Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Raspberry Cheesecake Brownies

A couple of weeks ago, one of my friends mentioned on Twitter that she was making raspberry cheesecake brownies. My ears pricked up - I love raspberries, and cheesecake, and brownies. She was kind enough to save one for me, and they really were just as lush as they sounded.

A few days later, another friend lent me the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook, which happens to include this recipe. Of course, I had to try it out for myself.

Raspberry cheesecake brownies

I'm not in the habit of breaching other people's copyright, so I won't copy out the recipe, but I wanted to draw your attention to the concept. Cheesecake with a brownie base. Its genius. Buy the book, or glue together a couple of your favourite recipes, but one way or another - go and make some!

I've never done a baked cheesecake before (having always been more of a fan of the chilled variety) but this was easy to make and really tasty. The recipe has a raspberry cream mixture for the third layer, but I opted for the healthier option of just putting some fresh raspberries on top. I'm planning to make a second batch next month to share with friends, and then I'll do it properly.

This definitely ranks as one of my all-time favourite combinations of flavours. If the words raspberry, cheesecake, and brownie individually make your mouth water, you'll definitely love them together.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Relearning Handwriting

Have you noticed a new breed of typos proliferating on blogs and social media?

Things like fhe and hel/o and n:ce.

These are not the traditional typos of mis-hit strokes on a keyboard... those old familiar friends with transposed letters (teh) or not-quite-releasing-the-Shift-key-in-time (ENgland), on which spellcheckers were trained.

Nor are they the SMS mistakes of predictive text (where Nokia believes that nun is more likely than mum).

No, this new spate of errors has a different character. The culprit? The touch-screen device, with imperfect handwriting recognition (or imperfect handwriting).

I've been guilty of plenty of these errors... though I try to spot them in time to correct myself, I apologise if one or two slip through my fingers when I'm tweeting or commenting on your blog.

I'd barely handwritten anything in the last five years, until I got a touch-screen phone. And while my writing isn't atrocious, it isn't perfectly computer-readable either. My n and u are indistinguishable in handwritten text... who knew?! In context, it's always perfectly clear, but handwriting recognition software has yet to incorporate the lessons of predictive text. I'm having to train myself to write differently, more clearly, for the sake of my phone.

I've been seeing this kind of error more and more lately. Have you noticed it? (I bet you will now!)

Friday, 26 March 2010

Complete & Total Failure!

In general, I'm a confident and independent cook. The kind of girl who used to buy recipe books mostly to look at the pictures and now, having discovered the joys of blogging and Flickr, usually doesn't buy them at all. The kind of person who throws some stuff in the pot, measures by handfuls, and usually ends up with an edible, tasty meal.

I know there are some of you who lack this confidence; this post is for you.

A short while ago, some friends turned up at our house bearing a rather unusual gift:

Spaghetti Squash

It's called a Spaghetti Squash. Once you've scraped the seeds out, you can start to see why.

Spaghetti Squash

Now, I'd never eaten one of these before, let alone cooked with it. I had no idea what I was going to do, and it seemed huge for the two of us. It sat on the kitchen worktop for weeks, just looking at me, challenging me to think of something exciting.


Eventually, I decided to make soup, something I do a lot during autumn and winter.

I roasted the squash in two halves, after which it was edible but bland. I scraped out the flesh, popped it in a pan with some stock and spices, and left it to get on with turning itself into soup.

Except it didn't.

It turned itself into, well, nothing. The strands separated out, and it ended up looking like a slightly slimy noodle soup. It tasted foul. I tried really hard to like it, I tried pureeing it, I tried adding extra ingredients (even salt), but to no avail. It was completely inedible.

We ended up popping out to pick up an Indian takeaway.

I wrote this for those of you who typically stick to the letter of each recipe. You can choose to take this in one of two ways, and I really don't mind which. You can feel justified in your safety net, and celebrate the fact that, sometimes, my attempts fail spectacularly. Or you can recognise that going completely off-piste is not without risks, but at the end of the day, the worst that happens is you have to eat something else.

