I’m in Essex girl…Part Two

One thing that I left out of the account of day one was the somewhat unusual conversation that took place between the hours of midnight and six am. Now, despite having a somewhat overactive brain, I’m not actually given to debate, and especially not on the matter of religion. It’s not that I don’t think about these things, just that I tend not to discourse on them. I find that with only the slightest stimulation, my brain goes into hyperdrive and simply won’t shut up and go to bed for hours like an errant child.
Which is why, when talk turned first to the supernatural, and swiftly after that to religion, I tried first of all to steer the conversation away, and when that failed, resorted to a clever little tactic I learnt in debate club. For anyone not skilled in the art of debate, I’ll fill you in. What you do is, take your fingers, put them in your ears, while simultaneously going ‘la la la la’.
I tried this for a while, and soon realised that the discussion was continuing apace. I had no choice but to get involved. In those hours before dawn, we discussed religion, the place of God in society today, what would happen if God as a concept were to be ‘phased out’, and if so what would replace religion, Dawkins, before finally rounding up with a discussion on relationships and gender roles. It felt like I hadn’t used my brain since university, and it took me a while to be able to talk eloquently or with any sort of structure. I didn’t entirely manage it, not while the sky was getting lighter and the gin and tonics were still in my system.
It did make me think, though. We get so out of the habit of debating (‘philosophising’ as Chekhov always called it, to my delight) once we leave our years of study, and the power to reason slips floppily away. Blancmange brain, I call it. I think it’s incredibly important to keep this at bay, and I’m keen to start reading more, and…well, thinking.
At around 8am, I woke. Shards of sunlight broke their way into the room, and despite having to keys, and both Sean and Nanna being asleep, I knew I had to explore. Harwich is so full of history, and not just in that ‘ooh, every house has a plaque’ way. It’s more a physical thing. You can feel it seeping into the walls, the buildings, the atmosphere. It sounds like utter rubbish, but there’s something there. (Not just my hangover)
Morning turned to afternoon, my two companions woke up, and it was time to face the world. We drove through spectacular countryside, pitched up in a delightful town (Maningtree, I believe) and perused the local market. I was already delighted enough, and yet still we drove on. Eventually we rounded a few narrow lanes, and there we were. The most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.
We’d eventually found our way to Constable’s old stamping ground (for want of a better phrase), Flatford Mill. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt quite as calm and at peace as on that day, with the sun beating down the back of my neck, bare legs in the river, with swans and boats drifting aimlessly along around me. We spotted where Constable had painted from, examining his perspectives. We sat in Flatford field for ages, eating elderflower sorbet, letting every worry unfold and escape.
 After experiencing the wonder of this stunning little place, we rolled on to Dedham. Sean showed us ‘Camp Musical Theatre Jesus’, hanging on the wall of Dedham church. With apologies to our Lord Jesus Christ – this was a Constable interpretation, and….wow. If you listen very, very carefully, you can actually hear the great JC singing ‘I am what I am…and what I am needs no excuses…’ I was utterly captivated by the old school at Dedham. Rusty bricks were carved with the names of schoolboys, on the day they left to go into the big wide world (probably still Dedham, for most of them…) We saw dates from the 1700s, and there was something so strange and humbling about touching a name like that.
Far too soon, we were back in Harwich and packing our stuff. Cider in a pub courtyard, a lot of thank you’s later, a long drive and infinitely more car dancing later, and we were home. Perfect weekend. 

Sink me! My first brush with a soufflé

My little iPhone calendar thingy says ‘June’. I have a little giggle to myself, because Steve Jobs’ technology has clearly gone madly and horrifically wrong. Looked outside recently, little iPhone? No, clearly not. Because anyone with even half a sense of perception can see it’s obviously October. So, a Saturday afternoon on a schizophrenic day that is half gorgeous sunshine and half bonfires and drizzle. This presented me with quite a quandary about what to bake, as clearly neither a bright and breezy pavlova OR berry-based spicy confection would fly at all. 

