Sunday, 30 June 2013

Looking for the Perfect Chocolate Birthday Cake Recipe

This week it was my sister's birthday. I volunteered to make her birthday cake and was quickly instructed that it must be a chocolate cake. I wanted to do something a bit more special than a victoria sponge recipe with cocoa powder and quickly thought of a Lorainne Pascale cake I made in the spring. I have linked the recipe above but it can also be found in the book below.

A quick note about the book- there are some great, classic recipes in this book but there are quite a few of them on the BBC food website so I would bear that in mind if you are considering buying it. Another small issue I have with this book is that for some of the recipes there are no photos. This is not always a problem but I was put off making the 'Red Velvet 3 Tier Cake' when I had no image to give me an idea of how my creation should look.

Lorainne Pascale cake I made in spring. 
I had a few issues with this recipe. Not really with the cake itself, more with the decorations Lorainne suggests and the buttercream. As you can see in the picture above, I did not use the chocolate cigarillos that look so beautiful in the picture of Lorainne's cake. This is because of how expensive they are! Lorainne reckons that you would need around 75 chocolate cigarillos to go round the cake and the cheapest I have found for that quantity for is on Amazon and they would come to £19 including delivery- ouch. I opted for Cadbury's chocolate fingers instead which don't look nearly as elegant but came to around £2.50. For my sister's birthday cake I wanted to find something more attractive than chocolate fingers but less expensive than cigarillos. I also wanted to change the buttercream to chocolate ganache- far more luxurious and suitable for special occasions. As pretty as the strawberries look on the cake above, they quickly made the cake slightly soggy and meant that the cake had to be kept in the fridge rather than the cupboard after the first serving. With this in mind, I quickly came up with a 'compromise cake'.

 For the chocolate ganache I  looked to Nigella's Lawson's book How to Eat for help and chopped up 120 grams of milk chocolate and 120 grams of dark chocolate and put it aside in a bowl. I then heated up 230ml of double cream (or heavy cream if you're American) until it was almost boiling, then poured it over the chocolate until a beautifully glossy mixture was achieved. Once the cake (Lorainne's recipe above) was cool, I spread the ganache generously across the sides and the top of the cake. I decided to use Mikado chocolate biscuit sticks instead of chocolate fingers around the side of the cake and they looked far more elegant. I then added these milk chocolate and white chocolate stars but they'd be pretty easy to make if you'd prefer. For the finishing touch, I tied the bright pink ribbon around the cake. So there you have it, my adapted 'I can't believe you made that cake'. Thanks Lorainne for the great recipe inspiration!

Monday, 24 June 2013

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Five reasons why I would recommendThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte 

1. It's less talked about, dramatised and studied than Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by Anne's sisters Charlotte and Emily respectively. This means that the story can be read without preconceived expectations which for me, made it more exciting to read. In my opinion, the story is more unpredictable and fast pasted than both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and I enjoyed it more.
Where's Anne? The Tenant of WIldfell Hall definitely deserves more recognition.
2. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a Victorian Novel but it's easy to forget that when you read it today; it's themes are still relevant today. Bronte explores difficulties with domestic life which are still very much relevant today: domestic violence, alcoholism, separation, adultery and female oppression in the home.

3. The characters are especially intriguing; nobody is perfect. Helen, the protagonist, foolishly falls in love with a man who she knows, deep down, will be bad for her. Refreshingly however, she is a strong female character who stands up to and out-smarts her husband. 

4. Like Wuthering Heights, the structure of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is particularly interesting; the novel starts in the future, and the reader is quickly introduced to the mysterious character of Helen who is living in the run down Wildfell Hall with her son. The reader's curiosity is satisfied when the text changes form to Helen's diaries. 

5. If you are a student, then this is an excellent text to write on. I chose to write on how The Tenant of Wildfell Hall challenges the Victorian's expectations regarding domesticity and found that there was lots to say. This would also be a good book to look at if you're writing on   femininity, masculinity, gender relations or marriage. 

Friday, 21 June 2013

Nineteenth Century America, Race and Slavery

Part 1

You know the books that people always say that you should read? Books that will supposedly make you feel humble and fill you with a sense of gratitude because life is (comparably) so easy today? Well one of the many that I have repeatedly been told that I should read is Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Last autumn, I did. 