And if anyone has ever cooked spaghetti squash successfully, I'd really love to hear about it!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Pink Cardigan

One of my "Before 30" challenges was to knit myself a cardigan or jumper.... and once I've set my mind on doing something, if there's no obstacle to starting, I start. How long it takes me to finish is quite a different matter... but in this case, it was less than two months to a finished cardi, which feels pretty good. I swear, having these goals in mind is already making me more productive, and it's only been a few weeks.

So. Cardigan-making. Not something I'd done before, but I started the way I start all knitting projects: picked some (gorgeous, pink) yarn out of my stash, looked around on Ravelry for a suitable pattern, and got knitting. This was back in January.

It actually turned out to be a very easy pattern, ideal for a first attempt, because it's knit on a circular needle which means no side-seams. Definitely easier than making a back and two front-pieces separately and hoping they match up! So the only really new thing I had to learn was how to make buttonholes.

I knitted the body first, then the sleeves, and picked out some wooden buttons which I thought would complement the chunky feel of the yarn. Then I got slightly terrified at the idea of stitching it all together, and left it in my bag for a couple of weeks! It took an evening with some knitting friends to finally get my courage up. I didn't really know how to approach this part, but I muddled through, and have ended up with adequate-but-slightly-messy seams. Still, I used the same yarn, so you'd have to be studying it pretty closely to see the messy bits. I promise to be neater next time! (My friendly expert Bells has kindly given me some pointers.)

The last step was to crochet a neckline - nothing fancy, just to neaten it off. Fortunately I'm comfortable wielding a crochet hook, and that bit didn't take long at all.

Here's me, modelling the finished article:

My cardigan

The pattern is available online, for free, if you're interested.

504 MainUpdate 29 May: This is an old post but I'm still totally tickled pink that I have something (pink!) which I made, that I can wear again and again!

Monday, 22 March 2010

Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway

In many parts of the country, the twin towns of Lynton and Lynmouth would probably have merged into one urban sprawl by now. Indeed, the horizontal distance between them is very little - but Lynton is 500ft higher, up a very steep hillside.

Thankfully (to save our legs) the Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway runs a tiny train line between the two towns:


This is a train like none I've seen before. It was built in Victorian times and has run up and down the hillside, several times a day, ever since. It has tracks, but it also has cables to pull the carriages up.


When the train runs, one carriage goes up while the other goes down. The tracks spread apart a little in the middle to allow them to pass one another.

The most interesting feature (in my opinion, at least) is the method of power. The train is green in more ways than one, because it's powered by water! In the space underneath each carriage is a large water tank, which is filled at the top, and emptied at the bottom. When the brakes are taken off, the weight difference causes one carriage to slide down the tracks, winching the other one up.

It also moves surprisingly fast... you expect it to be a slow, gentle ride but it whooshes up the hillside. Definitely a fun way of getting from A to B.


Saturday, 20 March 2010

Script Frenzy

If you've been reading for a while, and particularly if you were around in November, you've probably heard me talking about NaNoWriMo, which I've done three times now.

Well, NaNoWriMo has a sister. Her name is Script Frenzy.

The challenge of Script Frenzy is to produce 100 pages of script (stage play, screenplay, comic script... your choice!) during the 30 days of April.

Writing for the stage is where I started my writing career as an undergraduate, and this kind of challenge is exactly what I need to get me back into it. I actually have two ideas, a one-act stage play set on the transmongolian railway, and a radio play set on a London bus. The harder I try to decide between them, the more I realise I really, really want to do both.

Do you love the theatre as much as I do? Have you ever considered writing a play...?

Thursday, 18 March 2010


One thing we really noticed on our recent trip to Devon was the little signs of spring.

There are loads of wild goats, and fluffy kids were grazing here and there:


We also saw a couple of beautiful, and tiny, lambs hiding at the side of the road:


Early spring, maybe - but definitely spring.

Also, not really sticking to my theme (but still incredible), we saw a lot of really impressive birds. Here's one who stopped to pose for us:


Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Our Devonshire Weekend

We're just home from an impromptu long weekend in North Devon. One of our friends was there a couple of weeks ago and loved it, my husband has been telling me for years about how nice this corner of the country is, and you know how much I love off-season breaks - so with the minimum of planning, off we went.

