Wednesday 29 September 2021

Brilliant Baking Books

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With the return of the Great British Bake-Off to our screens, the nation once more reaches for the flour and bakes up a storm, inspired by the incredible creations that the contestants produce. As a keen baker at any time of the year, I thought I would take a look at my overflowing cookbook shelves and pull out some of my favourite baking books.

GBBO Alumni:

The end of the series always brings with it an outflowing of baking books from contestants, as well as the official GBBO publications. Here are a few of my favourites from series past.

Baking with Kim-Joy - A finalist in the 2018 series, Kim-Joy is well known for her beautifully designed bakes. This book is one that offers inspiration, although you do feel that there’s a level of artistic skill involved that the average baker might not possess. These aren’t quick projects, but if you have the time they are more than worth it (you can, of course, just make the bakes without the decoration if you’re short on time). There are some brilliant tips for creating bakes that look impressive but are much easier than you’d imagined. I’ve mostly used this book by picking out certain design ideas to incorporate into slightly different, simpler designs. Really useful for those who want to up their showstopper game.

John Whaite Bakes - He might currently be gracing our screens in the ballroom on Strictly Come Dancing, but he came to fame as the winner of GBBO in 2012. This book is the first in a series of cooking books he’s released and has a great selection of recipes, organised by the mood they best match. I’ve made quite a few recipes from this book but every time I flick through there’s more that catch my eye. The black cherry doughnuts are next on my list.

How Baking Works (And What To Do When It Doesn’t)
, James Morton - a finalist in the 2012 series of Bake Off, Morton was known for his fair isle knitwear and turning baking disasters into successes. This book is brilliant for anyone who really wants to understand how baking works. Armed with your new knowledge, it may even inspire you to get experimenting with your own recipe ideas.

A Passion For Baking, Jo Wheatley - Winner of the 2011 series, Wheatley was welcomed into the hearts of the nation with her low self confidence in direct contrast to her skill in the kitchen. Her recipes are family focussed and will have you baking on a regular basis. This book has been used time and again and contains my go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe.

Brilliant Hardbacks:

Peyton and Byrne: British Baking - Peyton and Byrne once had an impressive range of bakeries across London, with outlets at many of the main cultural attractions. Sadly, many of these have now closed, but you can whip up your own delicacies with this book. Simple, no-frills recipes that work, this is a great book for family favourites to make again and again. My most baked cake from it is probably the chocolate marble cake.

The Hummingbird Bakery: Home Sweet Home - for those with a sweet tooth and a soft spot for
American style bakes, this is a great book. An impressive range of cupcakes, layer cakes, and indulgent desserts, there’s much to tempt within its pages. Some favourites include the cookies and cream cupcakes, and lemon layer cake with cream cheese frosting.

The Clandestine Cake Club Cookbook, Lynn Hill - the Clandestine Cake Club, a supper club focussed entirely on cake, with bakers bringing along their creations based around an unusual theme, and meeting at a secret location. For those of us who haven’t been lucky enough to attend in person, this book helps give us a taste of the experience. The recipes are from members of the Club, and although they can be a little hit and miss, there’s a lot more hits than misses. This is a brilliant book for those wanting to bake something a little out of the ordinary. I’ve particularly enjoyed the elderflower cordial cake with white chocolate ganache, and the chocolate nut rum cake.

Patisserie: Mastering The Fundamentals of French Pastry,
Christopher Felder - This is a weighty book both in physical form and in content. Containing hundreds of recipes for delicious French patisserie, this is one for the ambitious baker who has some time on their hands. Each recipe is accompanied by multiple photographs, giving you confidence at each stage that you’ve not made a mistake, although you do need to remember to read the written instructions too so as not to miss anything. The hazelnut buttercream may take some time commitment but it is absolutely delicious (and can be frozen to save some time when the cravings next strike…)


Easy Baking (M&S) - a brilliant selection of recipes for everyday baking. Cakes, cupcakes, brownies, and pies, this book is full to the brim with tempting bakes. A recent favourite is the cranberry and banana loaf, giving that lockdown staple a slightly different edge.

BBC GoodFood, 101 Tempting Desserts - cheap and cheerful, with photographs for every recipe, this is a great book for fans of cream, puddings, and ice cream. The strawberry toffee tart is a longtime favourite, but I’m currently making my way through their ice cream ideas, next up blueberry, coconut and lime. 

