Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Canine dolorosa





Just to say that all the Mournful Dog of the Week pictures are now available in a handy Flickr set. If you need a bit of canine woe in your life.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Miscellany

This is just some unrelated oddments, to clear my conscience at my ongoing failure to update more regularly.


This is first born son's plateau aperitif, wholly designed and executed by him: surely a decently mixed martini cannot be too far away now? That drink is his own creation: lemon juice, water, sugar and red food colouring, much of which is now currently on the floor, the work surfaces and various parts of the dog, which is the price you pay for sub-contracting half-term childcare to the forces of Science (€100, entirely tax deductible, in a basement, they seem to be mainly playing wink murder). Out of shot there is also a cup filled with eggshells and vinegar, but I don't know what that's for and thought it politic not to ask. My children's ideal evening currently involves being in their pyjamas by 5pm and sitting in front of the television with a large tray of snacks. Genetics, eh.

Both children were required to dress up today for Mandatory Holiday Fun. Neither was initially enthused at the prospect, however Lashes remembered the dressing up shop in town with the plastic vomit and scorpion hats and other child-pleasing delights, so we went down there last night. It was packed with jolly revelers buying ... well. Polyester crap, mainly. They do have a really excellent selection of facial hair though: eyebrows, gigantic mutton chop whiskers, beards of all varieties (no photos, because an old man lurches over to mutter at you if you try. While I was in there, a woman asked him about cowboy hats. "Upstairs" he said. "But, do they have several styles, or just one?" she persisted, slightly pointlessly. "I don't know" he said. "I never go upstairs. Ever". End of conversation).

I found the children's 'outfit' choices quite puzzling, but they were at least relatively cheap. Lashes: "Freddie", Fingers: "un Italien".



(Not pictured: blood capsules and a selection of moustaches)


Also, who taught that child jazz hands?

"No one will guess my disguise", exulted Fingers this morning as I dropped him off. No, indeed.

Finally, finally! I have had a minor Amazon binge born of desperation and have things to read. I am including no Amazon links, because those bastards never paid me for months of free advertising, so I don't see why I should. I have already finished the new Sophie Hannah (marvellously creepy and compelling as ever), I am most of the way through Craig Taylor's Londoners which is lovely and gentle and sort of reminiscent of Studs Terkel, but with the aded bonus of making me homesick. I have Jeanette Winterson's memoir by the bed, which I am also very much looking forward to reading. I used to live directly opposite the tiny Spitalfields grocer Jeanette Winterson owns. It was managed by a lovely American man called Harvey who sold Pierre Marcolini chocolates and the most expensive single artichokes in the world and cups of coffee that took him ten minutes to brew with single minded food-autist love. Once a month or so, a Japanese chef would come in and cook dinner, which was amazing, if somewhat minimal nourishment-wise. Anyway. I never saw Jeanette there, so this anecdote is going precisely nowhere.

I have also got a couple of more 'research' reads, well, sort of: Graham Robb's Parisians, and Zarafa by Michael Allin, which is about the first giraffe in France. An animated film of this story has just come out, which I did not know until after I ordered the book, but I can see why: it's a magical sort of tale. Zarafa WALKED from Marseille to Paris in 1826, accompanied by 4 Egyptian handlers, 2 antelopes, some cows, and zoologist Etienne Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire, who kept a sort of diary of the trip. Imagine living along the route she walked and suddenly seeing a giraffe. It must have been mind-blowing. It is full of sweet bits from accounts of the journey, like this from Lyons:

"Today the giraffe toured a part of the city, accompanied by her keepers, a numerous picket of police and a great crowd of the curious. The courteous animal did not fail to visit the Prefect, who accorded her the welcome due to a beautiful stranger. In order to protect her from the cold temperature she was dressed in a mantle of waxed taffeta".

I also like this:

"One can say that the Giraffe has nothing elegant or graceful in the detail of her forms; her short body, her high and close-together legs, the excessive length of her neck, the declivity of her back, her badly-rounded rump and her long and bare tail, all these things contrast in a shocking manner; she seems badly built, unbalanced on her feet, and yet one is seized by astonishment at the sight of her, and one finds her beautiful without being able to say why".

(There's a bit in the Tiger's Wife which reminds me of this, where the narrator's grandfather gets her out of bed and forces her to come and look at an elephant walking along a street. I liked the Tiger's Wife a great deal).


Any other business:

1. Wednesday was characterised by a long and tedious fight with my mobile telephony provider, necessitating 3 trips to The Mobile Phone Shop of Despair, and an hour on the phone on hold to the insurers, with the end result that I am many hundreds of Euros poorer, no longer in possession of a shit, duplicitous insurance policy and possibly suffering from catastrophic hypertension. I do, however, have a functioning telephone which is a novelty.

