Monday, 24 June 2013

been people watching again

I am currently sat outside a cinema. I have been for two hours. I am not some bizarre cinema-watcher (although I have been today). And, at least for the moment, I am not sitting typing to hide the fact that I have been stood up. The real, entirely uninteresting reason, is that I arranged to meet The Husband here at half past six. My appointment this afternoon finished at half past two, but was close to the cinema. Rather than drive home and back again I decided to come here and do some work on my laptop.

It is phenomenal how much I have done. I’m guessing because my laptop is disconnected from the internet, and I have turned off mobile internet browsing, preserving battery for when The Husband might text. Which he just did, incidentally. He is stuck in traffic. Ho hum. I now realise I will not be able to post this until later (due to aforementioned laptop disconnection). However I am two hundred words in, and have time to pass (more than I thought from the sounds of that text), so I will continue, and you will simply have to suspend disbelief and imagine that I posted this the moment I finished typing.

It has been a rather pleasant afternoon’s work, with the radio on in the background, suspicious looks from the passing pedestrians aside. Admittedly a Cineworld carpark is not the usual location to write a dissertation in the middle of a Monday afternoon (or any other time for that matter). And if I was being completely truthful a cup of tea and a few biscuits would have been a nice addition. I’m not planning making this a regular revision haunt, but for today it has proved a success.

The obvious question, if you were the critical sort, would be why we didn’t just meet at a cinema nearer home. The answer is that I am easily swayed by a good deal. We sign up for free preview tickets of films and we have tickets for The Internship at this particular cinema tonight. When I say we, it is important I clarify (particularly as she has now found this blog) that my mum has signed us up, and checks for tickets, and the only work I have to do is walk the ten doors to her house and pick up the pre-printed slip that she has text to say is waiting for me. Spoiled doesn’t even cover it.

I am getting slightly distracted by Ralf Little talking about being a procrastinator on the radio – somehow feeling his successful career validates my own bad habits. It is interesting being sat outside a cinema. Couples arriving for afternoon dates, parents and children running in for an after-school treat, groups of friends kicking a ball up to the door and disappearing inside. I have seen quite a few people go in and then leave again. This is an anathema to me. I cannot fathom going to the cinema without checking what is on and what time it starts. I might be a procrastinator, but I am also a planner. I think very carefully about things before I don’t do them.

There is also a man, on his own. He stands on the steps and plays with his phone. He has looked at the posters a few times. He has headphones on and would look entirely at ease, except for the fact that his head whips up every time a car pulls up. First date? Second date? Have I got it completely wrong? It’s a funny old feeling that I remember well from my own first date, with The Husband, no less, at a cinema. The butterflies in the tummy, hoping they are going to turn up, but nervous about what to say when they do. My head is synchronised with the man on the steps. Looking up expectantly at every car that arrives. More than eleven years on I still have butterflies, but there are no nerves now. And there is a blissful comfort in knowing that he will, without question, be here.

Honestly and truly, with perfect Hollywood timing, as I typed that last word The Husband arrived.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

just wait a minute

I am a perfectionist, and a procrastinator. It is not a winning combination, but I think the two traits are irrevocably linked. Every time I describe myself as a perfectionist I shudder slightly. This is due to an indelible memory from school, when I did just that and another pupil shouted loudly to the class that I thought I was perfect. Cue much embarrassment, and trying to correct the whole classroom but to no avail. Isn't it odd what memories remain when other, much more significant, events have long-faded.

Anyway, I was trying to write a post that didn't reference memories, as I fear it is already becoming a repetitive refrain, but it appears I failed in the first hundred words. I’m starting to wonder whether I have a penchant for living in the past. Anyhow, this post has been a few days in the making, several car journeys, a bout of baking, and this morning’s shower have all heard me playing with phrases and snatching at snippets of ideas. I have hit a hiatus, struggling to write without a theme. That doesn't surprise me. Even with university assignments, I find picking the topic the hardest part; once it’s done, the writing comes very easily. Eventually.

I do not, have never, been good at doing things in advance. I don’t ever miss a deadline, but let’s just say I’m the master of the all-nighter. As my mum kindly says, when I’m in impending-deadline hysteria and she is inevitably picking up the pieces, it obviously works for me. I enjoy academia, I tend to get good marks. I don’t doubt though, that my family wish I would do it with slightly less drama, and fewer sleepless nights. Colleagues have identified me as “pressure-prompted”, I hadn't heard this before, but I like it. My current dissertation supervisor shares my work habits (I fear that means that he and I are another combination that is less than ideal), and he calls it “working to deadline”. I like that too, it makes me feel efficient and perfectly-timed.