Wednesday 22 September 2021

How To Be An Olympian, Harry Reardon

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to Unbound and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This easy-to-read book follows two Olympic hopefuls as they prepare for Tokyo 2020. Jess Leyden faces the struggles of working in an ever-changing team made up of personalities that are not always complementary. Hannah Dines battles to reach the overly harsh targets set out by British Cycling, while a potentially inaccurate classification leaves her competing against those with far fewer physical challenges. Both women show huge determination as they balance training with study and work.

The writing style is relaxed, creating the feeling that a friend is telling you the story, which makes you feel close to its subjects. There is a candidness that brings to the fore the bureaucracy that can make an already intense situation much worse, and generally conveys the level of commitment and sacrifice needed to stand a chance of success. It was surprising to learn about the way British Cycling and British Rowing treat the athletes that come under their umbrella. It’s no great secret that competing at the highest level is an intense and often lonely experience, but there’s also a perception that athletes are nurtured by their teams. This often seems to be far from the truth, and for Hannah especially, their endless changes of priority threw off her training regime as she tried to meet their demands, before realising that her energy would be better spent elsewhere.

It will come as no surprise to any readers in 2021 that the pandemic significantly impacted their journey to the Olympics. Both were faced with the challenges of not being able to train, becoming isolated, and making decisions not to bend the rules in order to get back to some semblance of normality. Having spent so much of their young lives in focused preparation for competing professionally, the sudden emptiness of their days was a sharp shock. Knowing that they only have a short window of time in which to achieve their dreams meant watching the time pass idly came with additional stress.

This is an interesting read that opens up the world of sport beyond the events we see on TV. It highlights how much work goes into every race, how many people are involved behind the scenes, and the very real financial challenges that can end careers before they really get off the ground. Coming to this as someone who doesn’t particularly follow sport, there was still a lot to enjoy. I closed the book with a huge amount of respect not just for Jess and Hannah, but for everyone who embarks on their own journey in the field.

Wednesday 8 September 2021

Hairpspray, 03/09/21 and Leopards, 04/09/21

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Walking in to the Coliseum on Friday night you could feel the excitement in the room, even before the curtain went up. Theatre is back, and what a glorious return Hairspray is. I knew a lot of the songs but had somehow never managed to see it before, either in a theatre or on the big screen. The next two and a half hours were everything I could have hoped for and more. The story is one of acceptance, self-love, and the fight for inequality, and has a lot going for it. The cast were on fine form, and when Les Dennis got the giggles during a duet with Michael Ball, it reminded me how wonderful it is to be at a live performance, that no two shows are ever quite the same.

From the opening number to the final song this was a high energy, colourful production. The costumes were lavish, the singing pitch perfect, and the characters, although occasionally cartoonish, nonetheless evoked genuine emotion and took the audience along with them. I can’t think of a more perfect show to return to musical theatre with, everyone left with huge grins plastered across their faces, and I think it’s a safe bet that I wasn’t the only one dancing my way home.

Leopards, at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, couldn’t have offered a starker contrast. Dark,
intense, and thought provoking, seeing these two shows back to back demonstrated the versatility of theatre, and its ability to convey important messages in very different styles. With  a cast of two, a simple set, and no interval, Leopards demands your attention. Young, ambitious Niala (Saffron Coomber) meets celebrated charity leader Ben (Martin Marquez) in a hotel bar, looking for a new career direction. After some stilted conversation in which you question the quality of acting (before realising later that any awkwardness was entirely intentional), they end up in a bedroom.

What unfolds is deeply uncomfortable, as the characters are forced to face up to issues of consent, grief, and personal responsibility. The power balance shifts back and forth and you question the assumptions made during the scene in the bar. There are so many twists and turns that it’s hard to write about without spoilers, but trust me when I say this is a play that will leave you thinking about it long after leaving the theatre.

Monday 6 September 2021

London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City, Tom Chivers

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to Penguin and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

In this fascinating book, Chivers take us on an exploration of London, looking beyond the modern city to the forgotten past that has left subtle marks, if you know where to look. Written in a relaxed manner, Chivers takes us with him as he walks familiar streets, enlists the help of enthusiasts to aid his search for ancient rivers and geological features, and gives us a glimpse into his own life and his relationship with the places he visits. This is a book that will make you look at the city with fresh eyes and wonder what lies beneath your feet. 