I scanned the bookcase groaning under the weight of a myriad cookery books, my eyes flicking along until I saw the woefully underused Green and Black’s ‘Ultimate Chocolate Recipes - The New Collection’. Now, who am I to argue with something calling itself the ‘Ultimate’? I actually very rarely fancy chocolate, but today was one of those rare occasions. It took me a while to locate the recipe I wanted, but once I spotted the right one, I knew. Deep in my heart, I knew that this was the cake I had to make. ‘Chocolate and chestnut soufflé cake’.

It seemed perfect – a bit of Autumn in there, with that chestnut (not to mention that I’ve long coveted those little tins of chestnut pureé in Waitrose), but light enough with the soufflé element.

Don’t be scared. This was my first ever soufflé, and it went perfectly. It can for you too.

Green & Black’s Chocolate and Chestnut Soufflé Cake

Ingredients
25g soft unsalted butter
125g unsalted butter
125g dark (70% cocoa solids) chocolate, broken into pieces
A pinch of salt
250g can Clement Faugier vanilla chestnut spread (Waitrose stocks this!)
100ml semi-skimmed milk
3 large free-range eggs
75g caster sugar
Good-quality cocoa powder, for dusting
Creme fraiche, to serve

1. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees C/gas mark 3. Does anyone actually use the gas mark thingy? I might just stop putting it in. Anyway, smear a 20cm tin with butter (with a removable base if you have that luxury). Line it with parchment paper. I personally put the tin ON the paper, trace a line round it in pencil, then cut to size. If you’re super cautious, you can put this tin on a baking tray too.

 

 2. Meanwhile, in a universe far, far away…heat up the chestnut puree with milk in a separate pan. I’d tell you to take it out of the can first, but you’re a clever bunny, aren’t you? Stir until smooth again…I already used the Chippendale joke didn’t I?

 

3. Separate eggs and yolks, and whisk the yolks and sugar in a bowl.

4. Pour the chestnut mixture into the chocolate, and make sure you stir it well. Stir it until you think you’re done, then stir it one more time. Make a wish if you have to.

 

5. Stir it into the egg yolks, and mix to make a smooth batter. Yes, this recipe is sponsored by the words ‘stir’ and ‘smooth’.

6. In a new bowl (by this time your kitchen should look like a bombsy tit, as Adam and Joe say), whisk the egg whites into stiff peaks. You have to test this in the traditional way – pick the bowl up, turn it upside down, and lift it over your head. If it all goes wrong, egg whites make an amazing hair mask, so don’t worry.

 

7. Now for the chance-y bit. Use a metal spoon to stir in one spoonful of egg white into the chocolate mixture. Fold in, gently.

8. Bit by bit, stir the rest of the egg whites in, folding lightly. You’ll need to make sure it’s properly mixed, but just don’t stir too vigorously.

9. Pour the mixture into the tin, then pop into the oven for 25 minutes. It’ll rise, go a bit wobbly in the middle, then sink towards the end, as cracks start to appear – like Cheryl Cole’s career.

 

10. Take it out, leave it to cool, then slide it out of the tin. I left the parchment paper on, to give it a little support, but you can peel this away. It’s very satisfying.

11. Cover with clingfilm for 2 hours, then dust with cocoa powder.

 And, you’ve survived your first ever soufflé. Celebrate by eating it.  

I’m in Essex girl….Part One

….well, Harwich, actually. Which is on the Essex/Suffolk border. But that’s not quite as catchy, is it?

Anyway, after my delightful friend Sean trecked all the way down from said sea port town for my birthay party back in January, he issued us with an invitation to come up and see him (he probably added ‘make me smiiiiile’, being the musical theatre performer that he is.) It took us a shoddy amount of time organising – over four months to be precise – but new jobs and MBAs and adulthood got in the way. Anyway, the bout of long weekends we were blessed with in May seemed like the perfect solution.