I just can’t abide starting things and not finishing them. If I do something, I like to do it completely. I have always been like this. I think I was the only teenager whose mum dreaded it when I offered to tidy my room. She knew that it would unavoidably involve a three day endeavour, in which every drawer, cupboard, nook and cranny would be upended into the middle of the room, ready for re-organising and sorting. It was always wonderful when it was finished, and I give her a guided tour, proudly pointing out every freshly folded top and alphabetically arranged bookshelf. In the preceding few days though she just learnt not to look. I think she has repeatedly rued the day she told me “if a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing well”, oblivious to the literal interpretation that would follow.

Undoubtedly, the need to do something so thoroughly, makes starting it impossible. It feels so insurmountable that I leave it until I no longer have a choice. Until then, it looks like such a huge undertaking I’ll always opt to put it off just a little longer. I occasionally wonder if there is also an element of self-protection in my procrastination. A fear of failure can be dampened if I choose to leave things to the last minute. That way, if I don’t do as well as I’d hoped I can console myself with the knowledge that I didn't really give it my best shot. I don’t know if that’s true, it seems at odds with my perfectionist personality (*shudder again*), but not inconceivable.

I read an article recently that suggested breaking things into smaller tasks with shorter deadlines. It’s nothing ground-breaking but it seems to have stuck. It’s a good compromise. I still get the adrenalin-induced surge of activity close to my self-imposed deadline, but the overall task gets done in steps rather than a final flurry of panic. It seems to be working. But the true test will come in August. If I go off radar the week before my dissertation deadline, then it would seem that old habits are dying hard.

Monday, 17 June 2013

popcorn from the candy stand

(The Drifters - Saturday Night At The Movies)

When we got married we had mixed feelings about whether to use a gift registry service. We didn't want to ask for gifts, particularly as many guests were travelling long distances for the wedding. Additionally, we had been engaged for two years (exactly, we got married on the same date as The Husband proposed), and moved in to our house the week after our engagement, so we had already acquired most general household items. The simple answer would have been to not do one, but there was one big problem. We really didn't want to miss out on running round the shop playing with the scanning machines.

So as it was, we had a day of scanning things, and I then had another day of deleting all the things that The Husband added when I wasn't looking. We made the gift list available if people specifically requested it, and were overwhelmed with peoples’ generosity. One of our guests kindly bought us this popcorn maker from our list. I remember my Dad seeing it when he visited us and asking whether we used it much, and the two of us responded so emphatically, whilst giving such an enthusiastic demonstration, I think he was on the verge of buying one himself.

My love for home-popped popcorn goes back to a very special person in my life, my Gran.  I know already she will become a recurring theme on this blog, and I cannot even begin to do justice to what an influence she was to me in a post about popcorn, so I will try, instead, to stay on topic. Gran had a way of making anything she did seem like the greatest treat imaginable, planned entirely for the purpose of having fun with you. She was also the coolest Gran in the world, she was the first person I knew to have a computer or the internet, she bought me my first computer (an Amiga – if you’re interested in retro gaming) and first mobile phone, she knew more about RAM and PC specifications than most adults half her age and even taught me to play computer games (you cannot even imagine how well she and The Husband got on).

So it is no surprise that Gran was twenty years ahead of the game with popcorn too. One day when I was visiting she lifted out a bag of kernels. It occurs to me now she must have intentionally gone to buy them, specifically for the purpose of an afternoon of fun, so that we could share a new experience. I wonder if she had any idea what memories she was making for me. I remember the big heavy bottomed saucepan, a dash of oil, and the rattle of the kernels as they poured into the pot. Shaking in salt and sugar, feeling like she was imparting an amazing culinary secret when she told me they brought out the flavours in each other.

I remember taking it in turns to agitate the pan, holding the handle in one hand and keeping the lid in place with the other. The surprise of that first pop hitting the lid, listening intently for the next ones to follow. Which they did, single snaps at first, followed by a crescendo of explosions, an unexpectedly loud eruption of noise. It gradually ebbed away, looking at my Gran in the silence, reaching for the cover, only to be interrupted by another rogue kernel misfiring late. The joy of finally lifting the lid and seeing a full pan of popcorn, flowing over the sides, it was like the easiest magic trick in the world.

Popcorn will always be one of my favourite snacks, and I get that same childish excitement every time we lift out our big red pan. The Husband and I both stand with stupid grins waiting for the first pop, and laughing at the scattergun of kernels against the lid. Standing in front of the stove listening to that noise, smelling the popcorn, shaking the pan, I am always transported to my Gran’s kitchen, and that feeling of her standing with me, sharing with me a secret, making even the simplest of things seem magical.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

three dads

(Three Men and a Little Lady - Rap)

Today has been a busy one for The Husband and I, with visits to three different houses. On my side of the family, there are three men I like to celebrate on Father’s Day, and I thought I would write a few words about them.


An amazing man, whose main wish in life is to see those around him happy. Grandad is in his eighties, completely independent, incredibly intelligent, and the most fabulous fun.

