Thursday, 29 December 2011

Happy New Year?

It is supposed to be the best night of the year, but I would quite happily skip the 31st of December altogether. I am a passionate supporter of Christmas; if it were a sports team I would have the kit, the scarf, the bed sheets and the wallpaper. But I have to admit, I am a New Year's Eve Scrooge.

There is just something about being forced to have an 'amazing time' that somehow makes the whole experience far from amazing. Every other evening of the year (excluding your birthday) you are entitled to choose whether to have an 'amazing time' or whether to instead spend the evening in your pyjamas eating Dairy Milk and watching re-runs of Friends. On New Year's Eve, the decision is taken away from you. If you are not drunkenly singing 'Aud Lang Syne' by 1am you are probably not the sort of person who should be allowed to socialise with other people for the rest of the year.

At least that is how New Year's Eve hype always makes me feel.

The pressure to have 'the best night of the year' means the 31st requires some serious forward planning. Living in London makes matters even worse; there are literally hundreds of 'NYE' parties to go to. How is it possible to know which one will be the best? Because on New Year's Eve you are haunted by the feeling that no matter how much fun you are having, someone, somewhere, is probably having more fun than you and that you, therefore, have failed New Year's Eve.

Being in London also comes with another problem: the price tag. Why would I pay £80 to get into a club that usually costs £10, only to then dish out £10 per drink whilst I'm inside?

I also find New Year's Eve a tad depressing. Big Ben chimes in the New Year and I find myself wondering what I have achieved in the dying year and what I will achieve during the lifetime of its offspring. I want to be with all the people I love, and then I realise that it is not physically possible to get them all together in one room. I always feel like New Year is a time for reflection, not getting drunk.

And then, of course, there is 'the kiss'. You somehow seem to find yourself as the only single person in a whole universe of contented, kissing couples and suddenly feel as much of a social reject as if you had actually stayed in with your Dairy Milk and the Friends DVD.

I don't mean to put a downer on your New Year's Eve. If you are a fan of the annual festivity, I salute you. And, of course, I won't really be sitting in my bedroom in my pyjamas on the 31st; I have made plans and am looking forward to having a great time. But I will have a great time because I want to, not because I am following the orders of the dictator that is New Year's Eve.

Anyway, have a wonderful New Year's Eve. And here are my resolutions for 2012.


Tuesday, 20 December 2011

It's beginning to taste a lot like Christmas...

My Gingerbread Recipe:

12oz / 350g plain flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 and a half teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
125g / 4 and a half oz butter (at room temperature)
175g / 6 0z dark soft brown sugar
1 egg
2 tablespoons treacle
2 tablespoons runny honey
Icing and sweets to decorate
Gingerbread man cutter (or a knife and sense of imagination)

