Thursday, 21 September 2017

A Match for Mary Bennet by Eucharista Ward

Jane Austen spin-offs and sequels

Mary Bennet is not portrayed too kindly in Pride and Prejudice. She is right in the middle, the third of five sisters, and possesses none of their wit, beauty or vivacity. Bookish and prim, she is a bit of a caricature.
"Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached". Ouch.

This much-mocked sister is a magnet for Pride and Prejudice spin-offs and sequels. Far from being a neglected minor character, she takes centre stage in several novels, while her illustrious sisters fade in the background.

A Match for Mary Bennet is written by Eucharista Ward, who is a Franciscan nun.
Not sure how much this is relevant to the creation of the novel, but religion plays an important part in Mary's world outlook and everyday life. She's pious and goes to the church not because she has to, but because she loves it. She intends to follow God's path for her life, and believes with three sisters married, she can leave her life as a spinster happily ever after.
Not surprising, as the eligible bachelors around her do not inspire much affection.
There is a foppish Mr Stilton who has a not so hidden agenda: he wants to marry Mary or anyone really just to get hold of his inheritance.
There is a grumpy Mr Grantley who likes to discuss serious matters with Mary and who believes that young women go to the balls only to catch a prospective husband.
And then there is a sweet but rather spineless clergyman, Mr Oliver, who enjoys book-binding and who chuckles, reading St Augustine's City of God in Latin. He is not as pompous as Mr Collins but who nevertheless comes up with such an effected and pretentious declaration of love: "I fell asleep in Inferno, and the candle went out. I awoke in Purgatorio. But all the light is on now. I have found Paradiso".

Having found her soul mate, Mary changes her views on matrimony and there are even references to "spouse's physical pleasure" (that's as daring as it gets when a nun describes sex).

The novel treats all its characters sympathetically and is quite harmless as it doesn't change their personalities dramatically or place them into the totally unbelievable situations (like in another Mary Bennet's spin-off created by McCollough).

There were minor things that made me wonder just how authentic it would be, for example, the Darcys call their second son Bennet, or Darcy serves himself ham (where are his servants?); Mary gets a rasher of bacon from her sister to cook breakfast and then slices it (just one rasher?). The Darcys were too lovey-dovey, with Elizabeth losing her wit and irony altogether and turning into an almost simpering wife, who even sheds a tear for Lady Catherine.

It is a likable and charming story, but it does lack Austen's wit and style.
Janeites will rejoice at being reunited with famous characters - the Darcys and Bingleys, the Bennets, Lady Catherine, and many others.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Sourdough Ciabatta

Italian bread recipe, best bread recipe

Every week day morning, I force myself to get up, trying not to throw the alarm clock against the wall (sorely tempted though). All week I'd be counting days till the weekend, and the weekend comes and - whoosh - it's already over.
Arrgghh. There is some recompense though to Monday mornings: once my children are at school, I take it easy and catch up some of the TV programmes from the weekend.

Yesterday I was glued to the screen, watching the 2nd episode of Outlander (season 3). Jamie is still gorgeous, once rid of his beard. Can't say I was in raptures, but he's quite dishy.

Then I procrastinated even more, going through a week's load of newspapers.
I haven't completely wasted the day, as I baked a lovely ciabatta loaf with the sourdough starter, plus did all the usual chores: cooking, washing, ironing etc etc.

best Italian bread

I received a PR email/pitch yesterday, which was suggested as a possible story for my blog. The story revealed that Brits spend an hour and 40 minutes every day, striving for perfection. Apparently we spend 12 hours a week on average trying to improve our looks, career or love life.
Sorry, but this pitch only made me do an evil cackle sound.

My "beauty routine" amounts to 5 minutes in the morning and a couple of minutes in the evening.
I don't spend hours photo-shopping selfies, if anything, I forgot when it was the last time I took a selfie.
Anyway, what is a perfect life? Surely a pouting selfie does not count as such?! or does it?
Hmm, for me a reasonably quiet night, undisturbed sleep and a cup of tea in the morning sounds perfect.
I think this story pitch was sent to a wrong person. But it did make me laugh, so that's a bonus.

