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Friday, 30 March 2012

Mixed Vegetable Casserole



Vegetable casserole

Mixed Vegetable Casserole
Serves 4 as a very hearty supper, or 6 with space for pudding

2tbsp olive oil
2 red onions
1 red pepper
1 leek
2 courgettes
1 jar tomato passata (680g)
200ml vegetable stock
1tbsp oregano
1tbsp rosemary
1tsp smoked paprika
2 large carrots
½ butternut squash
1 large sweet potato
1 tin sweetcorn (325g)
1 tin butter beans (400g)
1 tin chickpeas (400g)
100g fresh spinach
12 dumplings (a double batch of this recipe)

  1. Chop all the vegetables into small pieces (approx. 1cm cubes).
  2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan (mine is 26cm diameter), and fry the leeks, onions, red peppers, and courgettes for about five minutes or until softened.
  3. Add the passata, vegetable stock, and seasonings.
  4. Add the carrots, butternut squash, and sweet potato. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring regularly.
  5. Preheat the oven to 190°C then stir the sweetcorn, butter beans, chickpeas, spinach, and broccoli into the casserole.
  6. Make up the dumplings, arrange on the surface of the stew, and bake in the oven (uncovered) for about 30 minutes. The dumplings should be lightly browned by this stage.


Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Almshouses in Wotton-under-Edge



Wotton-under-Edge almshouses

We'd been for a wander up and down the high street of Wotton-under-Edge, and were about to get back in the car and head home, when Andy spotted the sign above the little door over the street. "Visitors are welcome to walk around the courtyard and see the chapel." Well, we didn't need to be told twice.

I've always liked almshouses, from the charitable concept (providing housing for the poor) to the style of implementation which usually involves cute, tiny terraces arranged around a courtyard. These ones were built in the 17th century, and the beautiful little chapel in the middle of the courtyard still has a communion service every Monday.

Wotton-under-Edge almshouses

Wotton-under-Edge almshouses

Wotton-under-Edge almshouses - chapel

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Monday, 26 March 2012

Woodchester Park



Woodchester Manor

This morning dawned bright and sunny, and we didn't have any particular plans, so we pored over a local map and decided to take a picnic to Woodchester Park. It's not that far from where we live, but for some reason we hadn't been before.

The house, Woodchester Mansion, was never finished and is now a tourist attraction in its abandoned state - as well as providing a huge maintainance project for students of stonemasonry! It's only open a few days each summer, so we'll have to come back another time to look around inside.

The park is set in a valley containing a series of small lakes, and my favourite spot was by the dinky boat house. We sat on a bench by the water to eat our lunch, with ducks around our feet trying - somewhat agressively - to encourage us to share our food. There are lots of paths winding through the woodland (of which we walked only a fraction), and at this time of year there are woodland flowers and wild garlic starting to break through, which, along with the sunshine, really helped to make it feel like spring.

Woodchester Manor

Woodchester Manor

Boathouse at Woodchester Park

Woodchester Park

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Saturday, 24 March 2012

Fruit & Spice Flapjack Bars



This morning, I was making a lemon drizzle cake to take to a friend's party tonight, and decided to mix up something else while it was in the oven.

I had a spare lemon from the lemon cake, and a bag of toasted coconut flakes just waiting to be used; an interesting combination that I thought would go well with some dried fruit and nuts. These could just as easily have been added to cookie dough, but I've made a lot of cookies lately (and will be doing loads more in about a week) so for a change I went for flapjack. This is a close cousin of the apple & raisin flapjack recipe I posted a couple of years back, but although the base is the same, the result is quite different. (By the way, I know 'flapjack' is used to mean something quite different in the States, but I don't know what you'd call these kind of bars. Anyone?)

fruit & spice flapjack


Fruit & Spice Flapjack
Makes 24

325g butter (for Americans: that's 2½ sticks)
1 cup soft brown sugar
½ cup (8tbsp) golden syrup
1 cup toasted coconut flakes
7 cups rolled oats
2tsp mixed spice
zest of one lemon (finely chopped)
½ cup raisins
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup glace cherries (quartered)
½ cup almonds (roughly chopped)

  1. Preheat the oven to 190°C.

  2. Melt the butter, sugar, and golden syrup in a large glass bowl (I find the quickest way is to heat for 4mins in the microwave, on high power).

  3. While the butter is melting, measure and chop the other ingredients.

  4. Add about half of the oats, the spices and the lemon zest, into the melted butter mixture. Stir until the oats are coated in butter.