My Gran and Grandad always lived near my mum and I, I stayed with them regularly, and we have always been close. Grandad was a builder (still is, only this week he was pointing our flagstones) and you would often find me in my swimming costume playing with a trowel and mortar. One time he asked me to help dig a hole, just so I could discover buried treasure he had planted earlier.

We are both night-owls, and often text each other goodnight at two and three in the morning. You can’t go anywhere without him bumping into someone he knows, and he has built half of the buildings in our area. He treated Gran like royalty, and they were married for over fifty years. He walked me down the aisle at my wedding last year, and I couldn't have asked for a better role model to start us on our journey together.  Both him and my Gran doted on their family, and I continue to dote on him.


Dad and I share a love of cooking, and our sarcastic sense of humour. We compare soup recipes, and he gives me eggs from his chickens, part of his menagerie of animals.

When I was younger I wasn't as close to my Dad, even though I saw him regularly. He wasn't as affectionate and open as my Mum, and it took me until I was a little bit older to stop striving to impress him, and realise that he loves me and is proud of me, he just expresses it differently. We have definitely grown closer in recent years, and can happily chat away for hours when we meet up.

We text about football, my dad is a season-ticket holder and fervent supporter of his local team, and I used to go to matches with him when it was our weekends together. It was usually cold, and stadium seats are not the comfiest. But I always loved getting to choose which football shirt I wanted to wear, and spending the afternoon in matching colours, belonging to the same side.


Mal is my step-dad, and he and my mum live just round the corner from The Husband and I. Growing up, it was just Mum and I for many years, and we were, and still are, incredibly close, the best of friends. For anyone to join our perfect pair, and it feel anything other than a loss of the little world of two we inhabited, seemed unthinkable. However, Mal came along and, far from losing anything, I gained the most amazing step-dad and friend.

Knowing how content Mum and Mal are, gave me the freedom to be a teenager, a student, a girlfriend, and a wife, all the while knowing what a happy family I had to come back to. When we moved to this house, Mal and The Husband worked together decorating, building furniture, and more recently, making over our garden.

He is kind, generous, and a brilliant hugger. He will drop anything if I need him, whether it’s car problems, illness, or just a bad day, and always knows what to say. Mal made us into a family, but in such a sensitive way that he seemed to help preserve the closeness Mum and I shared, and when The Husband came along, the four of us seemed to be a perfect balance. We feel so lucky to have parents living nearby who we also count as friends.

However busy today might have been, I count myself blessed to have so many visits to make. I know that not everybody is this lucky, particularly when divorce and step-families are involved, and I will always be grateful and thankful for the wonderful men they are.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

recipe: lemon & lime drizzle cake

Everyone has a go-to recipe, a tried and tested reliable favourite. This is mine. A warning, you will end up with a very sticky kitchen. At least you will if you bake like I do, which involves every work surface available to me and an entirely excessive number of wooden spoons. However, it is nothing that a bowl of soapy water won’t fix, and the result is more than worth it.

I initially found the recipe here, and had great success with it. I have made changes over time, mostly the icing drizzle on top and preferring to cream together the butter and sugar first, just to get rid of lumps.
As becomes apparent from the photographs, this was another occasion when I increased the quantities, dare I admit that I actually quadrupled this recipe. In my (admittedly limited) defence we are visiting multiple family members tomorrow for Father’s Day and each household will have a donation of cake, so it honestly isn't all for me.

I would love to say I do sometimes bake a small batch of something but my approach tends to be, if I’m making some for me, I might as well make more and share it. I think the fact that I own three loaf tins says it all really.

The recipe below is just for one loaf cake, but as I have shown it can easily be increased. It has taken me many attempts to develop my now foolproof method of soaking the syrup into the cake, which is to pour it from a measuring jug while the cake is on a cooling rack, with a baking tray underneath to collect the drips. I then transfer the contents of the baking tray back to the jug, and repeat the soaking process between three and five times, depending on a combination of my patience levels, and the amount of syrup left.

I drizzle the icing using a teaspoon and a natty little flicking movement. Unfortunately I get rather carried away and often find a nice spatter effect up the sides of the nearest (and sometimes farthest) kitchen cupboards.

I’m not sure if I should make this next admission, in case it provides you just a little too much insight into my psyche. When I’m skewering the cake to make holes for the syrup to soak in, I pretend I’m a magician doing that trick with the person in the box. Was that a step too far, I fear I am verging on oversharing? I promise you don’t have to do that*, and this will still be an amazing cake.

