Thursday, December 24, 2009

Avatar: Utterly Ridiculous, Gloriously Entertaining

Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix - where would we be without silly sci-fi films to transport us away from the monotony of daily life into another dimension? Certainly it is one of my favourite things to sit in a cinema with spaceships flying towards me, losing myself in unfeasible plots and wondering whether it's wrong to fancy weird looking aliens.

I didn't know much about Avatar before we went to see it - only that it had cost a shedload of cash to produce and had been 15 years in the making. I'd seen a few snippets of willowy blue people with bows and gung-ho American soldiers brandishing guns, but that was about it.

Ant decided that we should go for his birthday, even though he was intent on hating it. I was actually looking forward to it, especially the fact that it was in 3-D. In the end we both loved it for all its gloriously overblown Hollywood silliness. It had spaceships, it had half naked aliens, it had clear cut goodies and baddies, it had romance. It also had summer season style UV garishness and the most obvious, flaky plot ever - but that's beside the point.

Unlike Ant, I didn't want to sit and pick holes in Avatar, I wanted it to excite and amaze me - and was quite prepared to turn a blind eye to its flaws in order to be utterly swept away in a sea of fantasy escapism. If you are out for cerebral stiumlation and astute observation, Avatar is not the film for you. If, like me, you just want to be entertained - don't miss the chance to see it on the big screen in 3D. It is truly a spectacle to behold.


Official Avatar Movie

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Giant Jaffa Cake: Recipe and Philosophy

Inspired by my friend Madame Jo Grey's impressively accurate giant French Fancy (baked for her daughter's 2nd birthday last year), I decided to attempt a similar feat with the humble jaffa cake. Like most sweet-toothed Brits, my other half Ant is a big fan of the jaffa cake and I loved the idea of presenting him with a home-baked giant version for his birthday. After much pondering and a little online research, I settled upon the method below - a mixture of existing recipes, intuition and my own invention. I was rather pleased with the result, which you can see pictured here (next to a standard jaffa cake to demonstrate scale).

The Giant Jaffa Cake was served at Ant's birthday party last night and became the subject of much admiration and discussion as it sat waiting to be eaten all evening. But the proof is in the pudding as they say, and I am happy to report that there was a big thumbs up all round from our guests, who scoffed the lot enthusiastically within minutes of it being cut.

Giant Jaffa Cake Recipe

Equipment & Ingredients

  • Wok or large curved frying pan (make sure this will fit in the oven), lined with greaseproof paper
  • Curved breakfast plate or shallow dish
  • Note: the wok/frying pan is to make the base and the plate will be the mold for the jelly, so make sure the two are the right proportions in relation to each other to create a convincing jaffa cake.
For the jaffa cake base:
225g unsalted butter
225g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs
200g self raising flour
25g cornflour

For the jaffa cake topping:

Jar of shredless marmalade
Packet of orange or tropical fruit flavoured vegetarian jelly crystals (available from any good healthfood store)
150ml double cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
150g dark chocolate, broken into small chunks

Method

Preheat the oven to 180〬c/gas mark 4

Cream the butter and sugar together, by hand or in a mixer, until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and then the eggs, one at a time. As spoonful of flour between eggs will stop the mixture from curdling. When well combined, add the rest of the flour and the cornflour and finally a little milk to bring the mixture to a sticky batter consistency.

Pour the mixture into the lined frying pan or wok and check after 25 minutes. Use a cocktail stick to see if it is cooked through - if it comes out with cake mix on it you'll know it's still raw in the middle and will need to give it a bit longer. When's it's done it should look golden brown and feel springy to the touch. At this point, remove from the oven and leave in the wok on a rack for 10 minutes or so before carefully turning out the cake to cool completely.

Meanwhile, make the jelly using half the amount of recommended liquid. Because I could only find tropical flavour vegetarian jelly, I made it up with a mixture of orange juice and water (boiled together). Add a dollop of orange marmalade to get that extra tanginess and mix with a fork until everything has dissolved. Pour into the plate or shallow dish, leave to cool then put in the fridge to set.


When both bits of the giant jaffa cake are cool, carefully slice the top off the cake to make a flat surface for the jelly. Mix a tablespoon of marmalade with a little freshly boiled water to make a paste. Brush this onto the centre of the cake where the jelly will go and leave to go sticky. Now comes the tricky bit. Carefully lift the cake and turn it upside down, lowering onto the plate of jelly. Holding both bits together firmly, turn the cake back over and hopefully the jelly will come loose. You may need to do a little adjusting to get it to sit centrally on the cake.