  5. Add the fruit (unsticking any that have stuck together in the packet), almonds, and coconut. Mix thoroughly.

  6. Add the remaining oats and stir until all the oats are coated in the butter mixture (i.e. no remaining white patches). The other ingredients should be fairly evenly distributed by this stage.

  7. Line a 25x35cm, deep-sided tray with greaseproof paper, and press the mixture into the tray, smoothing with a spatula to ensure approximately even depth.

  8. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the surface is golden brown.

  9. Allow to cool in the tray until they are set hard enough to cut, then slice up and move to a wire rack to cool.


Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Dream Destinations



It's not as if I didn't already have a dream travel list that could last me well into the next century... but then my mum gave me this book. With beautiful pictures for each entry, this is perfect fodder for my daydreams. It's surprisingly lacking in ideas for the far north (nothing at all from Iceland or Greenland), but that's probably good for me, since I've seen more north than south already. I'll certainly find a few ideas between these pages to help me plan some future trips.

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Sunday, 18 March 2012

bread&roses, Paris



bread & roses (interior)

We popped into this little cafe to warm up on our last day in Paris, when it was grey and dreary outside. We'd wandered past this place earlier in our trip and liked the look of it, so we decided to go back and try it out.

Actually, we almost walked straight out again when we saw the sit-down prices: a raspberry macaron that was €6 to take out was €8.50 to eat in. Perhaps we should just have coffee after all! But pain au chocolat were a comparative bargain at €2.90, and oh my, they were worth every cent: perfectly fresh, crisp and flaky on the outside, soft (but still light) in the middle. A perfect complement to the very strong coffee.

It was a little crowded, with not much space to squeeze between the tables, but once we'd sat down that just made it feel cosy. The huge windows meant that the whole place felt bright (even on a dull day) and there were fresh flowers on all the tables.

Getting to hide from the weather in little places like this almost makes up for constant drizzle, don't you think?

bread&roses (exterior)


Friday, 16 March 2012

Sixty Years of Marriage



Grandparents' wedding


Last weekend, we went out for a family lunch to celebrate my grandparents' diamond wedding anniversary. That's sixty years: quite a long time, in anyone's book.

To put this in context, here are a few other things that happened in 1952:
  • Queen Elizabeth II was crowned
  • Ann Davison became the first woman to sail singlehanded across the Atlantic
  • Britain finally stopped rationing tea, following the war.
  • The first performance of John Cage's (silent) piece 4'33"
  • The last executions in the Netherlands took place
  • Canada's first TV broadcast
  • The Mousetrap, which holds the record for longest-running play, opened in London

My mum asked me to decorate the anniversary cake, which she'd made. We only arrived there late the night before, and I had to get up at six to do the icing! So it's not my finest hour of sugarcraft, but at least it was enjoyed.

60th anniversary cake

Monday, 12 March 2012

'Realistic' Dialogue in Fiction



I was spending way too much time hanging out backstage in theatres when I started to take writing seriously, so I began with playscripts, scribbling down notes while listening to directors and actors chopping text around to make it flow. Watching a professional playwright make edits during rehearsals is an exercise I'd recommend to anyone who has the chance. When actors hit a bad line, they'll simply change it, and the playwright will often incorporate this into the final script.

In a novel there's no buffer between your words and the audience: if you can't make the dialogue sound natural, no-one else is going to do it for you. "Natural," though, is a misnomer. As an academic I've studied real dialogue extensively, and that's really not what you want to aim for. Let's take a closer look.

Classic "Bad Dialogue"

Let's start with a short exchange from the beginning of Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, a book which is panned for its writing style about as often as it's praised (usually by different people) for its gripping plot.

The albino drew a pistol from his coat and aimed the barrel through the bars, directly at the curator. "You should not have run." His accent was not easy to place. "Now tell me where it is."

"I told you already," the curator stammered, kneeling defenseless on the floor of the gallery. "I have no idea what you are talking about!"

The albino, we're told, has an accent that's hard to place, which gives us chance to excuse him for almost any style in which Brown may choose to make him speak. He's also in control. He's the man with the gun, and he might well have rehearsed his speech in his head.

By contrast, Sauniere has probably never been held at gunpoint before. He should be shocked and terrified; indeed, we're even told that he's stammering. Yet he doesn't even contract "you are" to "you're." Does that strike you as realistic? For me, it's implausible enough to be jarring.