2. I have manned up and booked a dentist's appointment after (ssssh) four years, despite my galloping dental phobia. Since I have had to accompany both my children to the dentist in the last fortnight, it seemed like the least I could do. Lashes is currently in the starting blocks for long and fiscally painful orthodontic treatment and I am girding my loins for much wailing, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, since (i) it is no fun (ii) Lashes could not be described as my most stoic child by any stretch of the imagination; and (iii) Even if he wasn't, a fixed metal plate on his palate is unlikely to be enjoyable for a thumbsucker. Honestly, we should campaign for the aesthetic recognition of British Teeth. Grey and wonky: it's the way forward. If the worst comes to the worst, we can all just live on milkshakes, yes?

3. Tested this place for a job yesterday and it is bloody lovely. Go there, Brussels people.



I took lots of pictures to celebrate the fact I FINALLY had a working telephone, mainly of the plates, which excited a vein of crockery lust in me. (You can CHOOSE your plate off the shelf. Joyful).






4. I am going to London next week - at last! One of my key tasks is to collect a box of 24 Peanut Butter Chunky KitKats that a kind lady is keeping for me (you have been looking without success for the elusive PBCKK? That is why. I have a team of, erm, one highly trained operative buying and stockpiling them for my personal 'use'). The others mainly involve eating and drinking with my lovely friends and going to see the Hockney exhibition, so it will be a trip of limited hardship, I think. However, it is my first trip since mid-December and after that length of absence I usually walk the streets slowly and obstructively in a beatific daze, tipping my hat to passers-by and occasionally breaking into short freestyle tap dance sequences incorporating lampposts and police officers. I try to strike up conversations in Boots, smile at strangers and stand in the middle of the street and marvel at the ready availability of Indian food and cheap chocolate. Thus, it is highly likely I will get stabbed. If you don't hear from me again, you know why.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

A wearying over-familiarity with mince

In a tensely negotiated compromise which has spared me from the blood-curdling prospect of "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked", I write to you this afternoon from Manga Zone. It is cold in Manga Zone, so cold, and the sound of the teenagers killing each other on Xboxes blends, well, not even slightly with the Japanese nursery rhymes on the stereo. Manga Zone smells of nascent testosterone, gravy and Clearasil. I have just been to use the lavatories, and they look and smell like French service station conveniences circa 1983. I think that might be the first time that the loo seat has even been put down. Once more, I am spending my Sunday afternoon here and I am as "bored as a dead rat", as the French expression goes. Manga Zone does, however, have a wifi network (and let me also say, the staff are astonishingly lovely), so at least I can try and update my weblog more than once this week.

Ten things I did not anticipate on having children:

1. Attendance at places as not-at-all varied as: Manga Zone, Tokyo Gym, that Japanese shop in town that sells infantile plush animals, fetish maid outfits and samurai swords in one small, and mystifyingly popular space.

2. A wearying over-familiarity with mince. And ketchup. And the Quick menu of cheap, unhappy livestock, deep fried.

3. Viewing Richard Hammond as a largely benign force in my life (due to his ability to distract my children for hours at a time with the seemingly irresistible sight of people being felled with giant foam poles).

4. Being proved to be an irrational, arbitrary, angry dickhead almost daily in one way or another to the point where I often have to retreat to the loo to have a long hard word with myself about my dickishness.

5. Saying "YOU NEED TO FINISH YOUR NUGGETS FIRST", ever, in any context.

6. Genuinely considering sleeping on a campsite (a campsite! Toe fungus and barbecues and dehydrated noodles and plastic thong sandals and freezing concrete shower blocks!) to ensure my children can spend their Easter holidays washing giant tortoises and clipping lemurs' toenails (here. It is a long way from Brussels).

7. Enjoying sniffing another person's head even when it smells at various times of hamster bedding, tramps and antiquarian manuscripts.

8. Becoming that person that shouts impotently at the television. "I LOATHE THIS, I SIMPLY CANNOT BEAR IT", then huffing away to listen to Bach and read poetry (Inazuma Eleven, I am looking at you here, you piece of shit).

9. Bidding for Pokemon cards on Ebay, lost minutes after their much fêted arrival.

10. Realising I can no longer divide 17,500 by 25 without electronic assistance.

Actually, there's one more.

There's the feeling you get when you're waiting for the children outside school (just once a week, in my case) and they come out, wrapped up and staggering under heavy school bags and you can see them searching for you, looking around all the waiting adults with that slight lost look, that vague anxiety, until they spot you, see you waving (discreetly, so as not to be an embarassment) and smile, properly smile, their studied casualness falling away despite themselves. And all the guilt and inadequacy and fretting about trying to do a decent job and trying to know what's right, and sensible, what's not enough, or too much, falls away temporarily, because in that moment, you've done absolutely the right, the only thing for them just by showing up. Because sometimes showing up is actually enough.

(Five seconds later they might very well be telling me not to wear that coat again, please, maman, you look like a witch. But I try to cling onto those five seconds of feeling I've done ok a week.)