Returning to the above-mentioned ciabatta - it is one of my top favourite breads, especially when freshly baked and hot from the oven. Ciabatta in Italian literally means "slipper" as the shape resembles slippers.
The aroma of hot bread is always amazing.

The other day I mentioned Jane Mason's book Perfecting Sourdough. Now that I have made a fresh starter, I am hoping to test a few bookmarked recipes from the book.

I cannot reproduce the recipe for copyright reasons, but an almost identical recipe for sourdough ciabatta recipe could be found on Jane's blog Virtuous Bread - for the step by step see her post Sourdough ciabatta.

I halved ingredients in her recipe, as I only wanted to bake one loaf rather than two. I have also added a glug of olive oil to the dough, as I love the flavour it gives to bread. JAne also adds olive oil to the recipe online, but not in the book.

I began working on the sourdough starter back on Tuesday. By the weekend it was ready, and I made a batch of sourdough pancakes aka Yukon flapjacks.
The day before yesterday I measured 100g of sourdough starter and added more flour and water to it.
In the morning it was all bubbly. I kneaded the starter with more flour and left to rest for 4 hours.

Then more kneading and folding, and leaving to rest.

20 minutes in the oven, and the loaf was ready. It sounded hollow, when you tap it, as it was supposed to be. Crusty outside and soft inside, it was delicious.

I toasted a few slices today, and made bruschetta with tomatoes. It's a very good bread. A bit fiddly, and you cannot bake it on the spur of the moment, but it's worth waiting.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Yukon flapjacks (sourdough pancakes)

pancakes recipe

Inspired by last week's Bread Week challenges at GBBO, I fancied making something different from my usual cakes and bakes, though certainly not a bread sculpture.
When it comes to baking bread, I'm a rather hesitant baker.
I'd love to do a bread workshop one day to properly learn the basics.
Last year I reviewed Jane Mason's Perfecting Sourdough, and since then I haven't done much with it apart from looking at the photos and reading recipes but that does not count.

Yukon Flapjacks was one of the bookmarked recipes. They look pretty similar to Russian blini or Scottish pikelets, but they are made with a sourdough starter.

pancake recipe

For white wheat sourdough starter I suggest you visit Jane Mason's Making Sourdough Starters page at Virtuous Bread. I have followed her recipe, as printed in the book, but it's exactly the same on the web page.

Yukon Flapjacks are not what we know as flapjacks in the UK. These are sourdough pancakes.

pancake recipe

If you don't have the book, the recipe could be found on Jane Mason's blog - see Easy recipe for delicious sourdough pancakes.

You will get a big amount of pancake batter. Since my pancakes were smaller in size than suggested 10cm in diameter, we ended up with more than 25 pancakes. I wasn't sure if I could just halve the recipe, but Stasher did just that, see her post for Yukon flapjacks.

pancake recipe

I'm glad I have tried the recipe. Sourdough pancakes have a definite sour note, which works well with honey or maple syrup. Saying that, my blini are a good competitor, and my family prefer my pancakes.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Italian meatball and pasta soup

best soup recipes

Mention meatballs, and I'm going back in time to our old kitchen, with Mum making my favourite meals. I loved meatballs as a child, served either with mashed potatoes and gravy, or in a thick pasta or rice soup. For me this is one of those comfort foods which bring happy memories.

Most children that I know (in omnivore families) love meatballs.
My sons are quite fussy when it comes to meat, they wouldn't eat roast meat, for example. But sausages, meatballs and anything made with mince are a totally different matter. Eddie would even happily gobble up school lunches if there are meatballs or sausages on the menu, and I can just imagine the quality of those products.

Lean red meat is a versatile ingredient in many child-friendly meals, from cutlets to shepherd's pie, from Ragu Bolognese to chilli... Meatloaf, tacos, lasagne, sloppy Joes, pies, pirozhki, and so many more wonderful dishes could be cooked with red meat.
Food nutritionists recommend including red meat in children's diet from weaning onwards, as it provides important nutrients that are often low in toddlers and children - including iron, zinc, B vitamins, selenium and potassium.

