My Kitchen Year – Ruth Reichl

I’m not a foodie & I don’t read foodie books. I enjoy cooking, especially baking, but I don’t long to live in a Tuscan farmhouse, growing my own kale & keeping heritage chickens. I’d heard of Ruth Reichl & read admiring reviews of her earlier books but hadn’t been tempted to pick them up. This book is a little different. The subtitle is 136 recipes that saved my life, & My Kitchen Year is a beautiful blend of memoir, recovery story & cookbook.

Ruth Reichl was the editor of Gourmet magazine, probably the most prestigious magazine about food & cooking. In 2009, Reichl had been editor for 10 years when the owners, Condé Nast, abruptly decided to close the magazine down. It was October, the December issue of the magazine was at the printers, Reichl was completing work on a TV series & promoting the latest in a line of Gourmet cookbooks when the axe fell. At first, she just kept working, there was nothing else she could do. She had a book tour organised & although the last thing she wanted to do was go out & talk about Gourmet magazine, she couldn’t let down the bookstores & the readers who wanted to meet her. In between commitments, Reichl retreated to her kitchens, in New York & the country house in upstate New York where she & her husband spent weekends & holidays. After clearing her desk & completing the book tour, the reality of losing her job hits.

On the first day of my new life I woke, alone, to frosted windows in New York City. Michael was out of town, and for a moment I thought gratefully that I had no responsibilities, nowhere to go. Then the empty day rose before me, and I realised that that was literally true. I had nowhere to go. What would I do with myself? I went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door.

Reichl’s husband suggests that they might try living year round in the country. If Reichl doesn’t get another job, they’ll have to sell one of their homes. She realises how much she has missed cooking meals that aren’t just thrown together after a long day in the office. She rediscovers New York through walking, visiting different districts & trying out new ingredients. She visits the farmers markets near their country home & finds herself creating a meal in her head as she looks at what’s on offer.

This book almost convinced me that Twitter could be a worthwhile activity. Reichl discovers a whole new community of friends on Twitter (some of her tweets are reproduced in the book). The power is cut off at Reichl’s country house for several days during the winter, just as she had made some bread dough.

The storm raged but I didn’t mind; I was feeling more optimistic. What I did mind was that the electricity had deserted us while my dough was rising, and I didn’t know what to do. It might be days until I had a working oven. Should I throw the dough out?
I tossed the question into the Twitterverse and the responses came back. ‘Don’t throw it out!’ at least a dozen people tweeted. ‘Just keep punching the dough down’.
Convinced that it was a lost cause, I did it anyway. What did I have to lose? The electricity was out for three days, and by day two I was noticing a change. The dough was capturing wild yeasts with great abandon, and before long it began to smell like fine champagne. I could hardly wait for the power to be restored.

One of her former colleagues on Gourmet had suggested she write a cookbook & the idea appeals to her new self. She realises she would rather be at home in her kitchen than eating out at fancy restaurants on an expense account.

For the past six months, cooking had been my lifeline, and I was grateful for everything I had learned in the kitchen. Most cookbooks, I thought as I reached for an orange and began to squeeze it for juice, are in search of perfection, an attempt to constantly re-create the same good dishes. But you’re not a chef in your own kitchen, trying to please paying guests. You’re a traveller, following your own path, seeking adventure. I wanted to write about the fun of cooking, encourage people to take risks. Alone in the kitchen you are simply a cook, free to do anything you want. If it doesn’t work out – well, there’s always another meal.

When Reichl breaks her foot after stumbling in a restaurant in LA, she has a lot of time to think.
She consoles herself for not being able to cook for weeks by thinking about recipes & encouraging her husband to cook. I also love that she has two cats who take advantage of her immobility to make themselves comfortable. I think all cat owners have experience of this! She is writing an Introduction to a new edition of Elizabeth David’s recipes & compares David’s influence on English food to American writers like Julia Child & James Beard. As the year turns to autumn once more, Reichl considers a new project.