Friday, 17 February 2012

Levity fail

See, this is the thing. I wanted to post something light and funny after the last one, but I've struggled to find anything jolly, because I seem to have spent the week in a mope of useless, soggy melancholy.

I have cried at the TV. I have cried at the planting of a memorial potted palm for a woman I had never met in the gulag schoolyard (the intended oak tree did not arrive in time, but the resultant palm-based farce didn't overwhelm the pathos). I have cried at the Elderly Animals. I have cried at the death of Dory Previn to an overwhelming extent, walking the dog through the drizzly shit-strewn streets of grey Uccle with tears streaming down my face, again and again. Like a lunatic.

But oh, Dory Previn. Mythical Kings and Iguanas was my favourite of my mum's albums when I was little (probably because of the mention of iguanas). I didn't understand 90% of the lyrics but I liked the word pictures she made, and her voice, and Mary C Brown, and, well, everything, somehow. It's one of the few records I am inadvertently word perfect on decades later - that, a selection of my dad's Frank Sinatras. I don't know, there's something bizarrely moving about the music your parents listened to when you were little, those long-gone moments when you were all other people, but not. There is for me, anyway.

Dory Previn for me is going back to the time when I would have been about five, or six or seven; when our sitting room was still on the first floor. On Saturday evenings mum would wash my hair in the kitchen sink (often to the accompaniment of Dory Previn), me lying along the draining board, then I would have cold chicken from Marks & Spencer for tea, and go upstairs to watch The Muppets, then Doctor Who sitting on the scratchy chaise longue in my nightie. It was the time when it was just the two of us living together and I suppose when you really can't go back to time and place, when there's no one to talk about it with, you look at those periods with a particular reverence, a particular consciousness of what you've lost. I remember it as being such a sure, happy time but when I think of it, my mum was on her own with me and not much money and her life was in flux and chaos. How did she do it? I don't think I've managed to give my children that same insouciant confidence, that certainty of everything being fundamentally ok, in my chaotic and sad times. Anyway, it's been odd. It evoked my mum in a very particular time and place and made me miss her very concretely, somehow. Look, here we are. I definitely chose that outfit myself. That is not York, if you were wondering.



And here we are twenty years later. Look at her arm on my shoulder. I have that black vest she's wearing now, I wore it earlier this week. I have the baby still too. He's a tiny bit larger now.




And here is lovely Dory singing Mary C. Brown. This one didn't make me cry, incidentally.

All that to explain that I really didn't want to do sad, and sad is all I have. I don't know. What could I tell you about? There has been the usual quotient of farce, new shoes, a small war with a town in the Ardennes (don't ask, they're winning) and an endless stream of domestic tedium. We have learnt two poems (one about spring, one about the water cycle, both execrable), and how to say "plumber" in Dutch and the school heating has broken, leading to logistical chaos. Half term is upon us now, thanks to the extra bonus day of heating related holiday tomorrow, and I am very cross about it. The fuses keep blowing, the loo is blocked, I suspect by a balloon, or some Lego, the dog is coated in a fine layer of park mud (50% shit by volume, I fear) and thoroughly enervated by the children playing Raving Rabbits. Satan - someone expressed concern about Satan - is fine. He survived the arctic temperatures with great rodenty indifference and is treating the rain with the same "Satan don't give a shit" attitude he treats everything. I feel a deep gratitude to Satan. He shows up twice a day, snatches comestibles out of your hand, shits copiously everywhere and vanishes until he gets hungry again. This is everything I need from a pet really. Both boys are currently agitating for rats, which I consider a slight improvement on the previous bids for reptiles.

Most of my entertainment this week has come from my email folder, which has offered me, for instance, today, this excellent opportunity: "help us carry a giant fox sculpture through the streets of Antwerp!". Well. Your offer obviously appears very attractive, but I really need to know a little more. HOW giant is this fox? Is it really, really gargantuan? Will I be able to sit on it? Be carried through the streets of Antwerp on its back? Because on the picture you attach, the man appears to be carrying a really very modestly sized fox. Fox sized, I would be tempted to say. And when you say "help us", can you actually promise me I will get a turn of the actual carrying? I do, I must say, like the programme of events which states, tersely, and without further explanation:

Autopsy
Moulding
Procession
Taxidermy
Recreation

You interest me, TELL ME MORE.

