Wednesday, 23 March 2011


As a child, the closest I ever got to sleeping over at friends’ was spending a few murky hours in a tent, pitched in the back garden of our next door neighbour’s house. Camping at dusk sounded fun. However, not when you are laying top-to-tail with your best friend’s little brother who just happened to own the smelliest pair of feet in Bolton. Poking my head through the flap was sweet relief but gazing through the privet hedge and beyond at the warm light surrounding my mother’s silhouette at our kitchen window was unbearable. I was soon through the gap in the fence and mewling like a wet cat waiting to be let in at the backdoor. The door would open, in I would slink and Mum would smile, “I told you so.”
If a more comfortable arrangement had been offered would I have wanted to spend the night with any of my friends? I’m musing... I’m thinking... probably not. Let’s see... there was Joanne across the road. Now her mother was a notorious brag - forever boasting to my mother about “our Joanne” and how her “bedroom was a children’s paradise.” And it was true – Joanne’s bed was as soft as duck down and she was always the first to own the latest creation from Mattel. Her Barbie, it was said, and I can confirm, owned more outfits than Joan Collins. Joanne, however, had one fatal flaw. She didn’t like cats. I’m pondering... sharing a bed with Raggedy Ann and Andy or a big scraggedy ginger tomcat? No contest.

Susan, my next door neighbour friend, liked cats. We would sit side-by-side on the front step. She with her fat ginger tom and I with mine. Like companionable chimpanzees we would thumb through their thick sandy fur and pick out fleas holding each doomed finding aloft against the sun before remorselessly pressing their blood-bloated bodies against our thumb nails and relishing the snap. When daylight began to fade, however, and the air cooled, Susan would take her love of the macabre just a touch too far and regale ghost stories until I became benumbed by fear. My nervous disposition could never have dealt with a full night of ghouls and vampires; witches and warlocks.
Deborah was another friend and she lived lower down the street. She had a back garden swing. I  wasn’t allowed inside her house (so a sleepover would have been nigh impossible), but occasionally, throughout the long summer holidays, Deborah was able to play outside; she would sneak me in through the back gate and I would swing to and fro while she watched timidly, hands clutching the swing’s rusted frame, refusing to take part in who-can-reach-the-highest. Her mother, you see, would go demented if Deborah dared dirty the seat of her dress. I knew and feared the tyrannical authority of a stern father, it was my norm, but to have a strict mum was unthinkable. My mother’s voice was as soft as whispers and never minded that my socks were soiled or my shoes muddy. No - to be scrubbed clean and ordered to bed at 7pm every night while the birds still sang and before the TV watershed would have provided poor ingredients for sleepovers.
Decades have now passed and I’m delighted to announce I’ve found the perfect companion for sleeping over. We stay up late and watch Laurel and Hardy films. We press our cheeks into the cats’ fur and listen to them talk. Real speak not spit and purr. We read Flower Fairies and then sleep comforted by the night light. We wake with a need to be in the kitchen. We laugh a lot while we bake muffins and eat them whilst they are hot from the oven.
Meet my six year old niece, Rebecca.

Face Paint

I am your Auntie Littley. You say my name like it’s an unwrapped sweet – sticky on your tongue. You hold out your hand and in it I see a little monkey with big bug eyes. I take it from you and stare into its face. I see you as a baby. Pushed from your mother’s womb too early. A bag of sugar dressed in candy pink. Swollen eyelids struggling to contain eyes as bright and round as marbles. Your life is reduced to a glowing rawness. I visit you in your warm limbo between unborn and born. I try not to wonder at your pain. I wonder if you cry. I touch and go. I leave you to your world of whooshing voices and booming machines. Your new world of foggy colour and giant hovering limbs. We wait for you to incubate.

You grow and smile and laugh.

You link my arm as we watch the clowns. One fat; one thin. I ask which you like best and you need seconds before pointing at Stan. I am surprised. I thought it would be Ollie. I smile at your concern for the underdog. We are side-by-side in our sleepover and I tell you about the poppy fairy. We read Cat Tales. You share your doll and tell me her name is Rosy. Boo sings us to sleep.

It is 8am and you are awake. I envy you your wide awake eyes and goddess-beautiful tresses. I show you how to poach eggs as Uncle Biggy brews tea. You feed toast soldiers to the cats. Now it is time to make muffins. There are too many hands measuring out the ingredients; the worktop is powdered brown and white. Your cuffs are covered in cocoa and the cats have flour on their whiskers. We are laughing so much that we forget about the melting butter spitting on the heat. You ruffle up your nose as I let you smell the buttermilk’s sourness before it pours into the bowl. You shake in the chocolate chips and say it’s ready.  The smell of baking makes us hungry and we eat muffins straight from the tin.