Summer over, cookbook done, I was back in a state of anxiety. I lay fretfully in bed at night. knowing what I should be doing and yet reluctant to commit.
I have always wanted to write a novel. I’m an avid reader, and fiction is my first love; the ability to inhabit someone else’s space, even for a little while, makes life so much richer. I’ve dreamt of writing a novel since I was very small, but I’d always put it off, finding all the reasons why I couldn’t do it. I had a job, a child, no time. Now my child was grown, my job was over and my days belonged to me. The time had finally come. Surely it couldn’t be that difficult?
But the middle of the night is no time to look for answers. I got out of bed and went into the kitchen. I wanted some hot dark fudge poured over cold white ice-cream, and I knew that just stirring up the sauce would improve my mood.

Apart from anything, the book itself is beautiful. The book follows Reichl through the year after Gourmet closed down. The photography by Mikkel Vang is just gorgeous. The evocation of the seasons through food & scenery is luscious. Following the seasons from the first misery of unemployment in autumn to a place of acceptance & recovery at the end of the following summer is a very effective way of structuring the story. As expected from a writer as renowned as Reichl, the text is intimate & honest, at times it’s very moving. This is a memoir about what it’s like to lose a much-loved job, a job that defined who you are. It’s about the fear of not finding another job at all (Reichl is in her 60s), & what that would mean financially as well as personally. We don’t all have the high profile career of Reichl or her privileges but we can all imagine what it would be like to be suddenly unemployed & trying to work out what comes next. It’s also a book about food, our relationship to food & the joy of slowing down & really looking at what we eat, where it comes from & the way we cook. The recipes are classics, new variations on old favourites & ideas prompted by new discoveries. My Kitchen Year is a book about food & cooking for non-foodies, a memoir of the grief of unemployment & a gorgeously produced coffee table book of photographs & recipes. I enjoyed it very much.

Pre-Christmas ramble

My self-imposed book buying ban is continuing (except for a cookbook which doesn’t count). I’ve been very disciplined & haven’t even been tempted. Of course, it does help that I’m still buying books for other people as Christmas & birthday presents so bookish packages do keep arriving. I’m also still doing a lot of rereading (I was withdrawing an old copy of Gaudy Night at work the other day & sat on the floor reading my favourite bits for quite a while so I really need to read it again from the beginning very soon) so it’s just as well I’m not bringing any more books into the house that will actually be staying more than a few weeks.

However, just because I’m not buying books doesn’t mean I can’t be tempted by bookish merchandise. I do love a good bookish coffee mug. You can see my collection of book-related mugs above (click on the photo to make it larger. From left to right – Penguin Room of One’s Own, Folio Society, Librarian, Slightly Foxed, Susan Hill’s Long Barn Books & two more Penguins, Persuasion & Wuthering Heights). You might think I have enough coffee mugs. Well, I thought I did too. These are only the book-related ones, I have a lot more… Then, I saw these. Virago are producing three coffee mugs featuring Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier & Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. I’m sure you don’t need three guesses to decide which one I’ve ordered.

Speaking of Barbara Pym, I was reading one of those roundups of favourite books of the year in the Age on Saturday morning. I’m very sceptical about these articles, especially when authors are asked their favourite reads of the year. (Not as sceptical as I am about the articles asking politicians what they’re going to be reading over the summer although the article in Sunday’s Age wasn’t as overly worthy as some I’ve read. One politician, Richard Di Natale, leader of the Greens, even said he wouldn’t be reading but playing with his children) Most of the books chosen by the literati are serious worthy tomes, usually award winners or published by friends of the writer. In a small literary market like Australia, it doesn’t do to upset someone who will probably be reviewing your next book. Very occasionally someone breaks that mould & this year, it was Helen Garner, one of my favourite writers. “Books that got me through pneumonia by provoking fits of uncontrollable laughter were, first, Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings and Excellent Women, then three Charles Portis novels, Norwood, The Dog of the South, and his 1968 masterpiece, True Grit.” I haven’t read Charles Portis but Pym would definitely cheer me through pneumonia.