My other email favourite is the "Grand Prêtre Vadou avec action dans l'Immediat" who has offered to make a pact with the devil on my behalf in order to guarantee my happiness. Even the email title was winning: VOICI LA SOLUTION POUR TOUS VOS PROBLEMES SPIRITUELS (HERE IS THE ANSWER TO ALL YOUR SPIRITUAL PROBLEMS). Really? Even insistent vague malaise at lack of concrete achievements? Because I could get behind that. I like that kind of certainty in an internet scammer and really, who in this day and age is willing to commit to the level of customer service that a pact with Satan involves? A very tempting offer and no mistake. Also, voodoo high priests are nothing if not practical because this one has attached a price list. It is full of things I want to put on my Amazon wish list, like hypnotic talismans, special perfumes to make your wife come back and forgive you, cures for syphilis and gonorrhea and a miraculous handkerchief that ensures you are never short of money (interestingly, this comes in two strengths: "simple puissance" and "haute puissance". I'll take one of each!). All yours for several thousands of dollars in a currency I am unable to identify with certainty. His website is down, apparently, but email orders are welcomed. Can you resist? I am not at all sure I can. I wonder how he is with teeth?

There is also an email in my inbox currently entitled "Uniform for Pygmy Lizard Army", but I feel that is a story for another day.

What would YOU like a voodoo priest to bring you? Or what did your parents listen to and how does it make you feel now?

Friday, 10 February 2012

Always eat pudding

I have gone off on a tangent in the thing I am attempting to write, and that tangent has, for once, not involved staring into space and googling 'tarsiers', but has taken me to go and look up the psychiatrist I saw for a year when I was twenty one. It's ok, it's not supposed to be that kind of thing I'm writing: god, that would be amazingly boring and awful. Mainly it's about cake, honest.


Being twenty one, self-absorbed and miserable, I don't think I really gave him much thought at the time: Once a fortnight I took the train from Waterloo East out to grimy Hayes in Kent, and wrangled with him about whether porridge with water, a pitta bread and steamed vegetables was enough food, or whether I was chewing too much chewing gum for its laxative properties. Then I would go back to my rather solitary existence between the chilly beauty of the Radcliffe Camera library and my neat college room and read novels and scrutinise my hips, or go driving around the unlovely Oxford ring road, distant and distracted, in my tiny car. I would write a minutely accurate, neat diary of everything I ate for him, and bring it in the next time, proud not to have "cracked" and binged; proud of the meagre, controlled, ricecakes and apples existence documented in my green squared notebook. I had kept to the rules; I liked rules.


But he was there, and he was a safety valve of sorts, and the thought of him kept me going for the remainder of those fortnights. More than that, I liked him: he was tough enough, but he was also kind, and pragmatic, and he had a dry, understated sense of humour. I got the impression he was never terribly worried about me; that he thought this - the bulimia, my very shut-down, tidy unhappiness - was just a hiccup, it was all going to be fine. Maybe that was part of the way he operated, part of the therapeutic process: from my perspective it was both helpful and hopeful. Soon, his demeanour seemed to say, your life will crack open in unimaginable, thrilling ways, you'll escape this shell of caution and there will be other, infinitely more important things in your life than the shape of your thighs.


In reality, it took me a very long time to shake most of those habits I was stubbornly encoding in my mental hard drive. I have now, I think, 16 years later, but for years I could still find a rather sterile sort of comfort in cutting down on food, drinking too much coffee, feeling the hard reassurance of the prominent bones of my sternum. It did get better, yes. Life happened, and things changed and my priorities shifted. Even so, I still had occasional relapses as recently as 2008 and it's only in these last, what? Three years? (such a short time!) That I have felt largely free of food anxiety, neurosis, oddness. Even now, I'm not completely complacent: I got fat (or rather, fat for me) this summer, from being anxious and sedentary and drinking too much, and it ate away at me. I felt lost, worthless, not myself. Eating disorders are opportunistic: when you're low, they can creep back. They're hard to shake completely.


Anyway, the point is, the seeds of shaking mine lie with Gerald Russell, and I was thinking about him, and I looked him up. He's retired now, as you'd expect, at 84. I knew already that he was rather venerable, and responsible for the clinical definition and first description of bulimia, but I knew nothing more, so I had a poke around the dusty corners of the internet. I came across this rather extraordinary interview with him, which I think gives a small sense of the fantastically humane and lively person I met back then. He was born in Belgium, which rather delighted me, for obvious reasons. He fled to France in 1940 with his family and was evacuated via Dunkirk ("a horrible experience"). He describes a vicious air raid before they left, and uses the rather memorable, and very particular, phrase "it was the first time I personally stepped on a body".


(I also rather like the deadpan description of why he ended up specialising in eating disorders:

"When I moved back to the Maudsley, all the dyslexics seemed to be living north of the river in London and they wouldn't cross the river. Whereas the anorexic patients did cross the river".)


Anyway. He seems to be a rather extraordinary man and I am exceptionally grateful to have stumbled into his consulting room: I would have crossed a lot of rivers to see him. You would have thought he might have better things to do than treat yet another tightly wound middle class perfectionist, but he gave no hint of it. I remember almost nothing we talked about, but I remember he was practical and funny. He didn't seem much to care about my childhood or my inner torment: he was very much about fixing, and that seemed like oxygen in my suffocatingly careful existence. I only remember one specific piece of advice, or instruction he ever gave me, and it was this:


"I think you should always eat pudding. I always eat pudding".


