Tuesday 27 September 2011

'Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites' by Franny Moyle

I became interested in reading this book after the BBC TV series of the same name several years ago (no, I don’t only chose my books by TV and films, however much it may have seemed that way recently). I admit I know very little about art, and was more interested in it for the history perspective. Moyle set herself quite some challenge when she decided to try and write a book that would encompass the lives of so many different people, and sometimes it became quite confused and disjointed because of this. However, I see the value of looking at their lives together because of the impact they had on the course of each other’s lives, and can’t really think of a way to make this work without some flaws in the design. This made for an interesting read, but if you want a more in-depth knowledge of any of the characters I would recommend reading a book specifically about them, and perhaps using this one for some context, or indeed as a starting point to get you interested.

The story itself is complex and passionate, one of those times when reality is more sensational than fiction. The artists and their models led lives of scandal, betrayal, and often, it seems, madness. Reading this sometimes read like reading what’s going to happen in the next few episodes of EastEnders, or similar (though I don’t mean this as any kind of criticism of Moyle’s writing, which was in fact descriptive, informative, and entertaining). Most of the main players in this book had tumultuous lives, often ending in tragedy. The women often seemed to get a rough deal, but that’s not to say they were entirely innocent. Some seemed victims of the bohemian lifestyle, combined with having to live in the more constrained world of Victorian England in general, others come across as almost sly, and cunning; they knew what they wanted, and how to use their situation to the best result. It also became clear that many of the women who feature in the lives of the pre-Raphaelites suffered being ostracised, and became victims of many harmful beliefs in high society. It was not just the women that suffered this, of course, the artists themselves had many ups and downs in their careers due to lifestyle choices, as well as controversial styles of painting.

I learnt not just about their lives, but also about what society was like, what expectations were like. It never ceases to amuse me how different certain career choices were seen, then compared to now. To be a model, or an actress, was seen as almost on the same level as being a prostitute, or at least, the association was there, whereas nowadays these careers are held in such high esteem. A fact which interested me, which I didn’t know before reading this is that in the nineteenth century brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law were not allowed to marry, even if the original spouse had passed away, as this was considered incestuous, despite there being no actual blood relation. Is this still the case I wonder, I assume not but I wouldn’t know. I also felt I learnt a fair amount about art, and symbolism throughout. If you actually know about such things I’m sure it would seem negligible, but to someone with very little knowledge of it I appreciated the highly unpretentious approach to it, and also the references to how pre-Raphaelite work influenced literature of the time.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Chocolate chip muffins, two varieties

I made these simple, yet tasty, cupcakes for a friend's birthday, and they went down very well with everyone so thought I would share them with any readers of this blog. I made them all in one go, and so the instructions will assume you are doing the same, though if you want to make just one type then just don't split the cake mixture.

  • Preheat the oven to gas mark 4.
  • Take 8 oz. Stork, (or any type of softened butter, but if you can get hold of some Stork I would highly recommend it, I always use it if I can for baking), and cream together with 8 oz. caster sugar. Keep going until the mixture becomes quite pale. The more you do now, the tastier the cakes will be.
  • In a separate bowl or jug beat 4 eggs. Add to the mixture, and beat well.
  • Add 8 oz. self raising flour and fold in gradually. 
  • Add chocolate chips and mix in well. It's up to you how many chocolate chips you add but use enough to make sure you won't get some muffins without any in. 
  • Use half of this mixture to fill six muffin cases in a muffin tin.
  • Melt some of your chocolate of choice (to do this heat some water in a pan, and place a bowl/jug/mug over the water and stir until melted. Do not put the chocolate straight into the pan, it will burn). Add the chocolate (I used three rows in a large bar of Cadbury's) to the cake mix and stir in until it's no longer streaky. You can also use cocoa powder at this stage if you would rather not melt chocolate.
  • Add the remaining mixture to the six empty muffin cases and bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes, turning the muffin tray half way through in order to get a more even bake.
You should now have something that looks mildly like this:

To make the icing:
  • Cream softened butter, and then add at least twice as much icing sugar (you will want the consistency to be rather stiff to start with as you will be adding liquid). Cream together until combined.
  • Split the mixture in half. To one add peppermint flavouring (how much you use is dependent on personal taste, but a small cap full should be plenty). Add a small amount of green food colouring.
  • Once the cakes are cooled, spread onto the chocolate cakes (or use an icing bag to pipe it on if you want them to look extra fancy) and sprinkle with chocolate sprinkles.
  • With the other half of the buttercream icing, mix in some more melted chocolate. Spread onto the white cakes and finish off with some white chocolate drops.