 Recipe adapted from ginger ninger at

Ingredients (Makes one loaf cake)
175g softened butter
175g caster sugar
3 medium eggs
175g self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
Zest of 1-2 limes and 1-2 lemons
Juice of 1-2 limes and 1-2 lemons
100g granulated sugar
75g icing sugar

  1. Preheat oven to 180° and grease a standard loaf tin.
  2. Cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time and stir in. Add flour, baking powder and lemon and lime zest. Stir mixture well and transfer to tin.
  3. Bake in centre of the oven until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
  4. Whilst cake is baking, combine lemon and lime juice. Keep back a tablespoon of juice, and combine the rest with granulated sugar in a small pan. Cook over a low heat until sugar dissolved.
  5. When cake is cooked, transfer to cooling rack and place a baking tray underneath. Use a skewer to pierce holes across the surface of the cake from top to bottom (Abracadabra!).
  6. Transfer syrup to a jug and pour over the cake. When the drips have collected in the tray transfer them back the jug and repeat. Ideally do this around five times, or until all the syrup is used up.
  7. When the cake has cooled, combine the remaining juice with icing sugar. Add the icing sugar in stages until a thick, but runny consistency is achieved.
  8. Use a teaspoon to drizzle the icing over the cake.

*bet you will though, just for a minute when you think nobody is looking

Friday, 14 June 2013

you're sitting in that dusty chair

(Dave Matthews - Oh)

I do not consider myself a crafty person. I do not knit, crochet, stitch or sew. I do not paint, draw, sculpt or scrapbook. In fact, I can categorically say I do not do any of the things on this list, which surely must be exhaustive? It is certainly exhausting. I consider baking my creative outlet, and honestly, as long as it tastes good and stays reasonably in one piece, my presentation style is probably best described as rustic. There seems to be a recent resurgence in craft, I don’t imagine it ever went away, but perhaps previously people kept their decoupage on the down low. Perhaps it is credit crunch induced crafting, alongside the boom in baking; maybe people turn to patchworking as a cheap, fun activity. Maybe they just need more blankets now heating bills are rising.

I do have an interest in interior design. By which I mean, much like my collection of cookbooks, I love poring over magazines and watching property programmes. I don’t necessarily know that I’m particularly outlandish or original. Again, as with my cooking, I tend to go for classic combinations at home, and leave the opulence and extravagance for when I visit hotels and restaurants. However I do occasionally get a little creative, although admittedly on a very small scale.

We didn't decorate the main bedroom as soon as we moved in, preferring to wait and save up to do it properly. Having finally had bedroom furniture installed, the walls painted, the carpet fitted, and the curtains hung, we were still without a chair for my dressing table. We searched, but couldn't find one that looked right for the room. I had some spare pieces of the fabric used for the curtains and cushions and, I wondered whether it might be possible to recover a chair with it.

I realise this is not a particularly big deal as far as upholstery goes. We bought a chair that was exactly the right colour wood, and with a very plain seat pad. It wasn't extortionately priced, but it wasn't a cheap chair. So for me, the prospect of intentionally dismantling it, and purposefully pulling the fabric off the seat pad, with a vague notion of making it look better seemed laughable. Armed with Grandad’s trusty heavy duty staple gun, and a screwdriver, I tentatively took to work one evening in the middle of the lounge.

The Husband was told that he was not allowed to help. This was to be my project, and he very supportively watched, without interfering. One of the toughest parts was actually unpicking all of the staples that were in it to begin with to remove the original fabric. So very quickly The Husband was re-enlisted to help prise them all off, otherwise I would have been at it for hours. Once it was free from the shackles of the staples, the fabric was then used as template to cut my new material. At some point during this process Grandad also arrived. This was quite well-timed, as all three pairs of hands were required. The Husband and Grandad bravely holding the fabric firmly in place so it wouldn't crease, as I fired staples round their fingers.

And boy did I go to town with the staple gun. It makes one heck of a racket too, goodness knows what the neighbours thought. Let’s just say the fabric is going nowhere. After that, reattaching the seat to the chair frame was a cinch. I know it isn't going to win any prizes for project of the year, but I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out.

Just like the gardening we did this weekend, I find it’s the things I've invested some of my own time in, and have actually actively participated in, which then make me feel most at home. It’s a really simple thing, it took less than an evening, but every morning I’m reminded of the three of us crouching on the living room floor creating it. I love that it’s a complete one off, I love that it matches the room like nothing I ever could have bought, and I love the memories that were made alongside it.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

she put an apple in my eye

(Oasis - Waiting for the Rapture)

I recently had a courgette crisp disaster. Not one to be easily deterred, actually that’s piffle, I am incredibly easily deterred. However the support and encouragement of some fellow bloggers, thank-you Joanne and Gemma, ensured I didn’t give up at the first failure.

Whilst searching for the courgette recipe, I came across a few recipes for apple crisps. Glancing at the fruit bowl, it occurred to me that it would be useful to bookmark one for use in the (very) near future. So today, with an imminent fruit box delivery, and a day of working at home ahead of me (which invariably means repeatedly roaming around the kitchen looking for snacks), I thought it was a good idea to have a second attempt.