I'm glad I read it. As you may know, the subjects of the novel are both serious and unpleasant, the key themes being slavery and racism. However, Stowe represents many other horrific issues connected with these themes: the separation of families, sexism, rape, needless violence, heartbreak, pain and death. It's hardly a light read.

The novel is undoubtedly engaging and its characters strong. Stowe makes many, many  significant and well portrayed points about the injustice and horrors of slavery and racism. There are some amazingly insightful lines in Uncle Tom's Cabin that I will add to my favourite quotes page (which I will make after this post). 

However... Uncle Tom's Cabin seems to receive as much criticism as it does praise and it is not hard to see why. Despite my admiration for the novel, I do consider it, at times, to be overly sentimental. The protagonist Tom and the almost equally famous Eva are too good; their patience, morality and submission in the face of such immeasurable injustice I found distanced me from the characters rather than connected me to them. The characters Topsy and Miss Ophelia, though imperfect, are far more convincing and represent the novels themes in a much more believable and relatable way. 

Another problem which I (and I know others) have found with the novel are the condescending descriptions of the black characters- Stowe can, hypocritically, be seen to adhere to and endorse stereotypes of black people. 

That said, I would certainly recommend reading the novel. If you are a student, it is an excellent text to write on; there are many significant, controversial themes that are intriguing to explore and research. I would recommend the 'Oxford World Classics' edition that is pictured as it has very, very useful explanatory notes that uncover unfamiliar language, bible passages and name places. Though I have not said much about the plot as I do not want to give away any spoilers for people who have not read it, I found the novel to be very fast-paced, engaging and, at many times, touching. 

If you have read Uncle Tom's Cabin, what did you think? Do you share my views on Uncle Tom and Eva or did you connect with the characters? 

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Reviews- Harry Potter Page To Screen and Warner Bros. Studio Tour

I briefly mentioned in my first post about my love for the Harry Potter series. This post is just for fellow Potter lovers I'm afraid. My boyfriend, (who knows my love for all things Potter) treated me to tickets to the Warner Bros. Studio tour for christmas and the Harry Potter Page to Screen book for my birthday (excellent choices). I'm going to share my experiences with you now. If you've been on the tour or have read this book, please share your thoughts too! 

Harry Potter Page To Screen 

This is a big heavy book, full of fantastic drawings and pictures. It offers a fantastic behind-the-scenes-guide to the Harry Potter films. I would definitely say that this is one for the real Potter nerds; I'm talking the fans that know their Hippogriffs from their Thestrals. What I love about this book is the exploration of the detail in the films: the props, the costumes, the makeup - in short all things creative. In my opinion, it's the incredible attention to detail that makes the films such a success. The actors playing Harry, Ron and Hermione, for me, did not live up to Rowling's portrayals, but the creative producers of the films did a fantastic job creating Hogwarts, The Burrow, Hogsmeade, dragons, Gringotts, The Great Forest, The Chamber of Secrets, The Ministry of Magic- everything just as I imagined. And this is what this book is about! I love flicking through this book at my leisure, admiring the trouble that was gone to in making the films look as magical as they do- no expense spared.

Fascinating information about the 'Marauders Map' and beautiful sketches of Hermione's Time Turner.

Crucial Information about Wizarding News

Warner Bros. Studio Tour

Dumbledore, McGonagall and Snape in the Great Hall. 

I can not recommend the Harry Potter Studio Tour highly enough. What Potter fan could not love seeing, first hand, the actual props used in the films or to stand in the great hall which they dreamed of countless times? 

Luna Lovegood's fantastic costumes. 

For me, it was fascinating to see the enormous trouble that went into creating the films. I gained an understanding of the thought processes and reasoning behind the creative choices in the films which, when I watch them back now, makes me appreciate them all the more. The attention to detail is incredible; costumes that reflect the character's mood, power and personality, props worn with age, models of the Hogwarts castle. Maybe I'm a geek, but I was rather overcome by it all! 

A cardboard model of the Hogwarts Owlery
I know that there are hundreds of pictures of the tour online (I have chosen to put only a few of the hundreds I took) but if you haven't been, I would really go and see for yourself; the pictures really do not do the hard work that went into the making the films justice. One bad thing I would say about the tour is that the souvenir shop (which sells fantastic replicas of props and costumes from the film) is horrendously overpriced. I'm talking £8 for a small chocolate frog- really. 