There was some rationale to it, I recall: it was punctuation: a full stop at the end of a meal, to tell your brain that you had finished. But mainly I liked the glorious, happy simplicity of it. Always eat pudding.


So I do. Because I still like rules, maybe more than I should. But now I also like puddings.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Trop choux

I owe you a fuller explanation of the religieuse making. This post and the process of making religieuses have something in common, which is that they are both outlandishly long, and by the end, you will be wondering why you bothered. This post will not be surprisingly tasty for breakfast, however. Let us plough on, regardless.

Are you ready to make religieuses, people? That rather depends how you feel about weighing water. How do you feel about the weighing of water? I was a water-weighing sceptic, but that was before we got to the weighing of egg yolks. Anyway. If Pierre says we weigh water, we weigh water. He knows.

So.

Choux pastry ingredients: 280g of water. 1/2 tbsp of caster sugar. A pinch of salt. 130g of softened butter. 160g flour (I love how he doesn't give a shit what kind of flour you use. He's terse. 'Flour. From a shop'.) 5 eggs. An egg for .. what do you call that? When you brush the top of something with an egg wash? Doesn't much matter, I totally forgot about it.

Here's the water and the butter and the sugar and the salt. It was all going ok at this stage.



You heat it to boiling point, then you put the flour in. Then you're supposed to "dry the dough" with a spatula, to "roast the dough". No, me neither. How would that work exactly? I moved it around a bit.



Then you put it in your mixer at the slowest possible speed to cool it down.



Once it's cool you shove 5 eggs in one by one until your dough is "smooth and supple". This is slightly tense because of eggs being unpredictable little shits. It went fine though. I was feeling superhuman at this point.

Obviously, I do not have a "poche à douille unie" (piping bag with, uh, a plain tip. Like a normal circle one, I suppose). I have a freezer bag. An honest, sturdy freezer bag.



Slightly too sturdy. This was the first bad moment, when I had to shout Lashes for some scissors, because someone had taken the kitchen scissors and in their place were some kind of round tipped infant scissors that could not cut the bag.

"Hein?"

"SCISSORS! You must have some in your school bag?"

"Hein?"

"SCISS. ORS"

"....."


"OH FINE, NEVER MIND".

I tore the corner off somehow with a blunt knife and the infant scissors. Then I was supposed to put 6 centimetre blobs and 3 centimetre blobs on a baking tray. Oh yes, this is the bit I forgot. "Dorer le dessus des choux avec l'oeuf battu". I didn't bother with that. It didn't seem to matter unduly. I put them in at 190°C NON FAN ASSISTED. This seemed to be important. Are you bored yet?


(yes, I made some eclair shapes too. The less said about those the better)


Around now the children materialised in the kitchen.

"What are you doing?"

"Making religieuses".

"Why?"

"I have, quite literally, no idea any more. It seemed like a good idea".

"Can we have some breakfast?"

"Must you? Can't you just forage for twigs or something?"

By the time I had ungraciously fed my children, the choux buns were all risen and puffy and gratifying. This was the best bit of the whole process.

I stroked them lovingly.




After that there was a lengthy break for cooling, as instructed by Pierre. He probably goes off to compose a symphony or make love to a dozen beautiful women. We went to the park where the children frightened me by walking on the pond, like the "before" shot in a doom-laden seventies safety information video.

"But, mum, it's only 5 centimetres deep. And it's frozen solid".

"It doesn't matter! Terrible things might happen! I HAVE SEEN THE FILM ABOUT THE BUILDING SITE".



It was a relief to get home until I remembered I had to tackle the incredibly terse instructions on the religieuse filling.


Filling ingredients: 140g cream, 1 Nespresso "Dulsao do Brasil" coffee capsule (it's a Nespresso tie in book, the one I got the recipe from. "83 astonishing ways with a used Nespresso capsule", if you will), 35g of egg yolk, 25g caster sugar, 1 sheet of gelatine, 90g of cream beaten 3/4.

First, I was supposed to open a Nespresso capsule and put the granule bits with some cream. Obviously I did not do that, (a) because it sounds weird, and (b) because the children would not eat coffee eclairs, which would potentially leave me with twelve to eat. Feasible but unwise.

I did not understand the next instruction. "Make a custard with the cream and the coffee", it said. "Réaliser une crème anglaise". There was no further or clarificatory instruction for that bit, but then it said "Add the beaten egg yolks, and the sugar". Add them to what? Also, 35g of egg yolk is a puzzling instruction, but someone helpful on Twitter indicated that an egg yolk is approximately 17g, so I used three. Yes, I know that doesn't actually make 35g. Or anywhere near. And that 2 would have been more accurate. I don't really know what to say, I was working on the "more is more" principle, I suppose.