I tried to use the side of the box grater as a mandolin again, but with much less success, so an old-fashion knife and chopping board it was. I think I got a little carried away, as before I knew it the fruit bowl was empty. A knife was fairly inefficient though, I ended up with fewer slices, and a fair amount of waste where slices split through trying to get them thinner. I’ll be adding a mandolin to the shopping list soon no doubt.

Following fifteen spatulas recipe, I sprinkled the slices with cinnamon sugar (although I used a lot more cinnamon). This was the point where the courgette catastrophe became a little more understandable. I realised I had set my oven to the given temperature, which would be fine except mine is Celsius, and the recipe was in Fahrenheit. A rookie mistake, admittedly, but it made me a feel a little better about the fact that the courgettes had frazzled despite me conscientiously checking them and turning them every ten minutes.

So there would be no such amateurishness today. Oven set to the right temperature, the sliced apples went in for an hour. I kept peeping in and prodding them. Luckily the recipe was so clear, I didn’t panic that they stayed soggy. After an hour I flipped them, cautiously optimistic at the curled crispy edges. After another hour I should have turned them off. Reeling from my recent disaster, rebelling against the recipe that was serving me so well seemed foolish. But comparing my thick uneven slices with the dainty and delicate ones in the post, I thought mine would need a little longer. So I threw caution to the wind (this is as insubordinate as I get) and left them in for another half an hour.

They were still soft, but I knew that was ok, because the recipe told me so. They cooled in the oven for another hour (although I kept opening the door and taking ‘testers’). So confession number one, I wasn’t really sure what the ‘right’ texture was. I was expecting them to be crunchy, which they weren’t. So at first I thought I still hadn’t quite cracked the crisp. These reminded me of dried apple rings, and then I suddenly thought, perhaps that’s what they were supposed to be like. They were chewy and had a really good flavour. The cinnamon sugar wouldn’t be necessary but I enjoyed the addition.

Would I make these again? I’m not sure. The recipe was perfect (which is why I haven’t re-written it as it would actually be an exact copy), and required minimal effort. It used up the mountain of apples (admittedly with what felt like a bit of waste – but that was probably more my technique), and they were a healthy snack. As my fruit bowl suggests, I don’t tend to eat apples whole, so it was a good way to use them and enjoy them. My only thought, this isn’t a snack you make when you want a snack. Here’s the second confession - in the three and half hours they were in the oven (after fifteen minutes prep), I had succumbed to tea and biscuits instead. If I have a glut of apples in future I would definitely make some to have with oatmeal, or to take with lunch. But if I’m feeling a bit peckish and want something healthy, in future I’ll just eat the apple whole.

A Wondrous Place (Part Two*)

(*Click here for Part One)

As I was writing the last post, perhaps imbued with renewed recognition for my own personal landmarks, it occurred to me just how much I wanted to say about the Royal Exchange itself. So much so, that it inspired me to carry straight on and write this post too.

Much like my relationship with food, I can chart my life through the theatre. As a little girl, my mum and I had an annual trip to London, always including a theatre trip as part of our holiday. Starlight Express was a favourite, I still have the soundtrack on CD, and can give you a (painful) rendition of any song at a moment’s notice. I burst into tears at the end of Phantom of the Opera, not understanding how they could all be holding hands at the end – the concept of the curtain call is fairly elusive for a five year old who has been entirely swept away to another world for the previous few hours.

As I became interested in drama at school, with the aid of the most wonderful drama teacher, “proper plays” became the thing, with trips all over the country, igniting a passion for reading, watching, performing and directing. The Husband (who at that time was entirely disinterested in theatre) even wooed me by volunteering to do the sound and lighting for our GCSE drama performances, and was soon bitten by the bug too. As you may have deduced, that does indeed mean that we are childhood sweethearts – altogether now, ahhhhhh.

Sixth form led to acting roles, tech roles, and I even ran a drama club for younger pupils, one or two of whom have pursued careers in acting (though I do not dare to claim any credit, much more likely to be that they shared the same inspiring teacher I had). At our respective universities The Husband (or boyfriend as he then was) both took on roles, me directing musicals in my halls of residence, him becoming tech director for the University Drama Society.

And the Royal Exchange alone charts for me, so many stages. Those first visits with school, the excitement of a trip, seeing studied texts brought to life. I fell in love with theatre in the round, the chance to sit in different seats and see a different side to the same story. As a student I diligently queued for the banquette seats, bonded with new friends over impromptu theatre visits, when spontaneous trips into town were the norm. Even after studentdom, the Cheep tickets made the theatre cheaper than cinema. My mum and step-dad would invariably book for a Monday so we had the option of joining them without breaking the bank. We would sit after and have a coffee in the bar. Often the cast congregated in there afterwards. My mum openly actor-watching, while I tried to be nonchalant, all the while eavesdropping and feeling privileged to see the people behind the performances.