And now for the chocolate topping. Rather than using unadulterated melted chocolate - which is difficult to spread neatly and may melt the jelly - I prefer to use a ganache icing, which goes on cool and is much easier to spread. Pour the cream into a heavy bottomed saucepan and add the vanilla, butter and chocolate. Bring to the boil, agitating as you go to stop the chocolate pieces clumping. As soon as the chocolate has melted, remove from the heat and whisk until thick and glossy.

Allow the icing to cool for 10 minutes or so, whisking occasionally to keep it smooth and making sure it doesn't start to set. Using a spatula or palette knife (I use the scraper that came with my Kenwood Chef), dollop the icing onto the cake, starting at the top of the jelly and spreading around evenly, working your way down in stages and making sure not to let it drip onto the underneath of the cake. Smooth everything over as much as possible, then use the side of your spreader to mark lines across the top in a criss-cross pattern. Go in opposite directions for each line to get the best effect.

Pop the cake in the fridge to set, then serve with pride.

Thanks and credit are due to my culinary guru Nigella Lawson whose baking bible How to Be a Domestic Goddess proved an invaluable resource in the development of the Giant Jaffa Cake.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Drunk in a Midnight Choir

“Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free” Leonard Cohen

As a devout young choir girl (head chorister no less), I used to take umbrage at the hoards of ‘Christmas Brigade’ punters who would rock up at midnight mass having not seen the inside a church all year except possibly for weddings, Christenings and funerals. It seemed unfair that I should be there every Sunday doing my bit while they just got to saunter in for the fun part once a year. Little did I imagine that one day it would be me rolling drunkenly into the back pew for a sing-song on Christmas Eve.

But why would a confirmed agnostic/pantheist indulge in such institutional religious rites? A sentimental attachment to old times is partly to blame - my spiritual life may no longer be tied to the church, but I still find immense comfort in the traditions and surroundings that were such a big part of my childhood and early adulthood.

The other main attraction is the music. Having been trained and immersed in it for so many years, my singing voice comes alive to sacred music, particularly the good old Christmas carol. My heart does not belong to Christmas until I have belted out the soaring descant to Oh Come all Ye Faithful by candlelight. The past few years I have been exercising my lungs on Christmas Eve at our local church, St George’s in Kemp Town, where I get an extra thrill from knowing that some of my favourite performers have also sung there. But it’s not just about sentiment and singing.

Christianity may have appropriated many of its festive traditions from the Pagans and Romans, but Christmas is Christmas now (not Yuletide or Saturnalia) and there’s no getting away from it. So whether you believe in Jesus or not, it only seems fitting to pay one's respects to the tradition that gives us that precious time off work to argue with family, max out our credit cards and over-indulge on rich food and booze.

Joking aside, I may not be religious but I am a sucker for tradition and ritual and there’s nothing like candlelit mass for conjuring ceremonial magic and summoning the festive spirit (figuratively speaking of course). So call me a hypocrite, but come Christmas Eve I’ll be there giving it all I’ve got in my once a year pseudo-spiritual seasonal devotional. And pious choir girls, please don’t hate me for it.

*******

Nothing to do with midnight mass but suitably festive, the above video is from this year's Wainwright/McGarrigle family Christmas show, 'A Not So Silent Christmas' at the Royal Albert Hall. I recommend the CD or DVD of the occasion as excellent festive listening and have also picked out a few other favourite alternative Christmas albums for fellow music lovers. Enjoy...


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sussex Gastro Pubs Series: The Lewes Snowdrop Reborn

Lately I've been trying to expand the circuit of pubs, cafes and restaurants that we frequent, rather than sticking to the same old places. There have been a few good discoveries this year, though I'm afraid we haven't branched out as much as I'd hoped. So last Sunday, in an attempt to broaden our horizons before the end of the year, we re-visited an old haunt that had gone gradually downhill in recent years but was reported to be back on form.

The Snowdrop in Lewes was a favourite back in my Sixth Form college days, when it was a bit of a crusty/biker/wicca hang-out, serving hearty vegetarian food and pints of Snakebite and black. I hadn't been for years until I started working down the Cliffe end of Lewes earlier this year and popped in to find it a shadow of its former self and barely able to scrape together a sandwich, let alone a decent Sunday lunch. I am delighted to say that this sorry situation has now been rectified by the pub's latest landlords, who have restored the place to its former glory - albeit with a few (pleasant) changes.

In place of the old bric-a-brac stage-set style decor, the inside of the Snowdrop now sports an array of homely canal boat style furnishings, while the exterior has been painted in a fetching shade of pale green. It is back to being a freehouse for the first time in ten years, serving an impressive range of local ales, Bavarian beers and posh ciders on tap, as well as a good selection of bottled booze.