It was getting a bit desperate at this point. I consulted Trish, who gave me wise advice I was slightly too late to use but would totally follow if I ever did this again (ha), so I ploughed on.

Using my excellent knowledge of basic culinary techniques, hem hem, I tried to make a normal custard by, like, heating the cream I had not added the coffee granules to, then adding the egg yolk and sugar mixture. I used more sugar than Pierre. It was a mistake.



"Chauffer à 84°C" said the instructions. Without a thermometer or indeed any information or experience at my disposal, I decided 84°C was probably somewhere just around unbearable to touch, so I kept putting my finger in to test the temperature. Extremely accurate. It did not curdle anyway, and I did as instructed and sieved it into a cold bowl. It was far, far too sweet, but at least looked a bit like custard.

"Blend with the gelatine leaf, that you have previously softened by soaking in water".

Now. The obvious problem here would have been forgetting to soak the gelatine. But I totally ACED that, despite the instruction appearing far, far down the page in an act of culinary trickery. I added the gelatine and blended, not wholly assisted by a series of ill-timed phone calls and interventions from the children inconsiderately demanding food, again.

There are no photos of the following phases because I was getting cross by this point.

I put the bowl in the fridge to set. I whipped my cream"3/4". I was ready.

I allowed several hours to elapse, as instructed. Boring, twitchy hours during which I cut all the choux buns in half, and still had time to watch several episodes of Inazuma Eleven. There is no excuse for this.

Finally, I went to poke my custard. It was almost entirely liquid.

I waited another hour. It was still largely liquid. I decided to whip the cream I was supposed to whip "3/4" all the way to the full 4/4 whipped. Then I took my eye off it momentarily to resolve an argument about the full moon and it turned into cheese. I started again. During all this time the custard remained stubbornly liquid.

I made some royal icing. It was no time for fancy. In a fit of defiance, I tried to make a small subset of the icing coffee flavoured by putting a teaspoon of coffee granules into the already mixed up icing sugar and water. It did not go well.

I gave up and mixed the second lot of 4/4 whipped cream with the runny custard and shoved it in the choux buns. With a spoon. I only did 6 in total because I was heartily sick of the whole process by then, and I was not sure whether the extremely volatile cream/custard mixture would stay in them.

Then I put some royal icing to sandwich them together, and an inelegant blob of icing on the top. I added hundreds and thousands, to distract the eye, and attract the magpie attention of the children.



In fairness both to M. Marcolini and to me, the children really enjoyed them, which was a good thing since I was far too broken to make any kind of decent dinner. But then they enjoy paprika crisps and Knacki hot dogs, so I wouldn't call them high priests of culinary discernment.

Finally, when I had chased the children up to bed with sticks and fallen over the dog and had a small gin, I cleaned up the kitchen and found, stuck to the bottom of the my bowl of water where I had been soaking the gelatine, approximately 9/10s of the gelatine sheet. Which explained a lot.

So there you have it: Pierre Marcolini's Religieuses aux Café sans café. Lacking some .. gelatinousness. Even so, and astonishing to me, I could probably be convinced to make them again.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Food, giant insects and despair

This is a poor excuse for a post, apologies, and I will go through the Religieuse Challenge in more detail when I have located my will to live, but just as an initial comment: choux pastry? Ridiculously, gratifyingly easy. The rest? Not so much.


Fuckyeahreligieuses
(Sort of)
(Depends who's asking)
(No one tell Pierre, right?)
(The children liked them anyway)


I think the global sum of mental health in the world has been depleted by this exercise and would have been better served by me deciding to spend Sunday under a blanket with a nice book, but there we have it. Also, when I came into the kitchen on Monday morning, I realised two cupboards had somehow been broken during the religieuse-arama. I think I was in some kind of higher, shamanic pastry-based state because I have no idea how it happened. Maybe the children did it when I was begging specialist advice on the terse Marcolini instructions? Or possibly I just leant especially heavily on the hob in my custard thickening despair. That could definitely have happened, there were several periods of custard related despair. Doesn't explain what happened simultaneously to the shelf in the shower though. Maybe my heavy, heavy head came to rest there for a moment.


In other household disintegration news, I have spent the last three days in pitched battle with the fire, like a particularly ill-trained and feckless parlourmaid. The fire has decided it does not "do" flames anymore. No, the fire - which is one of those ones with a glass door, I do not know what they are called in English, a poêle, here - is quite content to swallow any quantity of kindling, firelighters, wood, coal or strange briquette things, and transform them all into an Anthony Gormley style box of dense smoke. When I open the door, there is definite evidence of smouldering, and eventually whatever fuel or live sacrifice I have despairingly thrown into its depths gets transformed into a pointless mound of pale ash, but there is no discernible heat, and no flames. The only time in the last ten days when I have raised a hint of flame from its inky depths was when I entirely forgot about it for a few hours on Sunday due to excess shouting and pâtisserie. This feat has not been repeated. I find the whole thing particularly galling, because I was raised setting fires in icy, damp Yorkshire grates with little more than some Seabrook crisps, one hopeful shard of kindling and a sodden Yorkshire Post to aid me. This thing is supposed to be modern and labour saving, but in fact it is just mocking me.