Dr Emma Derbyshire, a public health nutritionist and mother, says: "Including a small portion of red meat in the diet a few times a week after weaning can help to bridge nutrient gaps and so help to maintain good health through childhood and beyond"

Recently BritMums and Meat Advisory Panel have invited bloggers to join in the #HealthyRedMeat challenge and create a delicious recipe including beef, pork or lamb - "to bring a little variety and inspire some enticing ways to include red meat into your family diet".

What shall I cook for the challenge, that my children would like? Meatballs, of course. I have quite a few recipes for meatballs on my blog - you might have seen my posts for Swedish Meatballs for Karlson on the Roof and Easy Midweek Dinner: Fusilli with Meatballs in Tomato Sauce, and Italian Baked Meatballs with Mozzarella.

This time I am cooking a pasta soup with vegetables and - you've guessed it - meatballs.

Italian soup recipes

Italian meatball and pasta soup
400g minced beef
500g minced pork
3tbsp Grana Padano, grated
1 slice of bread
a dash of milk
1 clove of garlic
1 medium egg
sea salt

1tbsp vegetable stock
1/2 white sweet onion
1 carrot
8 baby tomatoes
1tbsp tomato paste
50g stellette pasta shapes
4tbsp cannelini beans (tinned)
100g fine green beans
100g baby courgettes
2tbsp basil leaves, chopped finely

Ingredients for meatball pasta soup

First of all, make the meatballs. You will make about 44 meatballs from this amount of mince. I didn't use all of them at once. I have put more than a half in the freezer, once they were cooked and cooled - to use later in the week with spaghetti.
Toast a slice of bread, then cut off the crusts and break the bread into smaller pieces. Add a dash of milk and soak for a couple of minutes. Squeeze the milk out.
In a deep mixing bowl grate the cheese. You can use parmesan instead of Grana Padano. Add the beef and pork mince, a crushed garlic clove as well as the soggy bread. Mix all the ingredients together and season the mince.
You can skip the bread, but then the texture will be more dense.

I used a mix of beef and pork mince, as I believe this combination makes the best meatballs. Go for leaner mince - for example, 8% pork mince and 10% Aberdeen Angus beef mince is a tasty combination.

Pinch a walnut-size piece of minced meat and roll it, using hands, into a ball. Keep rolling until you use all the mince.
In a deep pan bring the water with half an onion and stock to boil. Cook meatballs in batches for about 5 minutes. Take meatballs out of the pan with a slotted spoon and put on a plate. Discard the onion.

raw and cooked meatballs

You will be left with a rather murky-looking broth.
Leave it as it is, or clarify it with a help of a beaten egg white which you add to the broth. Boil it for a couple of minutes, then strain the broth through a large sieve with a piece of clean cheesecloth. Discard the egg white with all the bits on it.

Peel a carrot and chop into small pieces, slice courgettes into little discs. Halve the tomatoes and slice the green beans.
First add the carrots to the broth. Cook for 5 minutes, then add the pasta shapes, halved tomatoes, green beans, tomato paste and cannelini beans. Cook for 6 minutes. Add the chopped basil in the last minute of cooking. Put the meatballs in the soup before serving.
Serve hot with 4-5 meatballs per person.

In this recipe I used De Cecco Stellette, which is a tiny star-shaped pasta, perfect for soups. If you cannot find Stellette, any small pasta shapes will do.

The verdict was unanimous - this soup is delicious. It has pasta and meatballs, and is an all-round crowd pleaser.

Italian recipes, best soup recipes

This post is an entry for the BritMums #HealthyRedMeat, sponsored by the Meat Advisory Panel.

Disclosure: I received a £10 voucher to buy meat for the recipe.

meat-based soup recipe

Monday, 11 September 2017

Shadow by Karin Alvtegen

Who doesn't love a Scandi crime novel? Dark, chilling, nail-biting Nordic Noir is a sub-genre with a great following. Earlier this year I bought a bunch of books by Karin Alvtegen, on The Book People (I think I need to avoid that site for a while, at least until I read more of the books I have already acquired there).
Shadow was shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger 2009, won The Danish Academy of Crime Writers Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year and was shortlisted for the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers Award for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year.
Karin Alvtegen is considered to be the Queen of Crime.