North Devon coastline

It was a truly beautiful spring weekend, and we had so many little adventures which deserve (and will, in good time, get) posts of their own. But the basic story was one of long coastal walks, and cream teas in friendly cafes, and quiet evenings of editing my novel. It was in all respects a wonderful holiday. Too short a time, of course, but any good trip leaves you wanting more!

We also took Androcles II on his first holiday, an experiment in viewing the world from the perspective of a small green rabbit:

Androcles II enjoying the view

My husband photographed me as I tried to get down to Peep-level! (Possibly one of the better photos of me, since it features only my fingers and boots...)

Spot the photographer...

Can you tell he's looking forwards to his next adventure?

Androcles II

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Ambition, Competition, Motivation

I've been trying for quite some time to write something along these lines. I've written, rewritten, and deleted this post more times than you might imagine. Aidan's thoughts about wasted education finally galvanised me to try again.

It started with ambition.

I wanted to say "I'm not ambitious", but if you look at the kinds of goals I set for myself then you might disagree. (Semantics? Maybe, but I think semantics are important. Words are, after all, a huge part of how we understand one another.)

I'm not sure I can define ambition well enough to talk about it meaningfully. Is it ambitious to want to "do stuff"? Is it ambitious to want to do things well? And what if I simply want to do these things to the best of my ability, and enjoy the process, and never mind whether I succeed?

Let's leave ambition to one side, then.

I can say with certainty that I'm not competitive.

Oh, I'll compete if I'm playing a game - and I love games, but only so long as it's fun. Competitiveness-in-games is one of the many things I've learnt to switch off if it causes me any level of stress. I don't need extra stresses from things which should be enjoyable... but that's a topic for another day.

As I've grown up, I've come to realise that quite a few people see their lives as one long competition against everyone else - and sometimes people assume that I see things that way, too.

I think it started in school, although I can't put my finger on specific instances to back up this theory. It's hard to make this next point without sounding immodest - but if you've been reading for any length of time, you've probably gathered that I'm an academic sort of girl. So it probably doesn't come as much surprise that I always got good grades in school. And I have a sense that some people thought I got good grades because I was in some sense competing for that 'top of the class' position (when really, I was simply interested in doing my best).

It's taken me many years to unpick this, and to understand some of the consequences. It explains a lot. If people thought I was getting good grades because I wanted to beat them, it's not surprising that there was some resentment. And it also explains the strange assumption that seems to affect careers advisors in particular, that a clever child should want a BIG career, scrambling up some corporate ladder or competing (that word again) for a place in a profession such as medicine or law.

I don't doubt that some people are motivated by the idea of competing against their peers, just as some people are motivated by money. It just happens that neither of those things motivates me.

Why is this even worth talking about? Why am I so determined to tell you what doesn't motivate me? Struggling with the answer to this question may very well be why this has been so hard to write. But I think it's simply because so many people over the years seem to have assumed that these things would provide sufficient motivation.

And yet I seem to have no shortage of motivation.

So I started to think about what does motivate me, and I think it essentially comes from the desire to feel that I'm contributing something. I suppose that's why I like crafts so much (making 'things' that didn't exist before), and writing (likewise), and research (contributing, hopefully, to the sum of human knowledge).

What motivates you...?

Friday, 12 March 2010

Giveaway: Reebok EasyTone (UK/Ireland)

Disclosure: This is a post about freebies. For me, and maybe for you. If that kind of thing upsets you, you might want to look away now.

Last Thursday, I had an email from a London-based PR company representing Reebok.

Now, it's the first time this has happened to me, so I was slightly taken aback. My first thought was to be flattered that anyone would think of this little blog... followed, not much later, by starting to phrase a rejection email in my mind.

After all, this is my personal space. And although I occasionally tell you about products I've used and appreciated, I don't want this blog to become commercialised. I was absolutely ready to say no.

Then I read what they were actually offering.

The email was offering me chance to participate in a trial of a special kind of shoe - which my physio has previously recommended I should try. The kind with a gently curved sole to make your muscles work harder, which may be just what I need, apparently.

So there we have it. Reebok were offering to give me a free pair of trainers, of a type I'd been planning to buy anyway - and planning to blog about anyway, since I'm quite certain that learning to walk in these things will guarantee a few laughs.

