For the last week I have had acute Christmas anxiety. So I made brownies. Christmas brownies. The best brownies, possibly, that you will ever taste.
When I say ‘Christmas anxiety’, I don’t mean indecision over which cheeses to buy, or what to wear for Christmas Day, or even whether I’ve bought particularly rubbish presents (although, also all of those).
The bits of Christmas I like most are the stolen quiet moments. And in those quiet moments, I make Nutella Snowflake Bread.
Please do not think this is an invective against Christmas. I love Christmas. I love the sparkling lights and bright colours and traditions and organised fun. I do, really.
We never really did festive baking in my house. Mince pies were Marks & Spencer. Yule logs never crossed the threshold. Stollen was an unknown, and Pannetone hadn’t made it to South Shields in 1994. The exception was the Christmas cake.
Sometimes I worry that I’m flighty. And not in a charming, no one can tie me down, I’m-a-free-spirit sort of way. But rather skittish, unreliable, inconstant. When I feel that way, I come home and bake spelt bread.
Spelt bread is grounding. It is quick, physical work that you have to do with hands. It doesn’t require skill or implements or fancy ingredients. I don’t need to set a timer, or panic about precision. It transforms me into someone pragmatic and capable and resilient.
I spend a lot of time evangelising about stews and soups and curries and their particular value during the colder months. And they are important. They swaddle you in warmth, they comfort you with their stodge or depth or nursery-like qualities: they feed you up, and steel you against the outside world.
Bonfire night, for me, conjures up thoughts of food: watching fireworks in a cold, dark field, is synonymous with almost-too-hot-to-hold baked potatoes, thick, steaming soup in gloved hands, and charred sausages. So why do we waste our time with the eternally disappointing toffee apple?
I love autumn, but my immune system does not.
Throughout hot summer months, I long for chill, brisk walks, and occasional torrential rain, and the arrival of the hot chestnut sellers on the approach to St Paul’s. But then they appear, and without fail, I am poorly. If I’m lucky, it’s just a cold, that drags on interminably, slogging its way alongside me through the months.
When I was little, my mother read to me every night.
One of the last books she read to me – before I began Reading On My Own – was What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. The book was a gift from my mother: it was a one-volume Katy trilogy. It was a very big book for a very little girl. The book was fat and the pages were wafer thin, with no pictures at all breaking up the long prose: aged seven, it felt Very Grown Up indeed. I adored it. I’ve written before about my life being punctuated by books; memories of people I love, and loved, are hidden in their pages. I will always hear What Katy Did read in my mummy’s voice; I still quake at the thought of her finding out that I occasionally leave the house with wet hair.
I have fallen in love with scones.
Quite suddenly, all at once, head over heels. All scones. Cheese scones (sometimes with marmite, sometimes with walnuts and mustard), saffron, honey and sultana scones, cherry scones, stilton and cranberry scones. I can’t get enough of them. But this is my current favourite: a grown up, not-too-sweet scone — the only added sugar is the crunchy Demerara on the top — that is sufficiently handsome to present to friends, but simple enough to knock up for yourself at 10:30 to go with an 11 o’clock coffee.
I know what you’re thinking, dear reader, but you’re wrong. Unexpectedly, gloriously, this vindaloo is honestly, truly the perfect hot summer night dish.
Before my mother died, she would regularly send me parcels in the post. Sometimes she would send gifts (‘love treats’, she called them), sometimes practical items (once a set of snow shoe grips without explanation, which took me a long time to identify; another time, a dressing gown enclosing a clipped-out article on the perils of dehydration); sometimes, it would just be a card.