Thursday, 28 March 2013


If there's one thing we tend to do a lot of, it's spontaneous entertaining.  

And if there's one thing we tend to forget, it's that spontaneous dinner parties should   always include a great dessert.

This is a fabulous ginger cake that has saved the day more than once.  It's simple to knock together from cupboard ingredients, and the addition of ice cream or creme fraiche will make it look that you've been planning it all afternoon.  Which, of course, both you and I know that you have...


1 egg
200g self-raising flour
100g caster sugar
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
50g unsalted butter
200ml semi-skimmed milk
100g Tate and Lyle golden syrup
45g Robertsons Orange Jelly Shredless Marmalade


1. Preheat the oven to 180C (375F, Gas Mk 5).
2. Line a baking tin (approx. 10 inches by 7 inches) with baking parchment.
3. Mix the flour, ginger, bicarb and sugar in a large bowl.
4. Heat a heavy bottomed pan containing the butter, marmalade and golden syrup over a gentle heat until melted.  Do not boil!
5. Whisk the egg and milk together and add to the butter mixture.  
6. Stir the resulting mix into the flour and blend until smooth.  Pour into the baking tin.
7. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the top is golden, but keep an eye from 30 minutes onwards.  The bigger your tin, the faster your cake will cook.
8. Either leave the cake in the tin to cool, or serve hot with ice cream.  Any leftovers would probably be great served cold with coffee, though we've never had the chance to find out...

Thursday, 21 March 2013


The Snow Child opens with absence, rawness and regret. 

Mabel and Jack have moved to Alaska to start again.  Ten years earlier, Mabel had given birth to a stillborn child, and her desolation colours everything.  “She cooked and cleaned, and cooked and cleaned, and found herself further consumed by the gray, until even her vision was muted and the world around her drained of colour.”

The story has a devastating beauty.  Mabel and Jack are emotionally and physically disconnected, and their life is drawn with haunting resignation.  Unexpressed feelings lie dangerously near the surface, and even casual exchanges are burdened. 

Into this landscape falls the snow.  Its presence transforms not just their surroundings but Jack and Mabel’s lives. 

In a rare moment of connection, they make a snow child.  They dress her in real mittens and a scarf, and give her wild yellow hair made from grass.  But when they wake the next morning, their snow child has disappeared.  In its place is a trail of footprints leading off into the forest, and Jack is sure he saw a small girl running through the trees.  He is tired and the vision is fleeting, but he is certain that she had blonde hair and was dressed in the red scarf and mittens they had given her.

Eowyn Ivey has an extraordinary gift for language.  The writing in the first part of this book is astonishing, at once enchanting, evocative and unearthly.  The tale of Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden is woven through this story, and the balance between magic and reality is never clear.  

The relationship between Mabel and Jack is beautifully told.  In any marriage there are misunderstandings, but the honesty of Jack and Mabel’s struggles is so searing it is at times painful to witness. 

Through the gift of the snow child, and their very different ideas about what she is, they find a way forward.  They are helped in this by their friendship with George Benson (a name I found briefly distracting) and his wonderful wife Esther.  To say that everyone should have an Esther in life is an understatement.  She is a force of nature, and her chaotic charm is glorious.

The story is not without its flaws, however.  Although the myth of the snow child is built exquisitely, in the later parts of the book it takes an unexpected direction and I was left with the feeling that its potential had not been fully resolved.  That said, this an extremely accomplished work for a debut novelist and Eowyn Ivey has all the makings of a wonderful writer.  Headline imprint Tinder Press has already acquired a second novel.  One to watch.  

Thursday, 14 March 2013


Spicy King Prawns is the most popular ‘panic dish’ in our house.  Almost everything in it is dried, tinned or sitting in a jar in the cupboard, so it’s a quick dish to throw together when money is tight. 

All you’ll need to get hold of is some lemongrass, some fresh ginger, and a packet of frozen prawns.  But, of course, you may well have those in already...


1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon red curry paste
2 thumb size pieces of raw ginger, finely chopped
Juice of one lime, or a slug of bottled lime juice
1 stalk lemongrass
125ml fish stock
250ml light coconut milk
300g – 500g bag prawns or king prawns, defrosted according to packet instructions

Spring onions to garnish
Natural yogurt


1.     Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed frying pan and add the garlic, onion, ginger, turmeric and curry paste. 

2.     Chop the ends off the lemongrass and bend the stalk to bruise it and release the flavour.  Add to the mix.

3.      Cook gently until the onions and garlic are golden but not browned.

4.     Pour in the coconut milk and fish stock and bring sauce to the boil.

5.     Turn down the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

6.     Add the lime juice, season with pepper, and add the prawns.  Cook for 5 minutes until the prawns are done.

7.     Serve with rice and garnished with spring onions. If you like your spicy prawns cooler, add a spoonful of natural yogurt. Delicious!  

Thursday, 7 March 2013


This is a very special book.

It’s also not the kind of book I’d normally read.  However, when Sarah Lean’s agent, Julia Churchill, tweeted that it had gone into its ninth language (yes, ninth) in mid-February, I realised that I was probably missing something spectacular.  As it turned out, I was.

Cally Louise Fisher hasn’t spoken for thirty-one days.  Her mother has died suddenly a year earlier, but as the family gather at the grave Cally sees her standing ‘real as anything’ on the cemetery wall.  The problem is, no-one will believe her. 

Cally’s father refuses to engage in discussion with his daughter, and even Cally’s best friend, Mia, has decided she’s rather be friends with Daisy Bouvier instead.  So when Cally volunteers for a sponsored silence at school, it’s a chance to show people that there’s more to her than they think.  And anyway, “if [Mum isn’t] here to… show us we [are] everything, then it’s like you’re nothing.  You don’t know who you are.”

This book is so subtle and perceptive that it was a while before its cleverness crept up on me.  A Dog Called Homeless is a simple story, perfect for the 9+ age range, but beneath the surface run great truths. 

Unlistened to, Cally’s silence persists.  She opts out of speaking to her father, her teachers, her classmates and her brother Luke, and it is only through other marginalised characters that she finds her ‘voice’.  There’s Sam, her deaf and blind neighbour with whom she learns sign language, and Jed, the gentle busking tramp.  And then, of course, there is ‘Homeless’, - the huge silver-grey dog that Cally first sees with her mother and who keeps on coming back to her, despite everyone else’s attempts to get rid of him.  And whatever Homeless is, Cally is certain that he’s not a ghost.

It would be easy for this tale to become sentimental, but Lean’s deft touch is magical.  Much of the story is told in what lies unsaid, and in a story about losing your voice it is a technique with considerable emotional power. 

More than once, I found tears pouring down my face as I read it in a cafe.  Achieving this in any book is impressive.  To make an adult cry, in public, with a book aimed at the children’s market is extremely rare - and it is the subtleties that will get you. 

Throughout the book, Lean delicately highlights the disconnection between what Cally means and how she is interpreted by others.  Her friendship with Sam too is cleverly underplayed, so it is only after some time that its full significance becomes clear.  “What you think is on the outside is in the middle”, Cally’s mum tells her, and as the book continues you discover just how right she is. 

This is an extraordinary achievement for a debut novel, assured, perceptive and with enormous emotional depth.  To marry this with such a simply told tale is nothing short of astonishing.  Seriously.  Go buy it!