1) Put on some Christmas carols
2) Pour yourself a glass of wine
3) Don a pretty apron
4) Sift the dry ingredients (flour, bicarb, ginger, cinnamon, sugar) into a big bowl
5) Cut the butter into squares and add it to the flour and sugar mix, rubbing it in with your hands until the mix looks like breadcrumbs
6) Add the egg, syrup and honey to the mix and beat together with a wooden spoon
7) Tip the dough out onto a clean surface and knead it lightly. If it is still quite sticky, add flour to your hands and rub it in until the dough is smooth
8) Wrap the dough in clingfilm and put it in the fridge for 15 minutes
9) Pour yourself another glass of wine
10) Preheat the oven to 180c / 350F / Gas mark 4. If you are living in a student house where the oven doesn't close properly, fetch a chair from the sitting room to prop closed the oven door to stop the heat escaping
11) Take the dough out of the fridge, dust flour over a clean surface and roll out the dough until it is the thickness of a pound coin. If, like me, you are cooking in a student kitchen or are sadly not the domestic goddess you want to be therefore don't own a rolling pin, a milk bottle, glass tumbler or roll of tin foil (sellotaped to stop it unraveling) will do the trick
12) Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper. Using a gingerbread man cutter or your imagination and a sharp knife, cut out your gingerbread men and transfer them to the greaseproof papered baking trays
13) Put your men (and women...?) in the oven for 10 - 15 minutes or until they are golden brown
14) When the timer pings / your phone bleeps / your wonderful sense of timing tells you the time is up, take the gingerbread men out of the oven and place them on a wire cooling tray, or a plate / any kind of tray if you don't have one
15) The gingerbread men will be fairly soft (I don't really like the really traditional gingerbread men that are as crunchy as a piece of bark) so be careful that they don't incur any injuries. If a gingerbread man does lose a leg / arm in the journey between oven and cooling tray, it is of course your duty to eat it
16) Whilst the gingerbread men are cooling, use the time to put on some new Christmas songs and dance around the kitchen
17) When the gingerbead are cool, it is time to dress them. I used writing icing, marshmallows and a batch of regular icing to give the gingerbread man below a very fashionable pom pom jumper. Equally, feel free to use a piping bag for more artistic designs or to decorate with smarties and dolly mixtures
18) Admire your handiwork
19) Gather your friends and let the annihilation of a whole gingerbread population commence.

My Christmas Chocolate Cake

I don't know many people who actually like Christmas cake, so I made my housemates a gooey and calorific chocolate cake instead. It is a little known medical fact that calories don't actually count at Christmas. Or if they do all that baking, peeling and chopping of veg and wrapping of presents burns them off, easily.

6oz / 170g self raising flour
6oz / 170g butter
3oz / 135g caster sugar
3oz / 135g soft brown sugar
3 eggs
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 bar of dark chocolate
4 teaspoons cocoa powder
1 bar white chocolate

1) See above and instructions 1 -3
2) Preheat the oven to 180c / 350F / Gas mark 4.
3) Sift the flour, sugar and baking powder into a large bowl
4) Add the butter and eggs and beat it all together with a wooden spoon. If you have a hand-held electric mixer you could technically use that but I like to think that the energy required to beat the mix by hand removes any guilt when it comes to eating the finished cake
5) Melt the bar of dark chocolate. If you have a microwave (I don't) break the bar into pieces and put in a microwavable bowl for 15 second bursts, stirring in between, until the chocolate is smooth and melted. To melt using a hob, you can boil some water in a pan and put the broken pieces of chocolate into a bowl resting in the water. I tend to just put the chocolate directly into the pan and stir it loads to make sure it doesn't burn or stick to the pan
6) Pour the melted chocolate into the cake mix and fold it all together with a wooden spoon
7) If there is some chocolate left in the bottom of the bowl / pan, get whatever fruit you have in the kitchen to wipe the bowl clean in an impromptu chocolate fondue
8) Sift in the cocoa powder
9) Keeping the bar of white chocolate in its wrapper, bash it into little pieces. This is the fun bit and here are some good bashing tips: whack the bar with a rolling pin / shoe / saucepan, hit it against the corner of a work surface, if you live on several stories, go to the top of the house, throw the bar out the window and go into the street / garden to retrieve it, throw it at someone you don't like (I do not endorse violence, especially not whilst cooking)
10) Mix the broken white chocolate pieces into the cake mix
11) Grease a round cake tin and pour the mixture into the tin
12) Put in the oven for 35 minutes or until a knife comes out clean or almost clean (this cake is supposed to be a bit gooey)
13) Put the cake on a cooling rack. Once the cake is cool, decorate as you like, then cut yourself a big slice and enjoy.


Friday, 16 December 2011

How to throw a vintage tea party

I had an excuse for lavishing £20 on a book I technically didn't need. I was in a tiny independent bookshop and felt it my duty to show my support for the business so that others like me could spend a happy half hour lovingly stroking the spines of beautiful books.

'The Vintage Tea Party Book,' however, is an excuse in itself. It is wonderful.
The book is the creation of Angel Adoree who you may remember for her appearance on Dragon's Den or simply for her fabulous name. It compiles tips for throwing a perfect vintage inspired tea party and includes everything from splendidly decadent recipes to templates for handmade aprons and make-up tips for achieving the flawless grooming of Fifties movie stars.
Each page looks as delicious as the recipes, with a mix of beautiful photographs and illustrations.

Eat Me
One must always look foxy.
I may be a student and not exactly prone to throwing lavish tea parties. I might not ever make candy stripe meringues or rose petal sandwiches. So I therefore may not be the kind of woman to have need of a book like this. But I suppose I bought it ultimately one simple reason: I want to be.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Twas the Night Before Brixtmas

The Night Before Brixtmas

Twas the night before Brixtmas, and all through the house
Each student was sleeping, as hushed as a mouse.
A six-person silence as they slept in their beds
Visions of yule logs and booze in their heads.

Bins were upturned by a fox in the street,
Scavenging out some Christmassy treat.
Buses and sirens whined on the Hill
But still they slept on, drunk on goodwill.

Lorries and trains speeding through town,
Planes going up and planes coming down:
Each noise is a story that London tells,
But out of that mix, came the sound of bells.

Bells in the darkness, almost silent at first,
Then bells in a ‘flying-through-sky’ kind of burst.
As housemates slept and dreamt that it snowed,
A reindeer-pulled sleigh parked on Helix Road.

Out of the sleigh climbed two sooty old boots
And a jolly old man of Jamaican roots.
“Ho ho!” he chuckled as he patted his deer
And crept up to their door, “Father Brixtmas is here!”

With the magic of Brixtmas at the touch of his hand,
He passed through the door like it was nothing but sand.
“They must be asleep,” he said to the night,
And then searched the house to check he was right.

On tiptoe he poked his head round each door,
He saw Max asleep and heard Libby snore,
He checked in on Emma, he snuck in Emily’s room,
And saw her tucked up in the warmth and the gloom.

He looked in on Josh, quiet and dreaming,
He saw Isaac asleep and then started beaming.
Father Brixtmas was happy, the scene had been set,
To give them a Brixtmas they’d never forget.

“I won’t give you toys,” he said to the sleepers,
“I won’t give you clothes, or black brothel creepers.
You don’t need my gadgets or gizmos or books,
You’ve already got friends and dashing good looks.”

“You all live in Brixton, the best place to live
There really aren’t many gifts I can give.”
He didn’t bring presents in his bell-adorned sleigh,
But something much better for their Brixtmas Day.

He snuck to their kitchen and cleaned all the dishes,
He unworried their worries and granted their wishes.
He filled every room up with festive cheer
And gave them enough smiles to last them all year.

When he was finished he sighed with a smile,
“My work here is done, now I’m off for a while.”
He shut their door with the sound of a feather
And stepped into the night and the wintery weather.

The street was still empty, save for the fox,
Eating mince pies in a thrown away box.
Nose covered in sugar, she looked to the sky
In wonder as she saw 12 deer flying by.

Father Brixtmas was steering as the deer pulled strong
With a clatter and jingle of bells he was gone
But she heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight
‘Happy Brixtmas to all, and to all a good-night!”


Happy Brixtmas Eve: Herne Hill

On Saturday evening I was back at Herne Hill to visit their Christmas market. Railton Road was taken over by festive stalls, carol singers and the odd farmyard animal.

As the sun began to set everyone crowded around to witness the ceremonial 'turning on of the lights'. Westfield may have got Justin Beiber, but at Herne Hill the excitement was just as great as locals, visitors, several sheep and a Shetland pony huddled in anticipation. No one seemed to mind the fact that these lights were strung around one lone tree. When they started twinkling the cheers made up for the lack of drama created by the lights themselves.

Before heading home I popped into Pullens to drink a mug of hot chocolate whilst sat in one of their battered old leather chairs looking out over the square. Christmas was in the air and in the warm mug between my hands.