The cats watch mesmerised as you cover your fingers in paint and dab colours on the egg box. They need to join in and sniff at the paint pots. Uncle Biggy places a blue bowl of water on the worktop so you can clean your hands. A craft feather lands in the bowl and I say it looks like feather soup. You are inspired. More and more feathers are used to make a thick colourful feathery broth. I don’t mind the waste. It has made you happy. You stick spongy letters on the gift bag: MUM – we can’t find a D so you stick on TOM and you wait for the muffins to be put inside. You smile; you like to give presents.

It is 3pm and it is time for you to go. Your dad eats a muffin from the gift bag and we wait to hear him say yummy. Your mum pats her tummy and says she is being good. She has a new dress and can’t eat any chocolate muffins. I watch as your face smiles through the car window. We wave goodbye.

Becky-Boo’s Chocolate Muffins
Having a six year old chocolate girl come to stay does have its drawbacks. Four years ago, I resolved to give up chocolate for good and I lasted out a good long while. If not pleased then I’ll say I’m somewhat reluctant to announce that I have reintroduced chocolate into my diet. Not huge brick-sized bars of it. That would be greedy. But there can’t be anything wrong with the odd sampling of a child’s home-baked chocolate chip muffin, can there? My reasoning may only be queried if you saw how many spoons of cocoa powder and shakes of chocolate chips went into these dark little domes.

We needed a somewhat hardy recipe to withstand Becky’s abuse of all things chocolatey and so used Nigella Lawson’s recipe for blueberry muffins as our base. Taken from her baking book How to be a Domestic Goddess - these are beautiful baked just as she intended with 200g of fresh plump blueberries instead of the cocoa and chocolate chips. Nigella uses buttermilk in her recipe to dampen the texture of her muffins and offer up a lactic tang which, in our adapted version, helps cut through the dense bitterness of the cocoa.
75g unsalted butter
200g plain flour
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
75g caster sugar
Pinch of salt
200ml buttermilk (or 100g yoghurt and 100ml semi-skimmed milk)
1 large egg
Packet chocolate chips (or to taste)
2-3 tablespoons (heaped) cocoa powder
12 bun muffin tray lined with 12 paper cases

Begin by melting the butter and setting aside to cool. Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6.
Combine all the dry ingredients (apart from the chocolate chips).
Beat together the buttermilk, egg and melted butter in a separate bowl or jug.
Mix the milky ingredients in with the dry using a wooden spoon.
Add the chocolate chips (saving a few to decorate the tops).
Spoon into the muffin cases and decorate the tops with the remaining chips.
Bake for 20 minutes until risen and firm to touch.
You can eat them warm or cold as you desire. Becky split hers open as you would a sponge pudding and ate it whilst steaming with a dollop of chocolate chip ice cream melting on top. Yes, impressive and all before 10am.

Artwork by Rebecca Gradwell
Face paint and hospital images by Tom Gradwell

Friday, 4 March 2011

For want of a butter knife...

In my kitchen’s space, I’d looked far and wide. Drawers - ransacked, cupboards - scanned, fridge - scoured, dishwasher - emptied. Where had it got to? My favourite piece of cutlery. Part of my kitchen family since Christmas 2004. Star of so many blog postings. So elegant and perfectly formed that a friend of mine thought it French – I can’t remember whether I informed her of its more humble origins: from BHS as part of a cheese and chutney set bought for me by my mother.  A woman’s instinct whispered in my ear and led me to her husband. That very same husband who had worked through an entire collection of dainty pink Laura Ashley wine glasses managing to crack each in turn. The very same life-partner who had pulled the sink unit door from its hinges just by leaning against it. Yes and wasn’t it he who chipped a hole in our granite hearth? The voice continued to nag.  And how can I forget the perfect circle of singe on the mantelpiece, left by a conflagration of candle flame. Not to mention the gaping hole in the bathroom sink – the aftermath of his (note the masculine pronoun) tumbling pot of night cream.
“What has happened to my favourite butter knife?”
“Oh, that. Sorry, I forgot to mention – it came apart when I was washing it. I threw it away.”
It was a good enough reason for embarking on our thrice-yearly trip to Bygone Times. A gigantic warehouse crammed full of just about anything: from wonky-keyed pianos to West German pottery; from naked baby dolls with drooping eyelids to aged macramé hanging baskets.  A veritable cornucopia of clutter awaits you (and us) as we began our journey, on a mist-filled rainy Sunday, in search of a replacement butter knife.
I take my camera with me today. I must add here that I harbour neither the boldness nor casualness required to capture those truly dynamic snapshots of urban life. Indeed, the subject-ready hustle bustle of shoppers and eagle-eyed stall-holders only serve to douse the tiny bit of camera-confidence I may hold and so, surreptitiously, I unpick my lens cap – look cautiously from left to right and then up and down before pointing and shooting at a beautifully wrought fat lava jug just an eye-blink away from being sold.  What should only happen in episodes of Mr Benn descends upon me and as if by magic the shopkeeper appears. He is intrigued and asks why I am taking shots of his beloved West German pottery. I am pleased I have been caught, as I find him an entertaining promoter of his wares. As I learn of its origins I respectfully put on my reading glasses and take a closer look at the pictured jug with its heavy glaze and pleasingly pitted surface. The magnified price tag tells me the jug cost £27.50 not the £7.00 I thought I’d read in my un-spectacled state. And so I must save my pennies for I do so love that little speckled jug.