Speaking of Helen Garner (I told you this would be a ramble), I’ve recently discovered a new podcast by two of Garner’s most devoted fans. Well, it’s new to me but it’s been running for just over a year. Australians will know Annabel Crabb & Leigh Sales as political journalists (Crabb mostly in print & Sales as the anchor of the 7.30 current affairs program). Annabel Crabb also presents a TV show called Kitchen Cabinet where she visits politicians at home. They cook her dinner & she brings dessert & she interviews them about their life before politics & how they stay sane while they’re in politics. It sounds light & fluffy but often the audience learns a bit more about the politicians when they’re having a conversation rather than delivering a 30 second soundbite. It’s also fascinating to see who can cook & who has obviously never picked up a lettuce before. Annabel Crabb has just published a cookbook, Special Delivery, which has some gorgeous recipes for cakes, puddings & desserts as well as other dishes (that’s the cookbook I’ve just bought. I couldn’t resist the Roasted Strawberry & Ginger Cheesecake recipe). Their podcast is called Chat 10, Looks 3 (a reference to the song Dance 10, Looks 3 from A Chorus Line. I know nothing about musical theatre so I was completely mystified until I listened to the first episode & all was explained). Crabb & Sales talk about books, musical theatre (Leigh Sales’ passion), cooking & whatever else they feel like. I’ve listened to a few episodes now & I’m really enjoying it. They’re intelligent, witty, funny women & they sound as though they’re having a ball recording the podcast.

The photos of the girls under the Christmas tree aren’t great but I spent ages sitting on the floor, throwing their favourite toys under the tree to entice them into camera range so I was determined to share them. Just so that you don’t forget that it’s summer here, this is Lucky enjoying a mild evening last week snoozing in a sunny patch on the back porch.

Lastly, I’m trying out a new feature on Blogger which allows me to highlight a featured post. I thought I’d choose a post from the same time in a previous year. So I’ve begun with my review last year of Anthony Trollope’s collection of Christmas stories, Christmas at Thompson Hall.

Lovely to look at & read – Part One

I’ve borrowed some beautiful books from my library lately & I wanted to share some of them with you. They’re all books I’ve been dipping in to rather than reading from cover to cover so, rather than not review them at all, I thought I’d write some mini reviews to encourage you to buy them or suggest them for purchase at your library.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland is the story of an amazing project that was thought up by Alexander McCall Smith after he saw the Prestonpans Tapestry, created to commemorate a battle of 1745. Why not create a tapestry that would tell the story of Scotland’s history? He contacted the artist, Andrew Crummy & the project was born. More than 1,000 stitchers from all over Scotland were involved in stitching the 165 panels telling the story of Scotland from the creation of the landmass 11,000 years ago to the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Andrew Crummy’s designs for the panels are so beautiful & he left spaces that he hoped would be filled in by the stitchers as they worked. They certainly did fill in those spaces, often with their initials or the name of their group. The panels resemble the Bayeux Tapestry or the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages with animals, plants & motifs in the borders. I have so many favourites, it’s hard to just choose a few. St Margaret of Scotland, Haakon’s fleet at Kyleakin, Skye (I love the way the figures echo the poses of the Lewis Chessmen), Robert Carey’s ride to Edinburgh to bring James VI the news of Elizabeth’s death, the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715 with the armies chasing each other in a huge circle, Henry Raeburn’s Skating Minister, the Forth Bridge, the Herring Girls of the Hebrides & the Isbister Sisters of Shetland.

If you read Cornflower’s blog, you’ll know that she was one of the stitchers of the WWI panel. You can read more about her involvement here. There’s also more information about the Tapestry & where you can see it as it’s touring Scotland this year here. You can see some of the panels there (although the site’s incredibly slow to load). I’d hoped that more of the panels would be on the website but I suppose they want you to buy the book!

Betty Churcher is a well-known writer on Australian art & was the Director of the National Gallery for many years. Now in her 80s, she has published a series of Notebooks, of which this is the latest. She has visited most of the State Galleries in Australia, visiting her favourite paintings & sketching details of them. As she says, having a pencil in your hand makes you slow down & really observe details.