Sunday 18 September 2011

'One Day' - The film

I finally got round to seeing the film last week, and actually I rather enjoyed it. I thought from the trailers that it looked good, but you never can tell. I had no problem with the casting as I already knew who was playing the two main characters before reading and so only ever really imagined them. I know that Anne Hathaway got a lot of stick for her attempts at a Yorkshire accents, which to be honest, I find somewhat unfair. Yes it was not there the whole time but it was a perfectly acceptable attempt. It may have been better had it been more consistent, but then again the character did not live in Yorkshire for pretty much any of the twenty year period covered so most likely the accent would not have stuck anyway.

The script was good (am I right in thinking that David Nicholls also wrote this, which would explain a lot!), some sections being almost identical to the book. It’s quite a feat to fit a book that covers twenty years, one day a year, into a film that is comprehensible and not ridiculously long, but I felt it was well done. They skipped over some years, and some events were omitted entirely but overall the important scenes were there, and done in a fashion faithful to the novel.

The complex relationship between the two characters was portrayed well, although some of the details which made Dexter seem less pleasant; his nonchalant treatment of Emma throughout most of the story, his endless string of girlfriends, his problems with drugs and alcohol, were less apparent within the film, but nonetheless present. As is often the case I found parts almost more moving than when reading the book purely because you know what’s coming and want to change it in some way. As with the novel, there were some genuinely humorous scenes, as well as others deeply moving. Overall a faithful adaptation, and one that I think fans of the book are quite safe watching.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Strawberry and raspberry pavlova roulade

One of the many things that I love about summer is the fruit that grows during it. Although the weather has hardly been very summer like the past few weeks (not only have the leaves on the trees started turning shades of red and orange, but I was walking through a park last week which was strewn with leaves, all very autumnal) but my strawberry plants are still producing tasty fruit, and so I was inspired to make this.

Having never made meringue, or a roulade before it was something of an experiment, and took three goes to get right, purely because I had no idea how long, or what temperature at which to bake the meringue. Turns out you bake it on a higher temperature for not so long when making a roulade but on a lower temperature for a long time when making it for other uses.

Anyway, here’s how I made my successful one:

  • Take 5 egg whites and whisk until stiff. Do not attempt to do this with a fork as I did last week when making something else, it takes a very long time! A balloon whisk shouldn’t take too long, or an electric whisk if you rather. If you’ve never separated an egg before, it’s not as tricky as people think. Simply crack the egg in half, let the white fall into a bowl, and then move the yolk between the halves of the egg shells so that the rest of the white comes out but the yolk remains in the shell. If this all sounds a bit delicate I did read somewhere you can crack the egg onto a plate, cover the yolk with a cup and then tip it so the white drips out. I’ve never tried this but it’s an alternative.
  • Add 250g caster sugar gradually, continuing to whisk until all the sugar is combined and the mixture is stiff. It should look very pure white, and have a lovely sheen to it.
  • Line your baking tray with baking paper (no need to grease!) and pour in the mixture, spreading it as evenly as possible. Pop it in a pre-heated oven at gas mark 4 for about 18 minutes, until the top is slightly crisp to the touch.
  • Leave to cool completely.
  • In the meantime, and if your arm isn’t aching too much from the egg whisking, whip some double cream. It’s up to you how much you use, but I used a 300ml tub and there was just about enough for the filling and top.
  • Wash your fruit, and chop the strawberries into reasonably small chunks for the middle, and in halves for the top.
  • Once the meringue is completely cool place it top down on another piece of baking paper, and gently peel off the baking paper. Spread some of the whipped cream and scatter the fruit. Use the baking paper to help as you roll it into a roulade.
  • It will be tasty and can be left as it is, but if you want to be particularly indulgent then spread the remaining cream on top and cover with more fruit.

Not as complicated as you would imagine, happy eating!