The novel starts on a very disturbing note: a 4-year-old boy is abandoned in an amusement park.
The story quickly switches to a death of an elderly woman. Gerda Persson has lain dead in her flat for three days before she was found. While sorting through her belongings, the district commission's estate administrator makes a mysterious discovery - a whole lot of books, wrapped in clingfilm and kept in the freezer. They are all written and signed by the Nobel Prize winner Axel Ragnerfeldt.

The narrative moves from the present to the past and back, slowly uncovering the skeletons in the closets, one deadlier than the other.
The characters are not particularly likable. There is Jan-Erik, Axel's son, who would have been a nobody if not for his father's legacy and laurels. He travels around the country with lectures about his famous father and the origins of his inspiration, portraying his father as a deeply ethical man, a profound thinker and philosopher.
Jan-Erik cannot keep it in his pants. He is a womaniser who thrills in the quick seduction of women in his audience, while totally neglecting his long-suffering wife and young daughter.

Karin Alvtegen is a skilled story-teller, her psychological observations are spot on.
She describes Jan-Erik and Louise's co-existence in a few lines:
"The mood was like day-old ice; a brittle surface over deep water that had to be traversed, with each step tested cautiously. Two people, so intimate that they ate breakfast together in their bathrobes, yet the chasm between them so great it was perilous to try and bridge it. There was nothing to say, about anything".

There is another long-suffering wife, an elderly Alice, Alex's wife, who as a young woman showed a lot of promise as a writer herself. Then children happened, and she took to alcohol.
Even before the tragedy strikes, she seems to have given up on her writing talent.

And then there is a tragic unhinged Halina, a survivor of the Nazi camp. Having seeing the death of her mother and young sister, she is mentally disturbed. A woman scorned, she is set on revenge, with tragic consequences for everyone around.

Gerda is a silent witness to the Ragnerfeldts' family drama... As their housekeeper, she is also a keeper of many secrets. Only once she dares to stand up to Axel, accusing him of never being content: "I'm content, and you're not. You're always chasing after what you imagine you could become".
She is also a co-conspirator to the most repulsive crime, not because she took part in it directly, but because she did nothing to stop it.

It is difficult to find sympathy for most of the characters of the book. Both wives choose to drown their sorrows in alcohol, and they both fail as mothers. Their maternal love is rather tepid. They see their children as a threat to their destiny and a snare. Halina is not capable of loving her son.

The skeletons of the past tend to fall out of the closet, revealing the most repugnant abhorrent events.

This is a gripping psychological story. I felt that the final part was rather rushed and had some loose ends. We never find out why exactly Gerda kept the books in the freezer.

It is a chilling unsettling novel, which makes you think about the meaning of life.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Colin Thompson - Shaped Lighthouse 995-piece jigsaw puzzle from Ravensburger

Mention Colin Thompson to any jigsaw puzzle aficionado, and they would nod their heads in admiration of this artist's talents.
I am a big fan of Colin Thompson, and I don't get tired mentioning that. Simply because his artwork gives me so much pleasure and enjoyment. I'd be happily ensconced with any of his jigsaw puzzles for hours. For me they tick all the right boxes: they are colourful, whimsical and with great attention to detail.
In the last weeks of summer whenever I had a chance, I would take out my big puzzle board and try to find those elusive puzzle pieces to add.

Colin Thompson Shaped Lighthouse is a fantastic jigsaw puzzle, which consists of 995 pieces.
Since it is an irregular shape, you might need to have quite a big board or open space to work on it.

best jigsaw puzzles

It measures approximately 97 x 67cm (38" x 25"). It is shaped like a lighthouse and includes seven individually shaped mini-puzzles inside like 3 lighthouses, 2 starfish, a seal and a seagull, each consisting of 2 halves.

Assembling this tricky giant puzzle with mini-puzzles inside is a rather fiendish task.
There is a myriad of small details, with bizarre sea creatures and fantasy mini-figures populating the lighthouse, which are iconic of Colin Thompson's world.

His style is immediately recognisable and unique.
It is such an entertaining puzzle, which will keep you busy for hours, and wanting for more - I'll just find one more piece, and maybe another one too, and you don't notice how the time passes.