And so it was that on a sunny afternoon, I piled into my friend Nanna’s little car with inordinate amounts of shopping bags and two VERY glittery Lola’s Cupcakes for sustenance. We slipped on a little bit of ‘Slammin’ & Jammin’ (Nanna is nothing if not a BRILLIANT CD namer) and off we steamed.

Now, before I tell you what happened next, I must explain a little something. Before ‘Made in Chelsea’ came into my life, I was something of an avid ‘The Only Way is Essex’ viewer. I know, they were unenlightened times – but I had yet to be introduced to MiC, where the pale skins, white Blackberries, copious amounts of fur and friends with silly names made me feel infinitely more at home…Anyway, Nanna and I were delighted to find out that with a little tweaking, our journey to take us right through the Towie Motherland – Brentwood.

Feeling a bit like bold explorers crossing into a brave new world, we ventured into the town. Practically quivering with excitement, and with Kelis’ ‘Bossy’ blaring out of the speakers (our travel anthem of choice), we peered out of the car, looking for any perma-tanned pneumatic women, and their Ken doll counterparts. An old woman eating a sandwich on a bench, a bunch of 10 year olds, and some perfectly respectable people was what our eyes did in fact alight on…

Still, we were bubbling over with excitement, and doing our very own brand of ‘car dancing’ (pointy arm, pointy arm, wiggle, double dream hands), we shrieked with excitement as we pulled up round the back of Sugar Hut (as I’m sure all the worthiest Brentwoodians have), and proceeded to take photos in the middle of the road, nearly killing ourselves in the process. I bought some fake eyelashes, we cranked up ‘Bossy’ again, and then it was time to get back on the road and head to our real destination.

As the countryside leveled out, you couldn’t have had a greater contrast. Broad skies and yellow fields suddenly surrounded us, and soon we were winding our way into Harwich itself. After a slight technical hitch, whereby we drove past the same group of teens misspending their youths at least FOUR TIMES, much to their amusement, we finally reached the most divine little cobbled street, all tucked away.
We eventually located what we assume was the right house (I knocked on the door and then ran back into the car, we were welcomed into Sean’s house, the most incredible converted Tudor pub. The place had a wonderful atmosphere, and after a brief pause spent gawping at the bottle of champers Sean had been given by Cameron Mackintosh, admiring his well stocked kitchen (this blog is a euphemism free zone, please remember), and reapplying our lipstick we headed out for a drink. Sean seemingly knew everyone – and no one seemed especially surprised to see him ushering two young blonde girls around. We sampled some sort of Polish martini; sadly eschewing the Cosmopolitan, the description of which bore the legend ‘Sex in the City (sic) comes to Harwich!’.
After a delicious supper cooked for us by Sean, and copious amounts of champagne, we embarked on what passed for the local disco. ‘The Stingray’ is the local to end all locals. Teenagers breathed the same stale air as Harwich’s elders; framed pictures of ships hung on the walls, and you could get a glass of wine with an awful lot of change from a fiver. Unfortunately, much of the evening is a blur to me, but I do remember dancing with my shoes off, executing a wobbly cartwheel in the middle of the dancefloor, watching Sean pirouette gracefully, and finally gawping openly as a dead ringer for ‘Nessa’ from ‘Gavin & Stacey’ copped off with not one, but TWO not-ostensibly-disgusting young men.
I woke up early the next morning, breakfasted on a  leftover Lola’s Cupcake, and marched off for a two hour seaside walk. By this point, I was firmly in love with Harwich. But the best was yet to come. Part two on the way…

With warmth from the sun, and visions of what they want…

I’m sitting here, facing a blank page, as Saturday morning dribbles away into Saturday afternoon, just me and my blog. Part of the reason I’ve made endless excuses and avoided the world of hyperspace is that I felt the pressure of writing something GOOD. I’ve had so many lovely and encouraging comments about my writing, and this blog, that I didn’t want to jot down anything half-hearted. But, being afraid of not being good doth not a writer make (as any Guardian journalist will tell you….oh yes I did.) Often, writing is about is just about consistency, of just sitting down and blocking something out.