Churcher is a keen observer of the detail in a work of art & the sad fact that she has lost the sight on one eye, only seems to make her more observant. This is one of the most famous paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria, The Banquet of Cleopatra by Tiepolo.  The sketch on the left catches the expression on the face of the slave standing behind Cleopatra as he realises that she is about to drop a priceless pearl into her glass of wine. You can see the painting much better here.
Other artists featured include Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, Cezanne, Lucian Freud &, one of my favourites, wonderful Grace Cossington-Smith, whose painting, a portrait of the artist’s sister, The Sock Knitter, is on the cover. Apart from the fascinating content, this is a beautifully produced book. It’s shaped like a notebook & has a notebook’s flexible cover & creamy pages.

Bloomsbury is an endlessly fascinating subject & The Bloomsbury Cookbook by Jans Ondaatje Rolls concentrates on the domestic lives of the artists & writers known as the Bloomsberries. The author has told the story of Bloomsbury in a way that gives a different perspective on them. As Anne Chisholm, biographer of Frances Partridge, writes in her Foreward,

Jans Ondaatje Rolls has indeed found a way to cast new light onto Bloomsbury, not by yet again re-examining their personal or professional lives, but by walking into their kitchens and dining rooms, unearthing their cookbooks, trying out their recipes (even the less tempting ones) and, above all, by immersing herself in their writings and paintings.

Anne Chisholm also mentions that she’s working on a new edition of Carrington’s letters, which is very exciting as the only other edition, edited by David Garnett, was published in 1971 & is long out of print. Something to look forward to.

The book is full of beautiful reproductions of paintings by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant & Carrington, photos & sketches of everyone from Virginia Woolf to Lytton Strachey. There are extracts from letters, diaries &, most fascinating of all, are the recipes. The pages above show Interior with Housemaid by Vanessa Bell (1939) & opposite it, recipes for Eccles cakes & Veal Schnitzel with Mushrooms. As well as using the recipe notebooks of the Bloomsberries, there are also descriptions of similar recipes from cookbooks of the day as well as descriptions of the restaurants they visited at home & abroad & the meals they ate there. Virginia’s fraught relationships with her servants are described through trenchant quotes from her diaries & there are the social changes that led to Frances Partridge becoming a very good cook after the war when cooks were hard to find. The Bloomsbury Cookbook is published by Thames & Hudson, so it goes without saying that it’s beautifully produced & just a joy to look at.

I have some more gorgeous books on the way to me at work so Part Two of this post will be along soon.

Barbara Pym Reading Week – The Barbara Pym Cookbook

What a wonderful week it’s been for Barbara Pym fans. I’ve had a great time reading posts on Pym on some of my favourite blogs & also on a whole lot of blogs unknown to me. I’ve learnt about how readers discover Pym & about the illustrator of the most iconic Pym covers. However, the posts that have been the most fun to read have been the ones about Pym & food. Pym writes about food in the same humorous, ironically detached way that she writes about everything else. I always think that food is so important in her books because of when they were written. Rationing during WWII & into the 1950s meant that food – what was available, what you could do with what was available, craving food you couldn’t get – was a major preoccupation.

Some of my favourite scenes in Barbara Pym’s novels involve food. In Excellent Women, Mildred makes a can of baked beans last two meals. She puts together a simple salad of lettuce & olive oil that has Rocky Napier in raptures. She has trouble eating spaghetti in a restaurant & another meal with William Caldicote leads to a discussion about wine & the meaning of Nuits St George. Whenever I make macaroni cheese, I always make sure there’s enough salt & plenty of cheese unlike the meal Mildred has with the Malorys. Wilf Bason in A Glass of Blessings cooks some spectacular meals for Father Thames at the clergy house. Wilmet imagines him peeling grapes for sole veronique & he is especially inventive during Lent when he serves scampi & octopus. My favourite foodie moments are in Some Tame Gazelle, when Belinda spends all afternoon making ravioli & finally the dough comes together “like the finest chamois leather.” But nothing can beat the cauliflower cheese moment in this novel. I will say no more for fear of spoiling the moment if you haven’t yet read the book.