Happy Brixtmas Eve: Brixton Village

This weekend it was Christmas in my house in Brixton. Or Brixtmas, as my housemates and I christened our festive celebrations before we all went back to our various homes for the holiday.

I had agreed to cook a Christmas dinner for my housemates on Sunday. On Saturday as well as buying a turkey and an ample supply of vegetables (eight varieties in total) I headed to Brixton Village for some Christmas shopping.

The undercover market is one of the many highlights of living in Brixton (for somewhere with such a bad reputation, there are a huge number of these). As Jay Rayner recently attested in a review for the Observer, it would be impossible to mention all of the gems situated in Brixton Village. As well as gift shops, African fabric emporiums and the general market stalls where you can buy anything from bathroom scales to religious figurines, Brixton Village is home to some of the best restaurants and cafés in London. And not just a few of them, but so many that eating out there is as much heavenly as it is a decision-making nightmare.

Many of the restaurants aren't licensed so work on a 'bring your own' basis and food is affordable (even for a student like me). To give you a sample of the breadth of food available at Brixton Village, under the one roof you will find both the best (arguably) burger and pizza restaurants in London, a vegan cupcake shop, a café with toasters at each table for you to toast your own bread, an amazing Thai restaurant and a café that serves street-food from Pakistan.

If it sounds too good to be true, there are a few drawbacks to Brixton Village. The variety does make choosing where to eat or have a coffee nearly impossible, so be prepared to wander around in an overwhelmed daze for half an hour or so before deciding. The opening times are somewhat limited (Monday - Wednesday: 10am to 6pm, Thursday - Saturday: 10am - 10pm, Sunday 12pm to 5pm) which makes the whole place pretty busy during its open hours. And many of the restaurants look onto fresh meat or fish stalls which doesn't help a hangover on a Saturday morning (I have heard).

Nonetheless, I love Brixton Village, and it is a testament to the diversity and general buzz of Brixton itself. And it was a perfect place to spend the afternoon on Brixtmas Eve.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Undiscovered London: Herne Hill

Walk out of my house in Brixton and down the leafy road and you will get to Brockwell Park. Cross through the park, alongside a minature railway and past Brockwell Lido and it's well reputed café, and you will reach Herne Hill, a quaint village-like community somewhat at odds with the hustle and bustle of this country's capital.

For somewhere so tranquil Herne Hill has a lot going for it. Its station faces onto a square enclosed by cafés, homely pubs, a flower shop, an independent book shop and an old fashioned butcher's, greengrocer's and bakery. Just around the corner you will find the Half Moon, a gastro pub come music, comedy and theatre venue. Peppered further along the road are delis, cafés, a tapas restaurant, a children's toy store and bookshop and several independent gift shops.

With all this on your doorstop, Herne Hill seems the kind of place you could live quite contently without ever needing to head into the city centre. The first time I visited I found myself imagining myself doing just that; living in a flat overlooking the square, popping to the greengrocer's to buy some food for dinner then heading out to the pub opposite for a drink later in the evening. No Oyster card needed. What could be better?
The walk back from Herne Hill takes me through Brockwell Park, where the naked trees and cold sunset spell winter.
Places to visit in Herne Hill:

Herne Hill Books
is a small bookshop on Railton Road opposite the station. Although something of a cubby hole of a shop this bookshop proves that sometimes less is more; everything on the shelves is wonderful.

The Commercial, also on Railton Road is a cosy pub with an open fire. I am yet to trial it myself but have pressed my nose enviously to the window and look forward to a pint there soon.

The Poet is a cocktail and wine bar next door. Did anyone say bar crawl?

Tales on Moon Lane Even if you are not in the market for picture books, this bookshop (unsurprisingly situated on Moon Lane) is worth a visit just for its window display and because it reminds me of Meg Ryan's bookshop in You've got Mail (the best thing about that film). Oh and it also won Walker Children's independent bookshop of the year.