So, in an attempt to get up to date, I’m going to have to do a bit of Doctor Who worthy time travelling. Let’s start with April, shall we?

Someday my prince will come…

Since my birthday in January, I’ve developed a taste for hostessing. As a result of this, I promised (threatened) to hold a Royal Wedding party. And just as well – I got a bit fed up of all the wedding-bashing that led up to the event itself. While I may find sarcasm funny, cynicism isn’t really a word in my vocabulary. Thus it was that, on the morning of the 29th April, a gaggle of friends descended on my house – some so early that they caught me with my rollers in…oops!

We were terrifically lucky with the weather. After a rainy week, we were able to take the party outside. I’ve never done anything like that before, and it was pretty marv – we provided our own commentaries for the ceremony, my friend Colin played The Sex Pistols over the Beeb’s coverage; my friend Laura followed the entire thing on Twitter and stood up for Jerusalem, and we almost all got terrifically drunk on my Earl Grey infused vodka.

Foodwise I had a lot of help from friends with this one, but for my part, I made Nigella’s chocolate and lime cake with margarita cream, my usual raspberry meringues (ooh err), various puff pastry bits, a strawberries and cream cake, and finally a lustre dusted mini-wedding cake. I find cake decorating an exhilarating activity, because I never plan. I just start icing and frosting and glittering and cutting and carving and pasting….and at least five times, I say to myself ‘it looks bloody atrocious’. Most of my cakes, in fact, end up looking the way they do because I’ve had to endlessly correct what I’ve just messed up.
This one was scary territory. There’s little room for failure when you’re working with ultra thin white Royal Icing, and I did a fair amount of Frankensteining on it. Inside was lemon curd and fresh strawberries, and outside I added gold lustre dust, butterflies, little gold hearts….I don’t think it turned out too hideously.
The biggest cause for concern was not just the lack of bunting – I never believed I’d see the day when every shop I went to in Tunbridge Wells sorrowfully informed me ‘I’m afraid we’re all out of the stuff’ – but what I was going to wear. After my birthday party dress, which belonged more on a cake stand than on me if we judge it on the meringue-o-meter, I had a reputation to live up to. A reputation for ridiculousness, that is. I scoured the length and breadth of the country (well, Oxford Street), and came up with nothing. I’ll touch on this more later, but the high street is rapidly becoming a no-go area for me. I’m thoroughly sick of cheap fabrics, shoddy workmanship, and garments that have the longevity of a doily in a snowstorm. I’ll be blogging about this particular issue soon enough, but let’s just leave it there for now, because I start getting angry. Before I get my stiletto heels out…
So there I was, tainted with the garb of Topshop, the reek of Urban Outfitters, the grasp of French Connection; smack bang in the middle of a sartorial/existential crisis, and then I found it. Like an oasis in a desert, like Root Boost to a flat haired girl, like…well, Wills to Kate…Love Is Boutique. This little haven of vintage/hardly worn had been tucked away on Church Road in Tunbridge Wells for a fair amount of time, and yet I’d neglected it, like a….ok, enough of dodgy analogies, I promise. Again, this will be fodder for a more ephemeral blog in the near future, but for now let me just say – I spotted it, in the window. It was just below calf length, a vision in lace, nipped in by a silky sash…and the minute our eyes met (eyes and hooks, in the case of the dress), it was true love.
Reader, in all the years of going to Topshop, I had NEVER felt like this about a dress.
So, togged up and with tea infused vodka in one hand, the party got underway. The ceremony was lovely, Kate’s dress was beautiful – but gosh, didn’t Pippa look ever so slightly better – Jerusalem was rousing (wasn’t it, Laura), and bunting or not bunting, I had a bloody marvellous time.
xoxo