I remember my first trip to the studio, feeling like I might even be verging on cool by seeing a production there. I loved it when the restaurant themed the menu to the current production (theatre and food combined, oh my). I have sat on every tier, and every row at one time or another. I have seen the stage fill with water (intentionally), and whole structures descend from the ceiling. I am unfailingly mesmerised by the contrasting constructions as you enter, the domed ceilings, and the history of the building.

I felt properly grown-up when I was too old for the Cheep tickets, and fiercely independent when I would go, as a student, to watch alone. I have had surprise birthday trips there, and gone for pure escapism when my world needed putting to rights. I have seen plays I thought I knew inside-out, and come away with a completely new perspective. I have been left feeling every different emotion, but always with plenty to talk about. I have always felt at home in the theatre, and nowhere is that more true than at the Royal Exchange. So much of my own history is visible to me there, and I don’t doubt much of my future too.

A Wondrous Place (Part One*)

(Aladdin - A Whole New World)

Before I start this post properly – do you know how many Disney songs have “a wondrous place” in them. Three. Three different songs (sorry if I ruined that guessing game a little quickly). I had an earworm which I thought, and was right, was from Aladdin (click the link above – have you noticed I’d been doing that yet – no effort spared here). But this one also has those words (something inside me died a little when I read the words “Disney Princess Franchise”) and this one is actually named A Wondrous Place. This post is not about Disney, but I wanted some song lyrics, and unfortunately the BillyFury/Alice Gold (and many other people) song does not include the A and I’m nothing if not pedantic.

Anyway pop quiz over. A Wondrous Place is the name of the play The Husband and I saw last night. Anyone who obsessively stalks me on twitter (nope? nobody?) may have noticed that I thanked the Royal Exchange for my free tickets. I won them in a twitter competition the Royal Exchange were running, but there was no expectation that I would blog about it  in return, I just wanted to, and all opinions are my own (ooh my first blogging disclaimer!). On the subject of opinions, I’m not sure what mine are worth, and I don’t feel in anyway qualified to class this as a review (which does somewhat lend itself to the debate of what qualifies critics to critique but I shall resist).

So let’s get it out of the way – there was a technical hiccup at the start. Having been a tech director for many productions (even some that people paid for) I know that fear. It’s usually pretty difficult to hide a mis-timed lighting cue (particularly a blackout), or inappropriate sound effect. The problem last night was exactly that, a problem, not a mistake. It was handled professionally, fixed quickly, and once the performances began was very soon completely irrelevant. I think it speaks volumes about a cast and crew though, particularly on opening night at a venue, to skip right on through something like that, and leave the audience (us, anyway) chatting animatedly about the production the whole way home, without a second thought to the mishap.

All the more remarkable in the context of The Husband, who is even more of a seasoned tech director than me, and who I often find staring at the lighting rig during productions. And it is worth a moment to point out how effective and well-executed the technical elements of the production were. An impressive, interactive set, which worked brilliantly with the pace of the piece, and helped bring four different landscapes to life.

A Wondrous Place was four pieces, by four writers, about four contemporary cities – Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle. Although distinct, with a different actor taking the lead for each, the production and cast felt really cohesive. It always frustrates me when audience members leave during the interval (I’m not sure if this is because the Manchester piece was before the break), but the second half had just as much to offer.

All of the cast members delivered captivating performances, and although written quite differently, all four pieces were engaging. I have to say though, it was Dog, Luke Barnes’ piece based in Liverpool, that had us talking all the way home. In some ways I think this was a reflection on the much darker content in comparison with the others, but the performance by Adam Search left us floored, and both feeling we had seen a great talent.

It was energetic, fast-paced, witty and overwhelmingly positive. Some of the pieces tended towards a city tour feel, but for me that was part of the appeal. The buildings, the street names, that weave the fabric of our everyday lives, become much more than landmarks, they are enmeshed with our own sense of self. Despite being from Manchester I’ve never been an ardent “Northerner” but I am passionate about my home city. That sense of civic pride, and the gems, sometimes unrecognised, on our own doorstep, resonated strongly with me. A thoroughly enjoyable night, and well worth the trip.

(*Click here for Part Two)

Monday, 10 June 2013

flaming flowers that brightly blaze

(Don McLean - Vincent)

Blogging seems to be a public version of the tried-and-tested technique of reflecting on positive things that have happened. I have been trying to determine if I am proactively doing more positive things because I anticipate blogging about them, but I think I am just increasingly aware of things that are already happening. If no effort is made to pause and take note, days can get lost in the blur of routine. 