In fairness to the religieuses, the empty choux that I couldn't be bothered to fill came in handy for nibbling when I realised this afternoon I hadn't eaten for 24 hours. I have been worrying disproportionately and appetite-destroyingly about a relatively minor work crisis. The crisis has resolved itself without death or litigation, but I feel a bit bruised. I can't remember if I was always this bad at dealing with mild disagreement, or if I've got even softer and more pathetic with all the time I spend in the attic by myself watching Youtube videos of small primates. Either way, my friends were lovely and supportive and generally amazing with my pathetic whinging, so thank you my friends.


In particular Madevi and I calmed our various neuroses by listing foods we would eat on our planned Facegoop trip to Paris at Easter. I say 'Facegoop', though in fact there is no beauty planned, just eating and possibly chasing a fat pony round the Tuileries to rub our faces on it. I realised this week that most of our conversations revolve around food (after some discussion, we concluded that if we subscribed to Klout, which neither of us understand, we would be authorities in the following categories: "food, giant insects and despair"). The food listing was a very calming exercise, I recommend it, if you are greedy and Tuesday is kicking you in the face.

Our combined Paris eating list:

Du Pain et des Idées croissants with beurre aux cristaux de sel
Lebanese galette "oozing with cheese and fresh mint"
"A really good saucisson with some very good cheap red wine"
The famous cappucino eclair from Cacao et Chocolat - except OH GOD IT HAS GONE BROKE WHAT NOW? I will substitute with the Ladurée St Honoré aux framboises, but M will disagree.
"A good roast chicken, with potatoes roasted in the chicken fat".
Sadaharu Aoki .. anything, really. Petits fours. A Bamboo. Whatever. Three of everything will do nicely.
Tomato salad with a chèvre frais and a baguette.
Frisée and lardons
Everything from Pierre Hermé's Infiniment Vanille range.
Panini from a place M knows near St Eustache, dusted with parmesan and drizzled with good oil.
A really caramelised, chewy palmier biscuit
The mythical Délice Café that I ate nearly every day when I lived in Paris, even though I tried it when I last went back and it is Not All That.


What would you eat today and where, if you could?

Friday, 3 February 2012

An inordinate fondness for bathmats




I have been away for the night, reviewing a hotel (bloggist's note: I know this sounds incredibly fortunate, and it is, but let me just say that I have been doing this particular job for four months and this is the first time I have actually managed to persuade a hotel to let me stay there in order to review them. Allow "asking for things" to be added to the list of things I am bad at. Admittedly I also got free some beef cheeks last week but I neither wanted, nor asked for them).

It was wonderful, but of course now I am staring angrily around me and wondering where my aperitif and fluffy bathrobe are, whereas in fact I am surrounded with the following: 8 assorted novelty slippers, an empty Actimel carton, a mysterious wizened half lemon on the coffee table, 4 glasses, several miles of cabling and a copy of 'Le Big Livre de l'Incroyable' (which I despise and the children love, as it is basically a 21st century freakshow: spider babies, 5 legged calves, and pictures of people lifting aeroplanes with their earlobes). Hidden just out of view, I feel confident in predicting, are at least 7 socks of assorted vintage.

It was ridiculously beautiful. A baby chateau in the middle of nowhere in the Ardennes, an aesthetically pleasing dusting of sparkly snow, huge fires, and a deserted, elegant spa where I splashed like a toddler, and floated, silently on my back, watching the snow gather and drift on the glass roof. Ridiculous. So much so that I took 41 fuzzy iphone photographs of the bath and another 23 of the view (endless miles of Ardenne forest, frosty pale red sun), then four of the floor and one of large onion in my excitement. Shortly after that, I got accidentally drunk on two glasses of wine and the strangeness of eating alone in an entirely deserted restaurant and spent the remainder of the evening nearly blinding myself on the artful arrangements of twigs when I tried to look out of the window (I NEED TO LOOK AT THE BEEYOOTIFUL VIEW! Oh! It's dark! Ouch, twig! Rinse and repeat).



(My actual view from my actual bedroom. Twigs not included)

Also, compulsively moving the bathmats here and there. I only know I did this because I kept finding them this morning. Bathmat on the windowsill. Bathmat under my pillow. Bathmat on the desk. So many bathmats. I didn't know I felt so strongly about bathmats.



(Bathmats)

Mmmm, I miss the bathmats now I am home, where no one has offered me pink prosecco, or lovingly placed a small card with weather forecast on my bedside table, and where there is unaccountably no roll top bath with a view of snow dusted pines.