This puzzle is suitable for ages 12+, but my 7-year-old son was enthralled by it, and wanted to help me find the necessary pieces. He was very happy to find some of the missing pieces.

As all Ravensburger puzzles, the Lighthouse is made from high quality cardboard, with linen finish to minimise glare on the puzzle image.

If you're being organised and are buying presents in advance for Christmas (or for a birthday or just for no particular occasion at all), consider this puzzle as a splendid gift for any jigsaw puzzle fan.

If you like this puzzle, you might want to have a look at the other Colin Thompson's jigsaw puzzles which I have loved:
Flying Home
The Inventor's Cupboard
The Christmas Cupboard

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

Friday, 8 September 2017

Apple Sharlotka

Russian recipes, Russian cakes

My Mum comes to stay with us every summer, for a month, and I'm always looking forward to seeing her. We talk on the phone every day, but that's not the same. We live so far away from each other, and I miss her company.
She was planning to arrive by the end of August, and I was counting days until I could hug and squeeze her. Then a few days before she was supposed to travel I had an email from a friend who told me that Mum was in the hospital. She was so poorly, she needed a blood transfusion. The trip was cancelled, and postponed until Mum is well enough, and her doctors tell her she can travel.

Until the school started three days ago, my sons kept me on my tiptoes. And today, while they were at school, I felt so miserable and sad really. Who knows, if Mum and I would be able to see each other this year.
Feeling rather lonely on my own at home and slightly sorry for myself, I decided to bake an apple cake Sharlotka, which is a total blast from the past.
I think this is probably the first cake I've learnt to bake, and most Russian teenagers can make it even in their sleep. Or at least they used to, when I was young, cannot say about the new generations, for all I know they go for something more modern and jazzy like quinoa chia seed energy balls with goji berries and hemp.

As this cake uses the most basic ingredients, which you might have at home at any given time, you can bake it whenever you fancy a cup of tea with a slice of warm cake.
You can eat it warm or cold.

You will need tart cooking apples. If using dessert apples, reduce the amount of sugar.
I just went in the garden and brought a few apples in (photo taken on a sunny day).

In the past I would just measure a mug of sugar and a mug of flour, but as mugs vary, I post here a recipe with weighed ingredients.

I don't know who the original Sharlotta (Charlotte) was, after whom this cake is named.

Russian recipes

You will need
2-3 big tart apples, peeled and sliced
a squeeze of lemon
3 medium eggs
180g caster sugar
200g self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
1tsp ground cinnamon
2tbsp soured cream
butter, for the tin

Peel and core apples, and cut into thin slices. Drizzle a bit of lemon juice over apple slices.
In a big mixing bowl beat the eggs with the sugar. Sift in the flour, baking powder and cinnamon, mix together, add a bit of soured cream (or plain yogurt) and mix well. The cake batter has quite a thick consistency. Add the sliced apples and mix again.
Butter the spring cake tin, and the circle of parchment paper at the bottom of the tin.
Place the tin in the oven preheated to 180C. Bake for 45+ minutes. Check with a wooden toothpick if the cake is ready.
Dust some icing sugar over the warm cake.

Russian recipes

Chilli Chocolate lovers giveaway (E: 30 September 2017)

The weather is miserable today, and to cheer myself up I am running a little foodie giveaway.

If you pop into my blog even occasionally, you will know that I love chocolate.

I have offered chocolate prizes in the past and they usually tend to be popular. This foodie giveaway has a little twist. All the chocolate bars in the prize are chilli-flavoured. I hope you'll think it's a fun idea. I certainly enjoyed sourcing out the chocolate bars.

One lucky winner will receive:
- Thorntons Chilli 70& dark chocolate
- M&S 52% dark chocolate with chilli
- Lindt Excellence Chilli dark chocolate
- Montezuma Dark Chocolate Chilli
- Montezuma Milk Chocolate Chilli & Lime
- Waitrose Cooks IngredientsWhole Dried Hot Ancho Chillies
and Chilli Banana/ Authentic Thai Cooking from May's Kitchen cook book

To be in with a chance of winning, please enter via Rafflecopter form.