The Barbara Pym Cookbook was published in the 1980s by Hilary Pym & Honor Wyatt. It’s a collection of extracts from the novels, diaries & letters about food & cooking, along with the recipes. My copy only arrived a couple of days ago so I’ve done little more than browse & I haven’t had a chance to try any of the recipes. Thomas at My Porch has written about the book & has made the Victoria sponge & parkin which both look delicious. Audrey at Books as Food has written a wonderful post listing so many different types of food from the novels, most of which were immediately evocative for me of the scene & book they came from. Audrey’s lemon currant scones look wonderful & I always make my scones with cream as in this recipe rather than rubbing the butter into the flour – much easier.

I have plans for cauliflower cheese tonight for dinner & macaroni cheese on Monday. As a librarian & spinster who loves cats, I always feel as though I might be a character in a Barbara Pym novel when I sit down to a dish that has appeared so memorably in one of her novels. Happy 100th birthday Miss Pym!

Chocolate Shoes & Wedding Blues – Trisha Ashley

Tansy Poole lives in London with her fiance, Justin, but her heart lies in the village of Sticklepond with her great-aunt Nan who has been more of a mother to Tansy than her own mother had ever been. Tansy’s relationship with Justin has become miserable. Tansy wants to get married & have children. Justin keeps putting off the wedding & wanting her to lose weight & dress more conservatively. Suddenly he wants to change the things that make Tansy who she really is. His mother is also a nightmare who spends far to much time in their flat tidying up & throwing away Tansy’s belongings. Tansy writes & illustrates children’s books but her heart’s desire is to use her passion for shoes & weddings to make a living.

Aunt Nan has been running the family shoe shop in Sticklepond forever but now that her health is failing, Tansy spends more time with her & discovers that Nan is going to leave her the shop. Her plan to move to Sticklepond to be with Nan is made easier by her realisation that Justin isn’t going to make a commitment & if she wants to have children, she needs to make some difficult decisions.

After Nan’s death, Tansy & her best friend, Bella, open Cinderella’s Shoes, a fantasy of a bridal shop specialising in vintage & over-the-top fairytale shoes for brides. The new shop is a lot of hard work & Tansy’s equilibrium isn’t helped by the discovery that her new next door neighbour is Ivo Hawksley, Shakespearian actor & her first love. Ivo has retreated to Sticklepond after the tragic death of his wife in an accident & he spends his time hacking away at the overgrown garden & playing mournful classical music in the evenings. He’s also reading his wife’s diaries which leads him to reassess their relationship & what he wants to do in the future.

Tansy & Ivo’s combative relationship (he objects to her crowing cockerel, her dog attacking his cat & the doorbell of the shop playing Here Comes the Bride very loudly. She objects to his mournful music, his melodramatic habit of quoting Shakespeare every time they meet & the fact that he dumped her many years ago) gradually turns to friendship. Ivo takes Tansy’s dog, Flash, for evening walks & she tries to encourage him to eat by pressing delicious food parcels on him. Justin, however, isn’t taking his dismissal quietly & wants to move north to be closer to Tansy, much to her horror. Tansy’s two stepsisters (just as horrible as Cinderella’s) do all they can to disrupt her life & even Aunt Nan has a few surprises from beyond the grave. Add Bella’s fraught relationship with her parents & budding romance with Neil & a proposal to build a retail park near the village that would threaten local businesses & you have a funny, romantic story that’s a lovely way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Trisha Ashley’s Sticklepond novels have an enthusiastic following & in Chocolate Shoes & Wedding Blues we meet several characters from the previous books, A Winter’s Tale & Chocolate Wishes. I’ve also enjoyed her Christmas novels, The Twelve Days of Christmas & The Magic of Christmas. All Trisha’s books have a fairytale flavour to them. The villagers of Sticklepond are an eccentric lot but they’re a real community with shared values & a shared vision of the future of the village. Tansy, like many of Trisha’s heroines is a wonderful cook & spends what little time she has left over from running the shop baking all sorts of goodies as well as brewing the mysterious Meddyg, a mead-like drink from a secret family recipe that can cure anything from melancholy to the plague. This is a delightful book full of humour, romance & food. What more could you ask for?