Moving seamlessly between narrative and dialogue, without a change of style, is a common mistake of inexperienced writers. But putting quote marks around a sentence doesn't make it speech.

There are plenty of other ways in which dialogue can fail, for example when it's used to force exposition from the mouths of the characters, but for the purposes of this post we'll stick to discussing the stylistic issues.

So How Do People Really Talk?

You've been listening to people talking all your life, but unless you've had cause to transcribe a conversation in detail, you may never have thought about the mechanics of it.

Frequent features of real conversation include backchannels ("yeah," "mhmm"), interruptions, overlapping speech, hesitations (whether these are silent pauses or "um"s), mistakes, almost-instantaneous corrections of mistakes (often called self-editing), repetition of words, and so on. Speakers may even change the syntactic structure of an utterance halfway through, but somehow this doesn't impair communication. These little mistakes are commonly called 'disfluencies' by linguists.

Let's take a look at an example from conversational analysis, transcribed from a real mother-daughter exchange:

M: but we've got the...Paul Norton and his wife coming round on the evening time for a meal
K: oh but the only problem is I need to get dad's present
M: mhm
K: and we...so I can either do that on the Saturday and Sunday but I think one of the shops might not be open
M: on Sunday...you, you're home all week...all...
K: oh yeah
M: from Monday
(credit)

That Wouldn't Read Well...

Stilted dialogue breaks the reader's focus and takes their attention away from the story, but an accurate portrayal of human speech would also read horribly. The secret is to find the balance point where characters sound "natural but better."

Most people have never studied conversation, and have no idea about how real conversations work. They believe in fairytales like "it's rude to interrupt" and think that people speak in sentences. Here's an interesting fact: if you give a non-expert a piece of speech to transcribe, they'll usually edit out all the disfluencies, repetitions, and minor self-edits. But if you ask them, they'll swear that they've written down just what they heard.

You can take advantage of this mental filter. If you can write dialogue that sounds like it's come out of the other end of such a filter, you'll get exactly what the layman considers to be natural speech: usually informal and contracted, possibly slang-filled and ungrammatical, but still fundamentally fluent. If in doubt, read aloud, and then get friends to act out a scene for you.

Many writing books recommend noting down conversations that you overhear - I'll go one step further. Make recordings. (If you're not brave enough to tape your friends, try a live, unscripted interview from the radio or TV.) Then have a go at writing down what you hear. Listen again with your notes, and you'll quickly learn what you're filtering out.

You also have the option to use any kind of mis-speaking as a genuine feature in your writing, when it adds to the story or the characterization. You don't want to pepper your manuscript with transcription-style error notation, but there are times when it may be useful. Imagine the case where someone almost gives himself away, corrects himself before finishing the word, but maybe gives his interlocutor enough to guess that he's hiding something. And because these minor corrections happen all the time in real conversations, your readers aren't going to mind it happening once or twice in your novel. The key is to hold it back for the times it really matters.

I could easily write a book about individual speech patterns, but for now, I'll leave you with a brief thought on characterization through dialogue. I've heard it suggested that you should be able to take any line of dialogue from your novel, in isolation, and be able to identify the character by his style. I think that's an exaggeration: most utterances are too short to exhibit that much variation, and most people have only the most subtle of stylistic quirks. There's nothing wrong with marking one or two characters with distinctive vocal tics or accents (again, listen to real people then tone it down) but if you studiously choose idiosyncrasies for every character then you'll end up writing the dialogic equivalent of a circus freak show. For most characters, all you need is an occasional turn of phrase that only they would use.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Petit Fours in Paris




We were wandering the streets of Paris, hoping to discover a patisserie where we could enjoy a pastry or two while warming up with a drink (it was a rather grey weekend). We'd passed by a couple of "possibles" and were thinking of turning back to one of those when Andy spotted a plate of beautiful petit fours in a colourful window display. They weren't exactly cheap, but they were calling our name, and there was a little seating area at the back.



It turned out that there was also a display of hot Chinese dishes, in a counter on the opposite side of the shop - and most of the people in the restaurant were enjoying Chinese food for lunch. A savoury smell filled the air, which was strange for the first minute or two, but then we stopped smelling it. Undeterred, we ordered coffee and pointed to what we wanted from the window.

Then, with near-surgical precision, I set about dividing every tiny pudding into two so we could share. One at a time, we tasted them and compared notes. There were miniature eclairs and tarts, brightly coloured and delicate layer cakes, and a solitary macaroon. (Some other day, I'll blog about my attempts at macaroon making, but suffice it to say that I have a new-found respect for the art!) Everything was absolutely delicious, and with enough variety to stop me wanting to run away from the sugar overload; we both had the same favourite, a little raspberry slice with an incredibly intense flavour.