But the most exciting development at the all-new Snowdrop is the all-new menu. The veggie roast I had there on Sunday was one of the best I've ever eaten at a pub - only my own home cooked roast would top it, and even then it would be a close thing. The nutroast was moist and flavoursome and packed with tasty ingredients like capers and sunflower seeds. There was a wide selection of veg including red cabbage, parsnips, peas, broccoli, roast potatoes and cauliflower, all cooked to perfection and packed with flavour. The only (very slight) criticism I could possibly raise was that I would have liked more of the delicious gravy - but then that is probably just me being greedy.

At most Sussex country pubs you'd wait at least half an hour, sometimes up to an hour, for Sunday lunch. Ours came in about ten minutes, even though the place was bustling. Unlike the previous landlords, the staff were friendly and chatty and justifiably proud of their efforts to transform the pub from seedy dive to cosy gastropub.

I'm looking forward to going back to the Snowdrop again for the C&M Christmas lunch next week, when hopefully I'll get to see what the upstairs looks like these days. Let's just pray that my colleagues behave themselves during the festivities, because I'd hate to get barred so soon after re-discovering this once again fabulous joint.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Another Year, Another Mixtape: The Annual Christmas Compilation

With the end of every year comes a string of essential rituals - some imposed by religious and historical tradition, some of our own making. For me one of the best year-end ceremonies is to sit down between Christmas and New Year's Eve to go through all our photographs from the year and put the best ones into an album - something we've been doing as a couple almost since the beginning.

Another rather more self-indulgent custom is the making of the annual 'Ant & Ro' CD - a compilation of our favourite and significant music from the year, usually dominated by bands we've seen live. These are distributed to friends and family who visit over the festive period and sometimes posted to other musically minded comrades.

As our tastes have grown more and more eclectic over the years, it's become trickier to compile a fluent mixtape of accessible music. Whilst my motivation is to share cool new discoveries and inspire musical exploration, I appreciate that not everyone cares as much as I do for the more esoteric Freakzone-ish end of the listening spectrum.

A couple of days ago I started thinking about this year's mix and jotting down some ideas for what might go into it. The hardest part has been whittling it down to just one CD's worth of tunes, from what has been an outstanding twelve months of musical enlightenment; what with four festivals and plenty of local gigs in between, my musical cup literally floweth over with bands that I want to shout about.

The other difficulty is actually tracking down recorded versions of unsigned material, which usually involves various emails to band members and ordering homemade CDs recorded in bedrooms and sold from dubious looking websites, hoping that they'll materialise. But this is all part of the ritual, and gradually the mixtape has started to take shape. It's not 100% finished yet, but what with the impending festive frivolities, I may not get another chance to share my annual compilation here.

The above YouTube playlist contains all the tracks that I could find in a reasonable format, but by the nature of the platform is of varying quality. Below is a complete tracklisting with download links and an Amazon preview widget that lets you listen to snippets from each song (if you want to hear more, go to the band website). The only one missing from the widget (because it's not available from Amazon) is Quack Quack, which I strongly recommend you listen to here (but only if you are into rambling energetic contemporary prog).


Ant & Ro 2009
1) Charlie Darwin by The Low Anthem from the album Oh My God Charlie Darwin
2) There is No Light by Wildbirds & Peacedrums from the album The Snake
3) Purée Hiphop by GaBlé from the album 7 Guitars with a Cloud of Milk
4) I Always Hang Myself with the Same Rope by Birdeatsbaby from the album Here She Comes-a-Tumblin'
5) Stone in my Shoe by Boo Hewerdine from the album Toybox no.2
6) The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid by The Decemberists from the album The Hazards Of Love
7) No Flies On Me (Ballad Of The Jam Head) by The Witch And The Robot from the album On Safari
8) Black Tambourine by Thomas Truax from the album Songs From The Films Of David Lynch
9) Kathy Ray by Joe Gideon & the Shark from the album Harum Scarum
10) Beggar's Prayer by Emilana Torrini from the album Me and Armini
11) Boat Behind by Kings of Convenience from the album Declaration of Dependence
12) Manty by Sebastien Tellier from the album Sexuality
13) Frida Found A Friend (Live) by Efterklang from the album Performing Parades
14) In the Upper Room: Dance V by Philip Glass form the album Dancepieces
15) Aeon by Antony & the Johnsons from the album The Crying Light
16) Mars by Quack Quack, available from Run of the Mill Records
17) Night Terror by Laura Marling from the album Alas, I Cannot Swim
18) Join the Dots by Tim and Sam's Tim and the Sam Band with Tim and Sam from the album Put Your Slippers On



If you would like a copy of the final CD, leave me a comment and I'll see if I've got one spare at the end of the festive season.