Planning for Spring

I had a weekend of cooking & thinking about my vegie garden now that Spring is almost here. I say almost because we’ve had some pretty cold, windy, wet weather in Melbourne over the last week. Still, the early bulbs are out, the wattle is blossoming everywhere & my roses have started some new growth after their winter prune.

I did some cooking on Sunday. When I make soups or casseroles, I don’t do much measuring, I just throw in the vegetables, spices, herbs, stock etc & hope for the best. Sometimes the result could use some tweaking but this vegetable curry is one of the best I’ve made – &, of course, I’ll never be able to do it again! The sauce is just right & the flavour is just how I like it. There’s some for dinner during the week & some for the freezer.

I’ve been watching Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers on iPlayer & I thought I’d try the cake he made with beetroot. Nigel is my new favourite cook. I love his easy recipes & his garden & especially his beautiful cat who makes several appearances in the second series. I couldn’t take down the recipe while I watched so I looked it up on the internet later & here’s the result. It’s a Chocolate & Beetroot cake &, as I was boiling the beetroot, melting the chocolate, making the coffee, beating the egg whites, I kept thinking, I’m sure there wasn’t this much faffing around when Nigel made it – & not so many bowls used either. And didn’t he just grate the beetroot? When the cake was in the oven & I’d finished the marathon washing up, I had another look at the episode & discovered that I’d made a completely different cake, the only common ingredient was the beetroot! Here’s the one I watched Nigel make & here’s the one I made. The mention of poppy seeds was the confusing element, I think. I tasted the crumbs from the tin after I’d turned out the cake & it tastes delicious. I added some chocolate icing after I took that photo & took it in to work for morning tea.

Inspired by Nigel, I’ve ordered several cookbooks. Nigel’s Tender which I’ve had a look at at work seems to have lots of the recipes from Simple Suppers so I won’t make that mistake again. He also talks a lot about how he started his vegie garden. I’ve also pre ordered his new Kitchen Diaries. I’ve also ordered Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new book, Three Good Things because Hugh is my other favourite cook with a garden. I love his Veg & Everyday cookbooks & use them often.

I’m also starting to get excited about planning my vegie garden for this spring & summer. My broccoli has been a success & I ate the last of it in a stirfry on Saturday night. I’ve been borrowing books from work & reading my Organic Gardening & Your Vegie Patch magazines to inspire me for the day when

I can make use of the compost I’ve been adding to all year & get the soil ready for planting.I will definitely get the tomatoes in earlier this year & I hope to have more success with lettuce. I can’t wait to plant lots of basil too as I love pesto & I still have one container left in the freezer from last summer’s experiments. As well as ordinary pesto with pinenuts, I tried making it with cashews or walnuts & using different flavoured oils, garlic & lemon. It was all very good & I’m looking forward to more.

It was too cold to do much more than take a photo of the compost bin yesterday afternoon but as soon as I stepped outside, Phoebe appeared from nowhere & decided to investigate the flapping coming from next door’s garden (I think it was a piece of plastic flapping against the fence).

A strong gust of wind made her think twice & she jumped down on to the rubbish bins on her way back to ground level.

Lucky was sensibly sheltering from the wind on the little shelf under the back steps.

Have a good week everyone.

Lucky & Phoebe’s winter afternoon

It’s the Queen’s Birthday holiday today & the sun finally broke through this afternoon after a grey, gloomy & wet weekend. I caught up with a friend this morning (when it was still foggy & cold). We went to a movie, Bel-Ami, based on the book by Guy de Maupassant. It was pretty much as we expected from reading the reviews. The women in the cast – Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas & Christina Ricci –  were terrific, Philip Glenister is always worth watching but Robert Patttinson as Georges just wasn’t good enough. He was quite wooden & charmless. Georges is a shallow young man but he must have some charm for all these women to fall under his spell.