Attractive, but overpriced Potter goods. 

Any Potter fans that can recommend any other Harry Potter books or days out to keep the magic going (cheesey, I know) please let me know, I am very interested. Back to muggle books soon.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

What is Englishness?

In spring 2013 I read several books that opened my eyes to the hybrid nature of English culture.

As I have lived in the English countryside almost all of my life and study in a relatively small university town, I have had little experience with what Nick Bentley calls the 'new model of Englishness' (Bentley, 2007), that is, the effect that immigration has had on English culture. 

I read The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi, Anita and Me by Meera Syal, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Brick Lane by Monica Ali and Small Island by Andrea Levy and discovered how unaware I am of diverse ethnicities in England.

Whilst I would recommend all the novels listed above the two that I enjoyed and learnt from the most would have to be Brick Lane and Anita and Me.

Why Brick Lane

Because there is a real sense of purpose with this novel; Ali explores and represents an ethnic minority who are rarely given a voice and the results are fascinating. The protagonist, Nazneen, grows throughout the novel: not only from a woman completely dependent on her husband to a woman who makes her own decisions and decides to take control of her life and reject her husbands plans, but also from someone restricted by Bangladeshi culture living in England to someone who takes the best from each culture and comes to relish her cultural hybridity. 

The characters in this novel are truly fascinating; as well as representing diverse cultures, Ali portrays diverse personalities. The characters can be: disgusting, childlike, hypocritical, malicious, loving, jealous, oblivious, ignorant, sharp, weak, strong, unhappy, bored, secretive and sensual but are all- some how- incredibly believable and engaging. Read it, read it, read it!  

Why Anita and Me? 

Because it is a book that some how manages to be sad and funny- no easy accomplishment. This book is semi- autobiographical and it shows, it is a book that I found incredibly believable and though it was published in 1996 and set in the 1960's, it's themes are still relevant. I have since given this book to my mum, who was a 60's child like Meera Syal- and she can't believe how accurately Syal has captured 60's life saying that Meena, the protagonist's, experiences could have been a record of her own. 

The young narrator's blunt observations and quick wit means that the novel is very funny; I rarely laugh out loud when I am reading but found my self giggling self-consiously on the train when reading some of Meena's brutally honest descriptions and childishly self-centred thoughts. 

Though this book could be seen as light-hearted and like I say, is very witty, it does approach some important topics. The problem of 'casual' racism is well represented. There are particularly heart-wrenching moments when Meena -who believes herself to be a regular 'Tollington wench'- gets publically humiliated due to her race. Her desire to align herself with Anita, the white, popular girl who is no match for Meena's vivid personality is also is troubling for the reader as it reflects a problem that is still very much relevant- the need for people (especially children) to conform and fit in with society if they want to be accepted. 

Therefore I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is incredibly readable- you will probably finish it within three days but you will remember its themes and its humour for much. much longer. If you have read these books- what do you think? Are there any other books that you can recommend that represent diverse cultures in England? 

Monday, 17 June 2013

Where have I been?

I realise that it is over a year since my last post. My blog had barely started when my life as I knew it came crashing down. On the 21st of June 2012, my amazing father suddenly and tragically died. It was a terrible, terrible shock- this sort of thing had never happened in my family and I had naively took this for granted. It has been an extremely hard year for my family and I, and my priorities changed. I spent most of the summer at home with my mum and two sisters, the time passed but I'm not really sure how when I think back to it now.

I returned to university in October to start my second year studying English Literature. It was a difficult time, I found it very hard to leave my mum and sisters. I kept myself busy, mostly by focusing on my studies and trying not to think about anything and everything else. My boyfriend helped me a lot too.

I am not going to pretend that I have dealt with things in the best way; in fact, I have been quite selfish in that I have focused on my studies and acted like nothing has happened as much as I can. I've spent a lot of time reading both for my studies and as a form of escapism. I will share some of my reading experiences from the past year with you.

I realise this post has a very depressing feel to it- I have not intended it to. The point of this post in addition to explaining my absence, is to emphasise the power of literature; it has been a real comfort to me this past year.

To lighten the mood, here is a fantastic picture of a cow taken by my dad.