Sunday had the potential to be what I like to term a ‘grey day’. Yes, even in the beautiful sunshine we were having I was feeling a little glib (I do like that word – somehow onomatopoeic, if a mood ever had a sound). Partly the sunshine was to blame. I am not a sunshine person. I like winter nights with hot drinks and blankets. I like blustery wind and downpours of rain, even if I am outside – perhaps I enjoy the sense of existing against the elements (in a very mild, damp shoes, frizzy hair way – Bear Grylls I am not).  But summer. Dear me no, it is not my thing.

I do not doubt part of the problem is a lack of the appropriate apparel. I like jeans, jumpers, cardigans, scarves. I am queen of knitwear. Skirts reside purely in the only-for- work wardrobe. Shorts are a complete no-go. Dresses I like, but the floaty fashions that fit so well with the hazy days of summer, alas, do not fit so well on me. 

Pesky sunshine aside, it just looked to be one of those days. There were weekend chores to be done. I went to clean the juicer, and found (much to my shame) that apple pulp from a few (clearly more than I thought) days ago had gone mouldy. I nearly took a picture, in this sort of fashion, but couldn’t quite bring myself.

But then we got gardening, a full family affair. The Husband and my step-dad had the arduous task of uprooting a conifer we haven’t liked since we moved in. Mum and I applied ourselves happily to purchasing pretty new plants. Under the watchful eye of the man in the shop, we picked the right mix of evergreen and deciduous (the first time I used variegated in conversation since GCSE biology). 

We trundled home with our horticultural haul, and slowly, surely, our little garden transformed. I even enjoyed the sunshine, realising that nobody gardens in a floaty fashion, so trainers and a scruffy t-shirt were perfectly appropriate attire. And trousers too of course. Let’s not get carried away.

The garden never previously felt like ours – the only plant was the conifer, a relic, a reminder of owners past. To have it gone, and replace it with colour and variety, including my favourite, a lilac plant by the door so the scent hits as you walk up the path, felt like a massive achievement. And the juicer got cleaned, and the house tidied too, so a good day all in all.

Sadly, today has been a little peh again (thank-you to The Coffee Lady for that perfect adjective). I tried to make courgette and rocket salad inspired by Eats Well With Others' salad Mondays, and GemsMaquillage food diary. It was bland and I still had lots of courgettes. I attempted these courgette crisps. Thrilled to find a mandolin of sorts on my box grater, I got distracted by my ingenuity, and the resulting charred circles, were far more crisp than courgette. It has been one of those days. Consequently, my newly-intended health kick has already waned, I cancelled my gym class (the perils of online booking systems), and stayed home instead.

But peh will persist for as long as I let it. And writing this has made me grateful all over again for the achievements of yesterday. Helped further by The Husband returning from shopping (it says it all that I opted out of food shopping – and shows how much I trust The Husband that he is allowed to go it alone!), complete with a shiny new watering can. I’m going to wander outside in the last of the light, refresh the plants and myself, and breathe in the heady scent of lilac.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

recipe: cocoa & walnut brownies

After dinner on Friday I got the urge to bake. This was an urge arising from a combination of factors. Firstly I wanted a treat for with film night. Secondly was wifely guilt. When The Husband got in from work I'd shown him this blog post (not to read - I'm still too self-conscious for that) just to show him the pretty pictures I was proud of having inserted. He saw the picture of the cake and ran (honestly, actually ran) into the kitchen thinking I had baked it that day. So I suddenly felt like perhaps it would be nice to actually bake something for the two of us. Thirdly, I thought it might be good to blog about! Brownies were an obvious choice, quick and simple (or they would’ve been had I not developed the blogger's habit of step-by-step photography), perfect for a quick sweet treat, and destined to fill the house with the bewitching aroma of baking.

During a particularly hectic week recently, I was craving brownies, but had no chocolate in the house (which was possibly why I was craving brownies!). I then found that we had no eggs either - as I say it was a hectic week. I found this recipe and thought I would try it, but, as another commenter noted, although it was simple and the smell and texture was great, there was, to me, a noticeable aftertaste from the vegetable oil. They still got eaten (I'm not sure quite how bad a chocolate brownie would have to be for me to bin it) but I knew it wasn't a recipe I'd use again.

This time we had eggs, and walnuts, so Smitten Kitchen's recipe looked hopeful, and although I have reproduced it below, I didn't alter it at all, except to make double the quantity. It was a complete success, very straightforward - I did try the microwave technique with no problems, and as I say, had I forgone the photography these would have been in the oven within ten minutes. Even including stirring it forty times to incorporate the flour, which I diligently did, and found it quite therapeutic.

So that made a lot of brownies. Over forty I think. Of varying sizes, I am not a precise slicer. They weren't all for us, much to The Husband's disappointment, although we had plenty left. Some I took round to my mum and stepdad, with him eating two while I stood there chatting, and Mum texting me later to say how good they were when she had tried one too. Another batch were for Mum's neighbours who are having a rough couple of weeks and have family visiting. Some more were on offer when my friend visited on Saturday.