When I got home, I baked a cake for a special morning tea at work tomorrow. It’s a surprise 60th birthday tea & I made a chocolate, date & almond torte. It’s a new recipe for me based on egg whites so I’ll be interested to taste it. There was a lot of chopping involved so I turned on the radio. Classic FM played some of my favourite pieces. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no 5, Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A (the one with the Rondo alla Turca) & Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous Serenade for Strings.

I moved Lucky & Phoebe’s beds into a sunny spot on the back porch & they settled down to listen to the beautiful music & have a snooze. Sunny winter afternoons don’t come around all that often & this one’s nearly over already. If you’ve had the day off, I hope you’ve had as lovely a day as I have.

Recipe for Love – Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde is one of my favourite authors when I’m in the mood for a romantic wallow. Last Sunday was one of those days because of my upset over my e-reader. I wanted to read a book that was guaranteed to cheer me up & Katie Fforde is a sure bet.

Zoe Harper has entered a MasterChef-style cooking competition. She hopes to win the prize money that will allow her to open her own deli. Smart, pretty, kind & helpful, Zoe is a delight. On her early arrival at the contest venue her helpfulness leads her to assist a grumpy motorist who has landed his car in a ditch. Gideon Irving is attractive in a non-obvious way, blunt, ungracious & one of the judges of the contest. Zoe & Gideon agree not to mention their accidental meeting but soon their mutual attraction means that their growing relationship becomes hard to disguise.

Zoe is sharing a room with another contestant, Cher, a really nasty young woman. Cher is a beautiful but brittle blonde, determined to win the contest by fair means or foul because she wants to be famous. She’s not above flirting with the judges & sabotaging Zoe at every opportunity. Cher locks Zoe out of their room, hides her computer lead so she can’t access her recipes & opens the window on a rainy day so Zoe’s bed is soaked – all completely accidentally, of course.

Zoe’s friendship with Fenella & Rupert, the owners of the country house where the contest is held, is another delightful subplot to the story. The fact that Gideon is staying with Fen & Rupert & every time Zoe can’t sleep in her own bed, she ends up in Gideon’s, softens the upset over Cher’s vindictiveness. As the contest continues & one contestant is eliminated after every challenge, Zoe is kept on her toes . Several times she just scrapes through to the next round because of Cher’s machinations or her own helpfulness – creating a stunning wedding cake at short notice for a friend of Fenella’s & welcoming Rupert’s vile parents to the house when Fenella goes into labour – which leaves her with little time to prepare for the next round of the contest. The final straw comes when Cher attempts to blackmail Zoe with photos of her & Gideon which would ruin his career & cause a scandal that would wreck the contest for everyone.

Recipe for Love is just as wonderful as all Katie’s previous books. Funny, warm, romantic & with enough tension in the plotting that you wonder how Zoe will get through her latest entanglement. Gideon is a gorgeous hero, especially when he lulls Zoe to sleep by reading her Elizabeth David. The cooking aspect is also terrific. I love reading about food, especially the hearty good cooking that Zoe does so well. Fenella & Rupert are a lovely couple. I enjoyed their struggles with their half-renovated home & I think Rupert’s bossy, domineering, tactless mother was my favourite character. I finished Recipe for Love with a contented sigh late on Sunday night, my e-reader problems forgotten. It was just what I needed.

The Magic of Christmas – Trisha Ashley

Trisha Ashley’s books are perfect for this time of year. Funny, absorbing, romantic & full of cooking & foodie treats. When I’m in the middle of the Christmas rush, a light, amusing read is just what I need before the next round of shopping & cooking begins.

In The Magic of Christmas, Lizzie Pharamond is reluctantly realizing that her marriage to charming but philandering Tom is coming to an end. The last straw for her came when their son, Jasper, was rushed to hospital with suspected meningitis. When Tom eventually turned up, his first thoughts weren’t for Jasper but jealousy that Lizzie was being comforted by his cousin, Nick. From there, Lizzie & Tom began to lead seperate lives although still living in the same house, mostly for Jasper’s sake but also because Lizzie’s series of books, The Perseverance Chronicles, are based on her life at the cottage owned by Tom’s family who live at the big house in the village.