At the start of each section is a map showing the make-up of the ground covered, helping readers visually understand the journey they’re about to go on. A sinkhole near his home on Petticoat Lane is the jumping board for the first section which will take you from Chaucer to the London riots of 2011 and bombings of 2005 with breathtaking speed, and with an emotional punch for those whose memories of the more recent events still haunt them. His broad sweep approach allows patterns to emerge from history, reminding us that although the scenery might have changed, the struggles and ambitions of humankind are recognisable across the centuries.

Clutching his modified map of London, Chivers covers huge swathes of the city, remarking on feats of engineering and the layers of history that are at times disturbed or discovered in building works. We learn about rivers that have been bricked over, Bazalgette’s famous sewerage system, and the fact Westminster Palace once sat on an island. We learn about a storm in 1928 that returned it briefly to this, filled the moat of the Tower of London, and sadly took the lives of ten locals.

This is a reflective, emotive book, a love letter to London both past and present. It feels very much of its time with references to Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, and terrorist attacks. Contemporary readers will be familiar with these topics, which are mentioned only briefly, but I wonder if future generations of readers will have the same understanding, the same visceral response. Similarly, his laying out which streets he is walking along may bore those who can’t visualise the locations, or perhaps will help direct them to pinpoint the locations on their own maps. Made up of personal memoir, history, and geology, this is an interesting read that gives you a glimpse of the city through its inhabitants' eyes both past and present. A great read for London lovers and history enthusiasts alike.

Wednesday 1 September 2021

Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented A Nation, Stuart Kelly

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This interesting book looks at the life of Walter Scott, his impact on the prevailing image of Scotland, and Kelly’s own relationship with ‘the Great Unknown’. This is not straightforward literary biography, but instead something more difficult to define. He guides us through the rise of Scott’s popularity and descent into derision and obscurity. His legacy naturally gets a lot of attention, and readers, whether familiar with Scott’s novels or not, will leave with a greater understanding and fascination with this eccentric author whose work provides us with so many of our ideas of Scottish tradition and whose influence should not be forgotten.

Scott not only created a version of Scotland and Scottish history that did not exist, but also attempted to create some mystique around himself as author. ‘It is as if, in the process of converting Scotland into an imaginary place, Scott had to make himself into an imaginary author.’ For many years he continued with the ruse that he wasn’t the author of the Waverley novels, going as far as to review one of his own books negatively, and determinedly persisting with the delusion despite his identity being an open secret. Indeed, he seemed to imagine himself a different reality at several points throughout his life. When he was met with financial ruin it made no practical sense to declare bankruptcy, yet he framed this as an act of heroism. It is perhaps not surprising then that Abbotsford, the home he created, is formed of clashing and contrasting styles that somehow held together while he was living but lost its soul with his parting, leaving modern visitors with a feeling of disconnect and unease.

It is perhaps ironic that the man who did so much to build the mythos of Scotland has had such a troubled legacy himself. A bestselling author during his lifetime, hailed by the Victorians as rivalling Shakespeare (or at least their idea of him) in significance, he is now largely neglected except for the most devoted of fans. Even his memorial in Edinburgh, the largest to an author in the world, was plagued with problems from the start, with the untimely death of the architect years before its completion, and an unfortunate material choice that meant it looked time worn when new.

His impact on Scottish tradition was helped along in no small part by royalty. His co-ordination of George IV’s visit to Edinburgh popularised a new, false sense of tradition that was derided at the time yet remains firmly in place today. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert also enthusiastically adopted his vision of Scotland in their time at Balmoral, from the design of the building to their patronage of the highland games and penchant for tartan.

Scott’s name will live on in street names, railway stations, and schools, and in this entertaining book Kelly takes us on a journey with one who went in search of the man behind the name. The character that emerges is one of contradiction, a nationalist unionist, a great yet shallow writer, forgotten yet commemorated across Scotland. Kelly does not shy away from Scott’s failings yet offers a compelling case for getting to know ‘the Great Unknown’.

Pick up a copy: