo diary: weeks 1 & 2 (project 365)

I stopped writing photo diary posts last year for several reasons, one of them being considerably less popular than recipe and review posts traffic-wise. But I missed taking part and looking at what the other bloggers where up to, so albeit later than I should have, I'm joining in again this year with Project 365.
With school holidays last week, I had no chance to do my first post, so here is a glimpse of our two weeks of taking photos, or not taking much, as in my case. I realised that most of my photos are food-related, and I must work on making an effort and taking different photos.

On the 1st of January I was pondering on my non-resolutions for the coming year, and doing some scribbles in a Moleskine journal, which was one of my Christmas gifts.

In the last couple of weeks Eddie got it into his head that he needs to wear a scarf at home. In fact, there is no need, the heating is on most of the day. But apparently it is more fun. OK then.

On the 3rd we baked nutty oat cookies and mostly moaned about going back to school on the coming Monday. Nobody was enthusiastic about the school.

easy cookies

I have several orchids in the kitchen, all of them gifts from different friends. Despite the kitchen being the coldest room in the house (it's the only one that doesn't have a double glazing), most of the orchids started to bloom. As I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, these blooms cheer me up and make me think of my lovely friends.

home plants, exotic plants

I am addicted to buying books set in Cornwall. Christmas in the Cornish cafe by Phillipa Ashley was one of recent purchases. It is a classic chick lit, with some darker undertones. It also has some recipes at the back of the book.
Macarons in the photo are, alas, not baked by me, but are there courtesy of M&S. I rarely buy them, as they cost an arm and a leg, but these were discounted. I have never made macarons in my life.

I don't often bother with porridge for breakfast, but I do sometimes fancy it for lunch or even dinner. Quaker Oats are running a creative competition these couple of months, and I have joined in with this photo. Porridge with sour cherries and pine nuts was as delicious as it looks.

Monday the 8th started early. Back to school and all that. Nobody was happy to get up early and get ready for school. Coming home, I had a morning all to myself, and I was trying to catch up on some of Christmas TV programmes which I missed, and started working on a new puzzle. Bliss.

Our garden looks quite bleak at the moment, there is no much to see, everything seems to be dormant, and waiting for spring, apart from a few brave blossoms.

Wednesday happened to be a sunny day, and Eddie and I came home from school, he went upstairs to change and then ran down excitedly to tell me about the disco room. The sun shone through the window opposite our bedroom, and reflected on the wall via the sparkly sequins on my Christmas jumper. It was pretty, and did look a bit like a disco party.

On Thursday Sash stayed overnight at a respite centre. He's only been there a few times before. We were offered two nights per month for him to stay there, so that we could all recharge batteries and potentially have a better sleep. He seems to enjoy staying there, as they have lovely facilities including a jacuzzi and an indoor hammock.
My husband was abroad, so it was just Eddie and me at home, which felt very strange. We decided to have a film night. I bought a big bag of popcorn, and we watched The Addams Family Values. It is very non-PC, but still funny.
That day I spotted this creepy doll in the local vintage shop. She does look like a Bride of Chucky.
Can't see many takers who would want to have such a cutie at home?!

Friday morning was misty and foggy, we walked to school and admired the flood fields by the river Windrush.

Nothing much happened today, we stayed at home. I cooked fried potatoes with wild mushrooms for dinner. We had a lazy day, and I was watching Victoria series 1 on Netflix, and that's my excitement for the day.