Also, they weren't even asking me to write about it here, but to join a new community as part of the trial. (I'm writing about it anyway, mostly because they offered me the chance to do a giveaway - see below - but also because this is a little blogging milestone for me!)

I thought about it some more. I considered whether I should invent some kind of strict ethical code for myself and say "no" anyway. And then I remembered how much I like free stuff, and how extra-much I like free stuff which I was going to buy anyway, and how nice it would be to be able to share this with one of you.

So we're having a giveaway, folks. It's great timing to celebrate passing another blog milestone: 200+ followers.

The prize consists of a pair of EasyTone trainers, plus a Reebok goodie bag full of training kit. Note that these are ladies' shoes! (There are a few designs to choose from, in pinks and purples)

To enter, just leave a comment on this post telling me why you'd like to try out these shoes. I'll read the entries (without looking at the names) and pick my favourite reason, so be creative.
1 entry per person. You must have a shipping address in the UK or Ireland.
This giveaway will close on Monday at 8pm (GMT).
I'll email the winner, and will also need to pass your details across to the company. You'll need to register with their site to get the prize, and will have the chance to provide feedback as part of the new site.

As a consequence of this whole thing, I've written a disclosure policy. The short version is very short:
  • I like freebies.
  • I don't like being told what to say.
You can read the longer version if you want more detail.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010


I was recently entrusted with a story, by a man I do not know, and asked for feedback.

That's some responsibility.

Thankfully (because I will always be honest, but I hate to upset people) it was basically a decent story, and I enjoyed reading it. The main thing I had to draw to his attention was that his exposition was lacking in subtlety.

I've been told that I happen to be quite good at working in details, giving a sense of place without writing pages of description, and I wanted to find a way to get him thinking about other ways of passing information to the reader.

I ended up suggesting a little exercise to him, which I thought could probably benefit a lot of writers - particularly those near the beginning of their writing adventure. So here it is, for anyone who feels they may need it.

An Exercise in Exposition

This is written from a fantasy/sci-fi perspective, but should apply equally well to other forms of writing: in any context, you still have to get the setting and scenario across to readers without beating them over the head with it.
  • Pick up a random SF/F book which you haven't read before (and not part of a series with which you're already familiar).

  • Read the first ~10 pages, then shut the book.

  • Jot down some notes. What do you now know about the world in which the book is set? Don't worry too much about being "right" - what matters is your impressions, so you can afford to do this quickly.

  • Then go back, reread the same few pages, and look for the text which points to the features you've noted down. (Hint: most of the time, it won't be that the author has said "things are like THIS in this world.")

  • If you do this a few times, with a number of different books, you can probably start to get a good idea of what works and what doesn't.
If you do have a go at this, I'd love it if you come back and tell me something you've learnt. I'll probably do it myself at the weekend.

And if you're not sure whether you need to improve your exposition, well, feel free to send me something and I'll tell you straight up!

Monday, 8 March 2010

New Travel Companion

Last year, National Geographic's Intelligent Travel blog had an entertaining photography competition called "Peeps In Places".

If you're American, you might well be able to guess what this is about.

If not, you might be mystified, as I was then.

Turns out that peeps are a kind of US marshmallow... in Easter shapes like chicks and bunnies. I was disappointed - we can't buy them here, so I couldn't enter the contest.

Oh well. Life moves on, and I didn't think about it much more... until just last week, when a friend mentioned that her husband had brought her some peeps from a recent trip across the pond.

I thought for a moment. I wondered briefly if I was about to make the strangest request of my life. And then I asked if I could borrow one.

"Will I want it back when you've finished with it?" she asked.

I confessed that I didn't know - and explained about the competition.

I tweeted a couple of folks at Intelligent Travel to check that the contest was on again this year, and here it is: Peeps In Places 2010

So without further ado: please meet Androcles II*, my newest travel companion.

Androcles II

He'll be coming with us on as many trips as he can - my friend says she'd prefer that he be well travelled than that she gets to eat him, and her daughter can hardly believe that the peep is going on holiday! We're definitely taking him to the Faroes, and I'm hoping he'll last long enough to come to Greenland, too.

I'll be sure to blog about his travels with us - and please wish me luck in the competition.

* My husband has a toy rabbit called Androcles. So this is our second one. I'll try not to confuse you by shortening it to Andy!