That's one of my favourite things about baking, and why I always make large batches. It’s easy enough to double up most recipes, and giving some unexpected goodies to let someone know you’ve been thinking of them is always a nice feeling, and generally makes people smile. So here is Smitten Kitchen's recipe, in quantities big enough to share far and wide, perfect for spreading some brownie based love.

Recipe adapted (very slightly) from Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients (Makes 40-50 brownies)

280g unsalted butter
500g caster sugar
130g unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
5 medium eggs, cold
130g plain flour
150g walnut pieces


1.     Preheat oven to 180°C and grease baking tins (I used three – it depends how thick you like your brownies!)
2.     Combine butter, sugar, cocoa powder and salt in a microwaveable bowl. Microwave on full power in 15 second bursts – stirring each time until butter fully melted and ingredients combined.
3.     Add vanilla, then one egg at a time, stirring thoroughly after each one.
4.     When well-combined add flour, stir until it has disappeared, then stir well for 40 strokes (Smitten Kitchen’s magic hint!)
5.     Add nuts and stir well. Pour mix into baking tins and spread evenly.
6.     Bake in oven until an toothpick/knife inserted into centre emerges slightly moist – this took 30 minutes in my oven.
7.     Leave to cool, then transfer from tins to cutting board and cut into squares.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

recipe: spinach & mushroom penne

Although I haven’t fashioned this as a food blog, its becoming quickly apparent that one of things I find most interesting to write about is food, buying it, cooking it, sharing it and eating it. Which isn't a surprise to me really as that’s pretty much what interests me in real life too.

So although I plan to keep the topics broad, I’m not going to resist the calling to write about one of my favourite things! Taking stock of my recipe books, and the arrival of the latest box from Riverford, combined into this dinner on Friday night. It was adapted from a Mary Berry recipe which included blue cheese, cream and nutmeg, none of which were to hand. Mushrooms, spinach and penne I did have though, so a few quick substitutions and away we went.

Before I go any further, I have to admit mushrooms are not my favourite thing. The Husband (who when I told him this was his label, was not impressed as it makes him sound ‘ominous’, but we are yet to find an alternative) loves mushrooms, so I keep trying to convince myself that I do too. I love the flavour, and will eat them in any dish when they are finely chopped and well disguised.

However, when they are the mainstay of the dish, like in this particular recipe, it doesn't really do to try and cover up the fact that they are there. I enjoyed this dish, but in the interests of full disclosure, there were a few stray mushrooms lining the bottom of the bowl when I finished. The Husband was pleased by this as it vindicated him after a memorable meal a few weeks ago when he sat and picked the courgettes out of a vegetable sauce dish I had made.

Mushrooms aside, this is my ideal Friday night supper. Quick, tasty and reasonably healthy. It wasn't too heavy considering the warm weather we were having but still felt right for a cosy night in. Italy is one of our favourite places, and a big part of that is the amazing food. The Husband would eat pasta every night if he could, perhaps taking a break intermittently to switch it up with some pizza.

If we don’t have plans on a Friday, we usually make it a movie night. After dinner we closed the curtains, had a glass of wine, and watched Argo. It had come highly recommended and I can understand why. I've been a fan of Ben Affleck since Good Will Hunting, and based on Gone Baby Gone was expecting it be a good watch with him as director, and I wasn't disappointed. I can’t remember the last time a film hooked me in and kept me gripped right until the credits rolled.

Ingredients (Serves Two to Three)

250g penne pasta
1 clove of garlic – chopped or crushed
30g butter
175g mushrooms - sliced
200g cream cheese
30ml skimmed milk
60g spinach – coarsely chopped
60g cheddar cheese - grated
1 medium egg – lightly beaten


1.       Bring salted water to the boil and add the pasta. Continue to boil until cooked to your taste.
2.       In a large pan melt the butter over a medium heat.
3.       Add finely chopped garlic to the butter, stir well and cook on medium heat for a minute or so.
4.       Add sliced mushrooms to the melted butter and garlic. Season well with salt and pepper and cook on medium heat until softened, stirring occasionally.
5.       Add cream cheese and milk to the mushrooms. Stir well until sauce takes a smooth consistency. Continue to simmer until pasta is cooked.
6.       Once the pasta is cooked , add a few tablespoons of the pasta water to the mushroom sauce and stir well. Drain the pasta, and add this to the mushroom sauce. Stir well until the pasta is well coated with the sauce.
7.       Add the beaten egg to the pasta and mushrooms and stir well. Add the chopped spinach and grated cheese to the pasta and mushrooms. Stir until well combined, and then continue to cook on a medium heat until spinach has wilted and cheese has melted. Once cooked through serve.