Lizzie’s books are a mixture of village life, cooking, gardening & self-sufficiency. Her traditional comfort food is scornfully dismissed by Nick Pharamond, a successful TV chef, as hopelessly unprofessional but her books are a success & the sparring is all part of Lizzie & Nick’s relationship. They were teenage sweethearts but Nick wanted to travel & Lizzie wasn’t prepared to wait. So, Nick left, she fell for Tom’s charms & they moved to Perserverance Cottage where Lizzie writes & Tom runs a surfboard business reliving his wild youth with frequent trips away & affairs with several women much closer to home. Nick has married Leila & they run a restaurant in London although as Nick spends half his time at the Hall, their marriage is a little semi-detached.

 Lizzie is just holding out until Jasper goes to university but when a sudden accident leaves her a widow, she has to reconsider her future & adjust to life on her own. Her best friend, Annie, & the other members of the Christmas Pudding Circle are supportive & there’s always the rehearsals for the traditional Boxing Day Mystery Play to take her mind off the fact that the police are suspicious about Tom’s death. For the last few years, Tom has played Adam to Lizzie’s Eve but who will take over? Will it be Ritch Rainford, the soap star who has bought a house in the village & has his eye on Lizzie? Or will it be Nick?

The Magic of Christmas has been revised from an earlier book by Trisha Ashley, Sweet Nothings. It’s been several years since I read Sweet Nothings but I remembered quite a lot of the plot & characters. This didn’t bother me but if you’ve read the earlier book, be warned.

Trisha Ashley’s books are lovely, romantic books with English village atmosphere & lots of recipes. Lizzie & Nick are engaging characters & I enjoyed their spiky relationship. The secondary characters are terrific, from Unks, Tom’s great-uncle Roly who lives at the Hall with his slightly fey but cunning sister, Mimi to Annie & her gentle romance with the new vicar. The Mystery Play is very funny, full of local dialect & with Roly as the Voice of God, a role he’s played for so many years that he doesn’t bother to come to rehearsals. If you’re in the mood for a gentle romance set in an English village, The Magic of Christmas is highly recommended.

Abby’s Sunday morning

Spring Sunday mornings in Melbourne bring out the lawn mowers & the car washers. The clocks went forward last night & daylight saving has begun. Only six months until we turn them back again & say a grateful hello to autumn! I don’t want to wish my life away but I don’t enjoy summer. However, I could hardly complain about the weather at the moment. This morning was glorious & I was out washing the car bright & early, well supervised by Abby. Once she realised splashing water was involved, she left me to it & retreated to her favourite spot under the hebes where she could make sure I didn’t miss any dirty spots but not get wet. Then, I did a little weeding, feeding & tidying up overhanging branches around the garden & took a few more pictures of spring in the garden. 
This is one of the Don Alphonso tulips I planted in the autumn. They’ve just started blooming this weekend.
Red geranium in bright sunshine near the front fence.
I don’t know what these flowers are. A friend gave me two beautiful blue pots when I moved in five years ago & these lovely bulbs blossom every spring.The photo’s not very good but they’re the most delicate pale blue.
Finally, this is the climber, Snowbell, just about ready to break out into lovely creamy blossoms near the back door.
I’m also trying out my new oven by baking a fruit cake. I’m very excited about the oven as I’ve never had a new one before, just whatever was in the houses I’ve lived in. It’s a gas stove & I’ve only had electric in the past. But, we had a gas oven in my parents’ house & I’ve always preferred cooking with gas, it’s so much easier to control the temperature for simmering. I’m still learning the finer points of simmering with this stove though as the fruit caught when I was boiling it for the cake & it took a lot of scrubbing to clean the saucepan. I’m also a bit worried about the cooking time & temperature recommended by the manual. It’s a fan assisted oven & the manual suggests 130 degrees for 3 hours. This seems too long & too low a temperature to me but I’ll give it a go, keep my fingers crossed & post a photo later if it works out. Maybe I’ll still post a photo even if it’s a disaster! 
I can’t resist posting one more photo of Abby just because she looks so lovely. I took this yesterday afternoon on the back step. I hope you’re enjoying your Sunday wherever you are.