Hungry Writer: Florentines

Florentines 2

Looking at the way I write, I find that food plays an important part in all my books. It’s never centre stage, but it often underlines how my characters are feeling, or is symbolic of what is going on in their lives.

In “House of Shadows” my time slip novel Jo Docherty has an issue with food. When anxious or stressed, she cannot eat and at the beginning of the book she is struggling with the aftermath of yet another miscarriage and what feels like a failing marriage. Moving away to her studio in the grounds of Kingsfield House she is haunted by a girl in a blue dress, the girl who she played with as a child, but who lived two centuries before Jo was born.

As the past encroaches and the sense of menace grows, Jo looks for help. Helene and Cecile have an insight into the occult and the danger that lurks in Kingsfield House, giving Jo hope that somehow she will be able to deal with what she must face. It is at this point that Jo bakes her Florentines.

“In the brightness of an early summer morning, Jo weighed out sultanas, raisins and oat flakes. She chopped glace cherries and licked the sweet redness from her fingers. She mixed in plump hazelnuts and nibbed almonds and measured out two tablespoons of butter, which she heated in a pan. Warming a spoon in hot water, she dipped it into the tin of golden syrup and watched as it slid slowly and sensuously to join the melting butter. Yellow became gold, gold became brown. She tipped the warm liquid into the dry ingredients and stirred. Wrinkled fruit glistened, oats took on a glossy sheen, the rich smell of syrup rose to her mouth. The cherries glowed like rubies in amber. Humming tunelessly under her breath, she smoothed the mixture into the baking trays and reached for the phone. She’d try Helene and Cecile again. She’d found their numbers before she’d finally gone to bed in the early hours and if they didn’t answer she’d text. If they replied then she’d ask them round for coffee and cake and ask their advice as to what she should do.”

Of course things do not work out as she planned and it someone else who will be sharing those delicious little biscuits, studded with nuts, dried fruit, embedded in oats and resting on a layer of deep dark chocolate.

My books1It’s a while since I wrote “House of Shadows” and some time since I’ve baked Florentines but here is the recipe.

The perfect Florentines

(Makes 18)

45g butter

60g demerara sugar

60g candied peel, chopped

45g dried cranberries or sour cherries, roughly chopped

45g soft dried figs, roughly chopped

20g pistachio kernels, roughly chopped

60g blanched almonds, cut into slivers

15g plain flour

Pinch of salt

1 tbsp double cream

200g dark chocolate, broken into pieces

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark four and line two baking trays with lightly greased parchment paper.

Melt the butter and sugar together in a pan over a medium heat until combined. Put the fruit and nuts in a bowl, sift over the flour and toss together until the flour is evenly distributed.

Take the pan off the heat and stir in the salt and cream, then stir into the fruit and nuts. Dollop rounded teaspoons of the mixture on to the baking trays and flatten out as much as possible without leaving holes, making sure they are well spaced out on the trays.

Bake for about 10-12 minutes until golden brown all over, then leave to cool on the tray.

When cool, melt half the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, making sure it doesn’t touch the water. Stir occasionally until liquid.

Carefully dip the underside of each florentine in the chocolate and leave to cool and set, then repeat. If you want to be really authentic, you can use a fork to make a wavy pattern in the setting chocolate at this point. Leave to harden completely before serving or storing in an air-tight box.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

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Wojtek: The Soldier Bear

 

200px-Wojtek_the_bearWorking on Mum’s memoir has brought up many memories, for me as well as for her. The more I put the work into shape, the more questions it brings up which leads to long conversations over the phone. Sometimes, it’s a date, or a fact I need to check; other times what we’ve been talking about reminds me of a story I vaguely remember being told in my childhood.

Wojtek, the soldier bear, is one of those stories that Dad told me when I was little. I’d forgotten all about it until the husband of a friend, who has a Polish grandfather, mentioned it. Neither of us could remember the details, so some research was necessary.

During WW2 my dad fought with the Second Polish Corps. Like Mum, he was in Iraq, then took part in the Italian campaign, but it was in Iraq that he must have first encountered the Corps’ mascot.

Wojtek was a Syrian brown bear. His mother had been shot by hunters and he was found by a young Kurdish boy, who took him to the railway station at Hamadan, in Iran, hoping to sell the cub. Luckily for him, and for the bear, one of the civilian refugees who was with the Polish army took a liking to the little creature and persuaded a young lieutenant to buy him.

The bear spent the next three months in the refugee camp near Tehran before being donated to the 2nd Transport Company. The soldiers named him Wojtek and very rapidly became one of the men. He enjoyed drinking beer and smoking, or even eating his cigarettes. He even marched alongside the soldiers on his hind legs, because that was what he saw the others doing.