The giveaway is open to the UK residents only.
Once the Rafflecopter picks the winner, I will contact them regarding address details, if they do not reply within 28 day, the prize will be allocated to another person.
Please don't forget to leave a comment, as it is the only mandatory step, I will make sure the winner selected by Rafflecopter has complied with T&Cs.
The prize is provided by me, and I will post the prize to the winner.
Giveaway ends on 30 September 2017 (midnight).

Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Cornish Guest House by Emma Burstall

Give me a book set in Cornwall, with a cover showing a quaint cottage and a seaview, and I will buy it.
The Cornish Guest House by Emma Burstall was one of those impulse purchases before our trip to Cornwall, to take with me for a rainy day entertainment.
We had rainy days aplenty, I finished one of my paperbacks and then started reading this one.
On arrival home, I left it in the suitcase and couldn't find enthusiasm to continue with it.
The first third of the book is uneventful and over-populated. I don't mind books with lots of characters, but I don't expect to meet every single person who lives in the village. And what they are wearing.

Several finished books later, I decided to get back to the Cornish Guest House, simply because I dislike not finishing books.

The genre is a mix of chick lit and mystery (no murders, but fraud). There is a mysterious couple arriving to the small fishing village to open their guest house. They look glamorous, sophisticated and rather alien among the villagers.
While Luke is a charmer and a bit of a backslapper, his wife Tabitha appears rude, aloof and distant, and manages to alienate about almost everyone in the village.
They both sound quite unpleasant, though the yokels are much taken by Luke's bonhomie.
There is a gay couple, an ageing local Lothario, a wise old woman... There is always a wise old woman whom you cannot deceive, isn't there?!

You meet Liz and her daughter Rosie, who appear in the first book of the series. She is happily married now, and is helping all the old biddies in the village and also her husband's wayward niece Loveday who is flattered by attentions of the older man. She appears as very immature and rather stupid, also pretty unlikeable.

And the mystery evolves around the money scams, with the old people being fleeced of their life savings.

There are lots of villagers, who you lost count of and don't actually care anything about. They lose dogs, they do swims in the cold sea, organise church events etc.
The most excitement of the season is the local art show, where someone displayed a picture of his elderly girlfriend's private parts, slightly disguised as flower petals. Which sounds very much like a Georgia O'Keefe's plagiarism.

The plot is rather predictable, you know who the villain is going to be very early in the book.
Without going into detail, for all the close-knit-community spirit, I found it hard to believe that the villagers would be so easily duped and would turn against one of their own, trusting the word of the newcomer who seems to be like Figaro - Figaro qua, Figaro là, Fiagaro su, Figaro giù - here, there, up and down.

I didn't realise that this was book no.2 in the series when I bought it. It didn't matter, as it reads as a standalone.
I've seen mixed reviews online, where many readers mentioned that the first book was better. I can't really say if that's true, as I haven't read it, and most likely won't read.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Pu Erh Hazelberry from Adagio Teas

Pu Erh tea is renowned for its health benefits and distinct off-putting smell. The range of olfactory descriptions varies from fishy to smelly socks to armpits' whiff. This strong smell is a result of the fermentation process.
I remember trying a pure unflavoured Pu Erh tea for the first time and thinking, Just who would willingly want to drink that?! But with so many health benefits - it is a great aid to digestive system, it is high in antioxidants, has lots of vitamin C and E etc - could I overcome my olfactory aversion and continue drinking it?

Pu Erh tea benefits from an added flavour which would disguise its fishy smell.

Adagio Teas has several Pu Erh tea varieties in its range.

Pu Erh Hazelberry is a blend of Pu Erh tea, strawberries, cocoa nibs, creme and hazelnut flavours. There's still a bit of an earthy fermented undertone to it, but overall the fishiness is pretty much disguised. Yay! I can drink that.

Cream and strawberries add mellow creamy notes to it, and hazelnuts brings in sweetness.
It is an inspired combination.

The colour of the brew is dark amber, with shades of ruby.

It is quite sweet, thanks to strawberries, hazelnuts and creme. Drink it neat, or with a dash of milk.

Have you tried any of Adagio Teas? Which flavour is your favourite?

Disclosure: I received a selection of Adagio Teas for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are my own.