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Easy Quesadillas

Who knew that quesadillas were so easy to make? Well, as it happens, Pam knew - and when I read about it on her blog, I had to have a go myself.

I only really discovered the joy of quesadillas while visiting the US last year - I went to a conference in Colorado where mushroom quesadillas were served as 'party food' at the welcome drinks evening, and then I enjoyed another one from a fast-food stall in Penn Station while waiting to come home from New York.

Speaking of which, why is fast food in the UK so completely boring? Seriously, folks - burgers, kebabs, and fried chicken?! Is that the best we can do? In the States there seems to be a 'fast' version of almost every cuisine - and Mexican definitely ranks among my favourites.

And this is so quick to make, it's perfect for a quick supper after a busy day. (I'm all in favour of super-fast meals, have you noticed...?)

Melting nicely...

Sliced and ready to go...

Vegetable Quesadillas
Serves 2

4 flour tortillas
1 sweet pepper
6 medium chestnut mushrooms
a handful of frozen peas
25g red leicester cheese
25g mature cheddar cheese
sprinklings of parmesan cheese, black pepper, and chilli flakes (to taste)
  1. Finely chop the pepper, and slice the mushrooms.
  2. Split all the fillings into two, and spread evenly across the surface of two tortillas. Use the remaining two tortillas as lids.
  3. Heat a frying pan over a medium heat, and put one of the tortilla sandwiches into the pan. Continue to heat gently for a couple of minutes.
  4. Once the cheese has melted, flip to toast the second tortilla (seriously, wait for the cheese to melt - I tried to flip one of mine too soon, and the filling went everywhere).
  5. Serve as soon as the mushrooms & peppers are cooked - it doesn't take very long. You can slice it and eat with your fingers. For something a little extra, serve with sour cream, salsa, guacamole... any of the usual Mexican dips.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

London's Variety

I tend to take London for granted. I've spent so much time there over the past ten or so years, that I sometimes forget to look around me - but meeting someone who's not a "native" makes me view my surroundings with new eyes.

While I was last in London, I had the good fortune to meet up with Josephine, a delightful Swedish girl who's studying in England. You should definitely check out her blog - she expresses every thought in eloquent detail, has a taste for beautiful things, and is a promising writer of fantasy. We've chatted a lot through our blogs and twitter, so it was great to meet in person... I always love it when I have the chance to spend quality time with a blogging friend.

So there I was, feeling slightly more touristy than usual, and as we were walking somewhere near Charing Cross Road this incredible facade caught my attention:

multicoloured buildings

And then, having switched on my architectural sense, I spent the rest of the day spotting interesting buildings around the capital. It was fun to take in the sheer variety.... and this was on one short walk, in one comparatively small part of the city. You can see echos of so many different eras... yes, I will have to spend more time with my "tourist eyes" on!

Newspaper office






Monday, 1 March 2010

Eating Out Of His Hand

Last weekend, I went to London to watch the Olympics. Two years early, you might think, but this actually wasn't one of my more absent-minded moments. The Winter Olympics may be in Vancouver, but we went to London to watch TV with a friend. (Did I mention we don't have a TV at home?) I'm sure we could have found somewhere closer to home to watch the skiing, but we happened to be at this friend's house for the 2006 Winter Olympics, and we had a great time so we thought we'd do a reprise.

So I got to watch Amy Williams bring home Britain's first gold in the skeleton bob, and cheer on our curling teams (though they sadly did less well this year), and I have a new favourite sport in the shape of "ski cross".

Because of the time difference between home and Vancouver, we had mornings free for doing other things like playing cards and taking walks through Hyde Park. Our friend walks there regularly with a pocket full of peanuts, and has many of the small birds literally eating out of his hand.

RobinBlue Tit
Great Tit

Quite aside from our peanut-eating friends, Hyde Park is great for bird life. The RSPB even had a stall there, with scopes pointing at this tawny owl. It's always lovely to see an owl in daylight:

Tawny Owl

And although they're becoming very common in London's parks now, and probably shouldn't be exciting, I'm still in love with the parakeets:


We had a great and relaxing long weekend - I'm missing my daily dose of winter sports now I'm home again. Definitely hoping to see some live Olympics in 2012.

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