All is not lost, however: I do have a view of snow. Depending on the window, I can choose from: snow dusted Ikea bargain corner garden chair with a bin bag as a makeshift rabbit feeding shelter and a kilner jar of abandoned worms courtesy of eldest child, or snow dusted old kitchen sink, with three pots of dead hyacinths. Both of these views are intermittently accessorised with snow dusted furious gigantic rabbit. Snow makes everything pretty, even Satan. I also have a reserve of Peanut Butter Chunky Kit Kats that I suppose I could slice and place on my own pillow. I am only limited by my own imagination, really, and by not possessing an exquisite château in the Ardennes and a private income.

Also, I have the most barbaric hangover for a person who drank two glasses of wine. Two! It's like a medieval punishment for having a nice time. This hangover was calibrated by John Knox and refined on a lengthy journey on a rail replacement bus with several of the smelliest men in the Ardennes and a furious two year old. It peaked after my return home during a dual bill of Inazuma Eleven, topped off with "New Zealand World Records" featuring some Kiwis trying to shove 16 people into a Smart car, accessorised with some light DS related thumping from my beloved offspring. It is now gently declining, since I have sent everyone to bed in disgrace, including myself.

As a result of the foregoing, I have nothing else to offer tonight. However! This weekend I want, and intend, to challenge Pierre Marcolini's assertion that "the best patisserie is the patisserie you make at home" by attempting to make something out of his new book. I think we will all enjoy that, except, possibly, Pierre Marcolini, but we can just agree not to tell him, right?

Should I make:

A soufflé ("you will succeed every time with this soufflé" says Marcolini, a shade over-optimistically, I fear);

A flan ("revisited for the greater happiness of flan lovers"); or

A religieuse (this recipe includes the casual instruction: "réaliser une crème anglaise" as if this were a thing I did daily. I have a carton of crème anglaise. Will this do?)


Answers on a postcard.


(Belgians, rich ones with Commission salaries and an advantageous tax status, the hotel was this one. I would weep with joy if someone took me there, really.)

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Good/bad

Goodness, all the old gang are back blogging: Antonia, Mrs T, and, I have only just realised, the Bendicks Bittermint brilliant Non-Working Monkey. There is nothing more pleasurable than realising someone whose blog you love has been industriously churning out posts for the last few weeks with their small, simian paws and you have a delicious backlog to read. The NWM and I met once in Paris early last year and it was very very funny. The memory of that makes me quite angry that we don't live on the same continent. Anyway, she is back. Vive the internet circa three years ago.

I liked the Non-Working Monkey's television reviews particularly (re. Julianna Margolies in The Good Wife: "She has won over 142 Emmys for her performance which remains exactly the same from episode to episode") and her list of things she is good and bad at. I would like to read other people's, I think. What are you good and bad at? Mine, after some thought, goes:

BAD AT:

1. Arguing
Poor grasp of logic, take things too personally, uncomfortable with all forms of conflict, even purely theoretical ones undertaken for "fun". It is not "fun" for me to have to argue about anything, even about which is better, a KitKat or a Twix (I DON'T KNOW. Whichever you prefer). It distresses me. Imagine for a second what a great lawyer I was.

2. Maths
Astonishingly bad. Get nine year old's homework wrong bad. This wouldn't be quite so shameful if my father didn't have a motherfucking theorem/equation/thingy named after him. I tried to go and look at it experimentally, but it fried my brain. God, he knows proper stuff, that is useful to the universe. I have slightly depressed myself.

3. Parking without panicking and crying and breaking wing mirrors.

4. Driving without panicking and crying and breaking wing mirrors.

5. Painting my nails.

6. Games. All of them. Ones with balls especially.

7. Complaining. See: arguing.

8. Thinking up meals. Ugh. Let's have fishfingers again.

9. Going to the Post Office even though it is actually fine and there is almost never a queue.

10. Accepting criticism.

11. Talking to strangers.

12. Using the telephone.



GOOD AT:

1. Reading aloud to children

2. Spelling

3. Touch typing

4. Compiling Christmas stockings

5. Meeting deadlines. I put this down to all those years of being shouted at by boggle eyed bankers to produce 9000 pages of pharmaceutical industry due diligence on time.

6. Writing work emails that sound considered, and thoughtful, when in fact they are written in 5 seconds while watching You Tube videos of sloths.

7. Maintaining steely indifference in the face of spiders/mice/rats/ferrets/snakes/earwigs/wormy things/pretty much anything living.

8. Maintaining a strong stomach in the face of dog or child effluvia of all kinds.

9. French.

10. Remembering shop or restaurant names and addresses.

11. Remembering the ridiculous ephemera the children are supposed to take to school on particular days. I am basically extremely cowed by all forms of authority and thrive on mindless deference to rules. This is not a good thing in the wider sense, but the remembering is, I suppose.

12. Drawing Pokémons to order. Want a Jigglypuff? Form an orderly queue.


What are you good and bad at? Please add yours in the comments.