Stuart’s stall is the first you see as you pass the entrance desk; his gaudily coloured pots stand out against the drab and ramshackle displays of his fellow stall-holders. Yet on these dusty shelves, among the cracked teapots and long-ago-loved china, I know I will find what I’m looking for. I always do. And for the loss of one, I gain six: taped carelessly to the fragile ochre silk cushioning of a tatty dark case lie a set of modest dark green-handled butter knives. Their plainness and therefore functionality suggests they began life in the 1930s but this notion only derives from impressions I may hold of that dark and frugal decade wherein my mother was born.

Satisfied with my find, we make our way to Martin’s favourite stall where, amid the scent of days gone by, you can be intoxicated by the new age waft of incense and perfumed oils. This stall is strewn with packets of joss sticks, miniature bottles of essential oils, crystals and beads, tarot cards and runes. Martin is as predictable in his choice of incense as he is in his choice of underpants. He reaches for three packets of patchouli and ignores my requests for the more sensual ylang-ylang or invigorating clove. I do not argue. There is an unspoken rule in our house that man shall be master of his own groovy vibes.

Books. There are more books than you can waft a joss stick at in Bygone Times: from antiquated folios to Haynes manuals; from The Complete Works of Shakespeare to The Viz Bumper Book of Shite; poetry and prose; fact and fiction – it’s all here in varying states of newness and decay. Although I do love the look and feel of books brand new: their creaseless jackets and hot-off-the-press perfume and that sense of discovering uncharted territory – there are equal pleasures to be found in their pre-owned condition. This is particularly so with cookery books. Open any second-hand Delia and the spirit of the cook spills out, an eager and reassuring kitchen companion in the guise of a food splodge: a streak of tomato juice, a smear of butter and all those fading teardrops of a good red wine – each are whispering secrets for a perfect recipe.
Before we make our way to the purchase desk I see another kitchen must-have: the ubiquitous Mason Cash stoneware mixing bowl – so ubiquitous in fact, that I (a so-called veteran cook), have never owned one. A fine web of cracks decorates the bowl’s interior but the butterscotch-beige sides are unblemished. A perfect baking heirloom. I take it to the till.

And home I go with my husband, his incense, a small canteen of cutlery and a universally-loved mixing bowl.  
Irish Soda Bread   
For want of a single butter knife I now have no fewer than six - accompanied by a well-used mixing bowl. It goes without saying that I’m inspired to cook. Or rather bake. And what better way to utilise these nascent treasures than to produce a steeped-in-tradition loaf ready to slice and spread thickly with salted butter. Nigel Slater’s Lazy Loaf seems perfect. The following recipe was featured on BBC TV’s Simple Suppers and I recall watching with delight as Nigel patted his dough into a neat cushion before placing it tenderly inside a pre-heated casserole pot. Snug and warm like a sleeping kitten.  I was eager to try out this well-petted soda bread and have made it many times since. Nigel admits to throwing his first loaf away – a brittle mound dropped on the lawn for 'daws to peck at. I would like to announce (rather smugly) that the rooftop jackdaws squawked in temper the first time I baked this bread. I shared not one crumb.
225g (8oz) Wholemeal flour
225g (8oz) Plain flour
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
350ml (12fl oz buttermilk)
1-2 tablespoons of oats (optional)

Preheat the oven to 220C/425F (gas 8). Place a large casserole dish (cast iron works perfectly) and its lid into the oven.
In a large mixing bowl, mix the flours, oats (if using), salt, sugar and bicarbonate of soda together with your fingers. Pour in the buttermilk, bringing the mixture together as a soft dough. Working quickly, shape the dough into a shallow round loaf about 4cm/1½in thick. The recipe asks for haste as the bicarbonate of soda starts to react with the buttermilk immediately. However, don’t worry if it takes a little time to extract the sticky dough from your fingers and amalgamate it with the rest of the flour.
Remove the heated casserole dish from the oven and dust the inside lightly with flour. Sprinkle the top of the loaf with a few oats (if using) then lower the dough into the pot. Cover with the lid and return to the oven.
Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let it stand in place for 5 minutes before turning out and leaving to cool slightly before eating.

Once the lid is lifted and as the steam heats your face you may introduce yourself to a perfectly baked soda bread. And although the original recipe does not call for oats I think their addition today adds a deeper bygone charm to an already rustic bread. I slice into the thick nutty loaf, spread it with an obscene amount of butter and savour its grainy chewiness.