To get him onto a British transport ship, when his unit sailed from Egypt to fight alongside the Eighth Army in the Italian campaign, Wojtek was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private. Otherwise as a mascot he would have been left behind.

Wojtek had his own paybook, rant and serial number and lived with the other men in tents, or a special wooden crate, which was transported by truck. According to numerous accounts during the battle of Monte Cassino when Wojtek’s unit conveyed ammunition, the bear helped by carrying 45kl crates of artillery shells, without dropping a single one. He’d seen the men doing this and copied them, but while it would take four soldiers to lift one box, Wojtek managed on his own. Due to his role in the battle, he was promoted to the rank of corporal.

After the war, Wojtek was demobbed and finally retired to Edinburgh Zoo where he was often visited by journalists and former Polish soldiers. He also made frequent guest appearances on Blue Peter.

The bear lived on until 1963 and immortalised in a number of sculptures: one by David Harding in the Sikorski Museum in London; a wooden sculpture in Weelsby Woods, Grimsby and in Krakow’s Jordon Park. My favourite, however, is the one in Edinburgh by Alan Beattie Herriot which shows Wojtek and a fellow Polish soldier walking together.

Wojtek in Edinburgh

So much of what I’ve learned about my parent’s history has shown the darker side of war. Wojtek’s story has been a delightful light relief. Now what I need to do is to find out if the story of the bear getting into the men’s tents and eating their soap ration is indeed true…

The Hungry Writer Bakes Scones

Scones and Sickie Day

Yesterday was National Sickie Day. The first Monday in February is the day when people are most likely to phone in sick, which must have been why I felt so totally disinclined to do anything much.

A grey sort of misery had descended. A misery without any cause, which is sometime the hardest to dispel. I knew that if I did something: started on my editing tasks, went for a brisk walk, hoovered the living room carpet, I would feel better. But hey it was National Sickie Day and I didn’t do any of those things. I didn’t even go back to bed and hide my head under the duvet.

Instead I just mooched along, a little editing here, a bit of social media there and an evening in front of the TV.

This morning, feeling better, I was seized by an overwhelming desire to bake scones. This is my default position when in need of comfort food. There is something so soothing about the weighing of ingredients, the rubbing in of the butter, the swirling in of the egg and milk mix, the gentle kneading, then mixing in the sultans. And then there is the cutting out of the round shapes and watching as the scones rise golden and brown in the oven.

What is especially joyful is that I’ve only recently mastered the art. My first attempt resulted in something akin to rock cakes and I didn’t try again for years. Then I came across Mary Berry’s recipe.

https://www.saga.co.uk/magazine/food/recipes/baking/scones/mary-berry-fruit-scones

She said it was fool proof and it is.

Fortified by warm scones, butter and raspberry jam, I returned to my desk full of energy and ideas.

The Hungry Writer Eats Coffee and Walnut Cake

coffee-and-walnut-layer-cake-563891d0e8063

Last week I went to the Quarter in Hanley for coffee and cake. This was a thank you from friend and fellow writer #Elisia Green for my first edit of her short story collection “13”.

The Quarter

The Quarter was the perfect choice. It’s different, a bit quirky and holds all sorts of arts events, from live music to writing workshops.

 

 

It has a mention in Mel Sherratt’s latest bestseller “Hush Hush”, so it’s just the right place for a pair of writers..

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And a reader too as Elisia’s nine-year old daughter came too. Xanthe is reading and enjoying “City of Secrets” and wanted to meet the author!City of

It was great to catch up and the cake was delicious. My choice was coffee and walnut –a particular treat. We never have it at home as Mike doesn’t like walnuts. Like all favourite foods there is more to this cake than just the taste. There are memories too. Coffee and walnut cake was the one my mother used to bake for our birthdays. At first, she would follow the traditional Polish recipe which produced a dense very moist and heavy cake. After a while however she modified this so that there was a bottom layer of walnut cake, followed by a layer of coffee butter cream then a layer of sponge cake which was topped by more butter cream and decorated with walnut halves.

I haven’t eaten that cake for years, but even the thought of it bring back memories of birthday parties, a pink seersucker party dress, which my grandmother had made, blowing out the candles and playing party games like pass the parcel, blind man’s bluff and postman’s knock.

My memories of childhood are particularly vivid at the moment as I am working on Mum’s memoirs and as I read what I’ve transcribed from the tapes my sister-in-law made, more and more incidents come to mind. Mostly they are stories Mum told us about her journey from Poland to the UK in WW2, but some are incidents from my childhood, things I remember about being brought up in Bristol.

As for the cake, if I was going to bake it then this would be the recipe I’d use, from Nigella Kitchen: Recipes from Heart and Home. Need I say more, this cake was also one from her childhood! https://www.nigella.com/recipes/coffee-and-walnut-layer-cake