Honey Marmalade Cake

My in-laws were recently in France sorting my husband’s late Auntie Marianne’s affairs. While there they made two discoveries.  One: Auntie M. took it upon herself to edit the books she read.  Incorrect spellings and dropped punctuation were fixed with her red pen. Two: She had vats of local honey sitting in the cellar.  Honey as thick and rich as creme fraiche caramels and flecked with bits of the forest from which it came.  Everyone got a kilo upon their return.

Honey is a staple in my home.  I love it.  Runny, set, manuka, clover, English wildflower, Scottish heather–I’ve got it all.  But this new honey, Auntie Marianne’s garrigue honey, really is the bee’s knees.  Other than enjoying it in my tea, I wanted to bake something special with it.

Last year, a dear friend of mine gave me an old cookbook called  More Honey in the Kitchen.  It was written by Joyce White who was a cookery demonstrator and lecturer in beekeeping.  The book was illustrated by her grandchildren and published in 1991.  It could not be any more charming if it tried.

Today I baked a honey marmalade cake from it and it was perfection.  Below is the recipe.  I’d like to think Ms. White would have been proud and Auntie M. would have approved.

honey close up of honey Scawby Hall beebook recipe marmalade cooling cake sugar cake sliced cake

 

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Watercolor Wisdom

“As for me, I am watercolor. I wash off.”

This last line of an Anne Sexton poem sucker-punched me one evening in the tenth grade. Until then I was filled with a child’s ego and content in the knowledge confirmed by my parents that I was a forever-burning star. Years later, I look at this passage and see the line of demarcation between my childish fantasy and adult reality.

Imagine the shock. My life was a temporal treat to the universe offered up to the gods as a situation comedy—mildly amusing, minorly offensive and over before your clothes in the dryer are done. I welcomed this revelation as one would the stuffy air of one’s own coffin. Could it be that I wasn’t remarkable? Was the watercolor painting I called my life so easily washed away like someone spraying a hose over sidewalk chalk drawings? I needed to investigate.

I came to my own defense citing the positive relationships in my life. Surely those would last forever—like my kindergarten friendship with Olive who would later develop schizophrenia. I remained a true friend when everyone else had long abandoned her. That was honest and altruistic of me. Surely that situation was worthy of a hearty oil based paint, was it not? Then a heat began to burn in my neck and my face flushed. I couldn’t remember her last name. It had been erased from my memory like old voice mail. So much for relationships that last forever.

One hundred years from now,all the funny stories of my life will be accredited to other people and with me long dead I will never have the chance to correct them. My talents, hopes, dreams, and desires will be given to newborn children whose parents will convince them, like mine once did, that theirs too is a special place in the universe. And this will make me smile from beyond because I get the joke.

“As for me, I am watercolor. I wash off.” I temporarily color my world and stain the hands of those that I have touched. I feel my colors strong and deep and I watch my steamy bath dilute them every night. So there I soak, a small freckly me, dreaming of a safe place behind complimentary matting and a cool protective shield of glass where the watercolor of my life can live forever.

Perhaps this is why fleeting pleasures are my favorite. There is something magical about the blossom that lasts for only a day or the cup of tea that provides perfection for a mere few minutes.  Let it brew too long and the magic disappears.  Don’t steep it long enough and there will be no evidence of magic at all.  My favorite at the moment is Bouddha Bleu by Mariage Frères which is a delicate green tea with cornflower petals. Its bouquet is heavenly, a delicate balance of fruit and flowers. If I could distill the scent, I’d wear nothing else.  Unlike black tea which can leave you with too frenetic of a buzz, Bouddha Bleu imparts a feeling of clarity and acuity I find invigorating.  Even if or especially because the magic washes off as quickly as watercolor.

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Blood Clots, Codeine, Cookies and Cashmere

If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.  Actually, that statement’s not true but it is how I felt Wednesday afternoon.  Just as John McClane picked a bad day to give up smoking, so was Wednesday the worst possible day to wake up with debilitating chest pain and be coughing blood.  In case you don’t live in Britain and are not aware, Wednesday was the junior doctors’ strike.

People were protesting Jeremy Hunt’s contract outside the hospital entrance as I staggered into A&E.  Inside, people with various ailments were packed like sardines.  Some patients with cannulas held their own IV bags as there weren’t enough stands to go round.  In triage a medic apologized to me for the wait.  She explained that with the strike there was only one surgical doctor in the hospital that day.  It was plain to me that present staff were clearly working overtime.

I was relieved when I finally saw the doctor who had not only the same surname as my mother but also the same comforting kindness.  When I explained to her that I was suffering from crushing chest pain that radiated round my back, she ordered an x-ray and a full blood panel.

Not long after a trip to the radiology department, a nurse named Nadine was giving me an injection in my stomach and telling me I was to be admitted.  She put me in a bed and hooked me up to oxygen as my levels were low.  As I lay there in a bay sectioned off by a paper curtain, I was too distracted by the sounds around me to read.

A woman was being sick in a nearby bin.  Around the corner, Evangelicals prayed at top volume and sang hymns to their afflicted.  The shadows of their waving hands sailed up and down the bit of corridor I could see.  And in the distance, a drunk man named Jim shouted abuse at everyone around him and dared them to call the cops.

This cacophony was drowned out though the moment the doctor pulled back the curtain and said she suspected a blood clot in my lungs.  Suddenly all I heard was Fantine’s voice in my head except it was my own.  Tell Cosette I love her and I’ll see her when I wake.  

My mind began to race.  I thought about how before school that morning I promised my daughter I’d play Candy Land with her when she got home.  I felt terrible for not being able to make good on my word and I felt worse still that I wouldn’t be home to read her a bedtime story that night either.  I wondered if non-British citizens were allowed to be buried in British cemeteries.  I struggled to recall the details of the life insurance policy my husband and I had.  I wondered if he noticed we were out of ham and that Helena would need something else for lunch tomorrow.  Eventually I quieted my thoughts the same way I did when I was a child and couldn’t sleep.  I sang Blue Shadows to myself.

The next day’s CT scan showed I didn’t have a blood clot in my lungs so much as I had multiple blood clots and on both sides of my lungs.  I’m told it’s treatable but that I am at risk of having a stroke.  On one hand it’s nice to understand why I’ve felt so terrible.  On the other, I hate knowing the only reason I lost half a stone in 4 days was because I’m actually quite ill.  My treatment will last about four months during which time I’ll be on anticoagulants to stabilize my clots.  I was warned the drug I’m taking will render me like a haemophiliac so I’m to take extra precaution not to cut myself.  Dihydrocodeine has been prescribed for the pain.

Considering the circumstances of Wednesday, I feel extremely lucky and grateful for the NHS who even on an understaffed strike day made sure I was properly seen to and diagnosed.  If it weren’t for their thoroughness I could have died.  Americans who are scared of socialized health care, don’t be.

My husband, Henry, has been a hero.  He has essentially been a single parent for weeks while the GP has struggled to find out what’s wrong with me.  He has also been a loving partner and the ultimate calm in spite of this storm.  Helena has lavished me with love and comes home every day with little smashed flowers in her pockets that she picks on the walk home from school.  I keep them next to my bedside next to the picture of me holding her when she came down with flu during the Mad Hatter’s tea party we had to celebrate her second birthday.

If you know me you know that most days I wear pearl earrings.  Recently as I was hacking and crying, Helena waited until I caught my breath again and brought them to me.  “Here, mommy.”  I put them on and changed out of my polka dot pajamas.  She was right.  Reinstating this little bit of normalcy did make me feel better.  I think it made us both feel better.  As did the cashmere dress I paired with a fur stole and a flick of black eyeliner.  My mama always said no one should have to look exactly how they feel.  Or as one of my friends has put it, “A little powder, a little paint, makes a woman what she ain’t.”  Some days this isn’t feasible, but on that one it was.

I think you’ll understand when I say I’m going to post here even less than usual.  Believe me, nothing I’m eating these days is worthy of being recorded–a teaspoon of Marigold powder in a cup of boiling water, half a banana, oat cakes, a bit of roast chicken and soft prunes.  I know, try not to be jealous.  Actually that’s not entirely true.  Today, I had some fortifying noodle soup at Tonkotsu and the weekend before I went into hospital, I made Claire Ptak’s egg yolk chocolate chip cookies.  Some of the dough is still in my freezer.  Hopefully just like the peonies of late spring, I’ll be back and full of color soon.

radiology a little powder, a little paint yellowpresents from Helena cookies

 

 

A Case for Thanksgiving

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Last November Waitrose said their turkey sales were up 95% as compared with five years ago.  It wasn’t just Waitrose though.  Turkeys were being sold everywhere, from specialist butchers in the East End to Ocado and beyond.  Census data says approximately 200,000 Americans live in Britain, but that’s only .003 percent of the population.  Why then do an estimated 1 in 6 Britons now celebrate Thanksgiving?  Because it’s one of the best holidays that’s why.  

Though I moved from Los Angeles to London six years ago, I still can’t get used to the British Christmas that drags on until January.  In America, a twelve day long Christmas does not exist.  Boxing Day is not observed.  And no one watches “It’s a Wonderful Life” after the 25th, not because they don’t like it but because the window has closed.  In The U.K. all that’s standard practice.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Christmas but it is entirely possible to stay too long at the fair.  Thanksgiving, however, is just a day and one that always leaves me wanting more.

Where Christmas is an occasion for family, Thanksgiving is one for friends and strangers.  Tables are not complete without the addition of extra last minute seats.  When The World Trade Center was attacked I was in college in New York.  That Thanksgiving many parents (mine included) didn’t want their children flying home for fear of another terrorist related tragedy.  But instead of having to eat instant noodles in our dormitories alone, we were welcomed at the tables of people we tenuously knew or didn’t know at all–friends of our parents’ friends, professors from school, the families of those we interned with in Manhattan.  Thanksgiving is the ultimate holiday for taking in displaced strays.

Best of all you don’t have to buy presents for anyone.  I am always filled with a slight dread when it comes to Christmas gift-giving.  I never want to leave anybody out.  My nightmare scenario is receiving a present from someone for whom I’ve not purchased or made a thing.  I know Britons hate the idea of Black Friday which has sadly become inextricably linked with Thanksgiving, but so do many Americans.  With my hand over my heart I can honestly say I have never been out shopping the day after Thanksgiving.  Lots of other people who also celebrate Thanksgiving can tell you the same.  Capitalism is not the heart of this holiday.    

The feast is the focus of Thanksgiving, primarily the sharing of it.  You might think this would make it more stressful than Christmas in terms of preparation, but in fact it is calmer.  Tradition dictates that the person hosting makes the turkey and a few sides, but most guests also bring a dish or two.  The other wonderful thing about Thanksgiving dinner is that it gets turkey out of the way so if you do celebrate Christmas you can indulge in something tastier like a crown of pork or roast beef.    

Lots of Britons assume Thanksgiving means having to eat things they think sound absolutely disgusting to them like yams with marshmallows.  It does not.  You serve what you like, though most people do have pumpkin pie on the table.  My mother always made panna cotta with a cranberry and fig port sauce.  

Because Thanksgiving is a federal holiday (proclaimed by Lincoln in 1863) and has no real religious affiliation, it creates a feeling of inclusivity that Christmas lacks.  People of all creeds are welcome to participate.  It doesn’t matter what you eat or if you pray.  The point is to share what you have and be thankful.        

When I was growing up one of my friends was Hindu.  Each Thanksgiving the women in her family would prepare a full vegetarian feast.  Despite their upbringing, my friend and her brother loved meat and ate it on the sly.  Knowing that their dinner would never include roast turkey, it became a tradition that they would sneak out of the house for In N Out hamburgers before relatives would arrive in the afternoon.  The wonderful thing about Thanksgiving is that your traditions can be whatever you want.

Throughout the years the meaning of Thanksgiving has evolved.  These days I’d say it has nothing to do with celebrating the Pilgrim Fathers.  Nor should it, as their friendship with the indigenous tribes was spurious.  Thanksgiving is about giving thanks and most importantly, sharing what you have.  It is a day to invite not just loved ones and friends, but also strangers into your home.  It is a day to volunteer and feed the poor.  It is a day for generosity.  Of course these are tenets that should be part of our daily lives, but Thanksgiving highlights them and reminds us of the kindness and generosity of spirit we should embrace the whole year through.  

So with a thankful heart I wish you and yours a very happy Thanksgiving.      

 

British Reserve

How does an American make friends in England?

No, seriously.  I’m asking.  Because I’m still figuring it out.  When you’re Kardashian loud and an oversharer who doesn’t really drink, making friends in the U.K. can be tough.

Which is why I have written a piece about it for The Pool.  One of the biggest challenges for me has been British reserve–i.e. people keeping to themselves and not saying what they mean (unless drunk).  That said, I’ve persisted and made some really lovely friends.  You can read about it here.

What to Watch on Your Sofa . .

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Sofa.com has a culture section on its website called Inspiration Corner.  As you would guess, all the essays are sofa or furniture related.  I have recently written one about what to watch on your sofa with your princess obsessed childparticularly when Frozen has left you cold.  For me, the answer was Funny Face.

Please have a read and let me know what you think.  I would also love to know what you like to read, watch, or listen to on your sofa.

   

Auntie Marianne

Last Thursday, Auntie Marianne died.  Technically she was was my husband’s aunt, but I felt like she was mine.  The moment I married into the family she welcomed me with open arms.  At the end of every letter she sent or phone call we had, she told me she loved me and I could feel it.  It was genuine.  While her affection didn’t make me forget about my loved ones 5,000 miles away, it did make me feel like they’d be happy knowing I had her looking after me.  She made my life in London less lonely.

I once described her as having the diction of a Mitford and better posture than the Queen.  It’s true.  She absolutely did.  She was extremely grand.  That said, she loved champagne and potato chips on the sofa at home as much as she did high tea and caviar at The Wolseley.

Auntie Marianne was a stickler for manners.  The fact that my three year-old said please and thank you and knew the difference between can and may made her very happy.  The fact that she also knew how to cut her food with a knife and fork made her beam.

Lessons I already knew but were very important to Auntie: 1) Always write thank you letters.  2) Never show up to anyone’s home empty-handed.  3) If you’re going to get pre-packaged croissants, M&S is better than Waitrose.  4) Always take all the small buds off freesias and spray carnations to get better blooms.

Things I’ll miss about Auntie:  1) The way she’d greet us with an enthusiastic “Hello, my darlings!” whenever we reached her flat at the top of the stairs.  2) The smell of her Bvlgari perfume when she’d give me a hug.  3) Sharing a pot of coffee with her in the Spy Room at Durrants Hotel before lunch and shopping on Marylebone High Street.  4) The way she’d get excited about warm flat bread from the Turkish shop. (Also the way she’d get excited when her horse won the races!)   5) Basking in the sun with her on her roof terrace whilst summer breezes carried the scent of her roses down the street.  6) The way she knitted clothes for my daughter and her toys.  7) The smell of her house when she was making chutney.  8) The way she always listened to jazz.  9) The way she listened to me.  10) The way she never considered me anything less than family.

The last time I saw Auntie Marianne, she was in the hospital but I made her laugh really hard.  I am so glad because that’s exactly how I want to remember her.  Happy and laughing.  Always.

Rest in peace, Auntie, and tell Uncle Peter we miss him.  I promise to keep your best recipes alive.  I love you.

Baby Auntie in Scotland.

Baby Auntie in Scotland.

white rose red rose pink rose white flowers

Auntie smiling down at baby Helenaauntie holding marianne  auntie smiling at helena

Auntie's recipe for pickled onions.

Auntie’s recipe for pickled onions.

Auntie's recipe for Armenian lamb stew.

Auntie’s recipe for Armenian lamb stew.

nora mouse and LB button and LB rabbit, otter, and LB

Auntie Marianne and Uncle Peter.

Auntie Marianne and Uncle Peter.