Postscript - we went back a couple of days later to sample the Chinese, which was also rather nice, if somewhat less exciting.

Nezard, Rue Notre Dame des Champs, Paris.
Nearest Metro: Saint-Placide.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Simnel Cake Bars - A Traditional Easter Recipe



The traditional simnel cake is a round cake with eleven marzipan balls to represent Jesus' apostles. That's ideal if you want to make it with your kids and start a discussion about the Easter story, but sometimes you just want a loaf cake that you can slice neatly and pop into a lunchbox. So this year, I decided to try making the traditional simnel cake mixture in a different format. It's just as tasty, and a bit more convenient. The recipe below makes two loaves, and it freezes perfectly, so you can eat one and freeze the other for a couple of weeks.

Simnel cake bars


Simnel Cake Bars
Makes two loaves

500g/18oz marzipan
225g (8oz/2 US sticks) butter
225g/8oz/1cup soft brown sugar
4 eggs
225g/8oz/1¾cups plain flour
2tsp mixed spice
310g/11oz/2cups raisins
140g/3oz/1cup candied peel
110g/4oz/¾cup glace cherries (quartered)

  1. Grease and line an two 2lb loaf tins - or cheat like I do, and use non-stick tins.
  2. Preheat the oven to 140°C (285°F).
  3. Take half of the marzipan, knead until soft enough to work, and roll out into two rectangles to match the dimensions of your loaf tins.
  4. Cream the butter and sugar together, then add the eggs and beat until thoroughly combined (a whisk works better than a spoon).
  5. Fold in the flour and mixed spice.
  6. Stir in the dried fruits and mix thoroughly.
  7. Split half of the cake mix between the two tins, and spread with a spatula to fill in the corners. Lay one marzipan rectangle in each tin on top of the cake mixture, press down lightly, and add the remaining mixture on top. Smooth the surface with a spatula.
  8. Bake for an hour (or until risen and firm), then transfer to a cooling tray to cool.
  9. Use the remaining marzipan to make another two rectangles for the top.
  10. (Optional) Grill the top of the cake at a medium heat until the marzipan begins to brown (it will bubble, and then start to go brown very fast).


Sunday, 4 March 2012

Of Flowers and Accidental Sexism



It was just before Valentine's Day that it struck me.

I've never bought flowers for my husband.

We've been married for three and a half years, and together for closer to six. I know he likes flowers, especially bold and colourful ones. When he buys them for me I know he picks out bunches he'll also enjoy, and which will brighten the home for both of us.

So why had I never thought to buy so much as a single bunch of roses to surprise him?

I can only blame the little chick-flick voice in my head, which tells me that men are "supposed to" shower women with flowers and chocolates, and not the other way around. Okay, it's hardly sexism on the scale of denying women the vote, but it is sexist, and I was disappointed in myself. Why shouldn't men have flowers?

When I took it upon myself to correct this omission, my husband said he didn't think that anyone had ever bought him flowers before. So I'm clearly not the only woman whose subconscious has stopped her.

Flowers



Friday, 2 March 2012

Being Well



The other day I went for a "wellbeing assessment". This included a battery of health-related tests including BMI, body fat percentage, blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and so on.

Wellbeing assessment


In most areas I came out healthy... just. I'm towards the upper end of the healthy range for BMI, waist to hip ratio, and body fat. So far, so much nothing to worry about, and not really a surprise. (Even the Wii Fit tells me I have a BMI of 24.) On the other hand my cholesterol, which I'd never had measured before, was "raised" - which apparently translates as nothing to worry about (it's not "high"), but maybe worth taking action to stop it getting worse. (I do eat a lot of cheese and butter, which is apparently bad for cholesterol.) I was fine on the other readings like blood glucose, hydration levels, blood pressure, and heart rate.

I'm pretty happy with the results, given that I know that this is about as unhealthy as I get (and that I eat cake whenever I feel like it). I know I've been slacking on the exercise front over the winter, and I'm trying to pick up the pace a bit now it's getting towards spring, so it's interesting to have some baseline figures. The guy who did my assessment suggested I might like to go back in three months' time, so I can track my progress. Apparently doing more exercise could be enough to change the cholesterol reading, so it'll be interesting to see whether it does.

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