Christmas is in touching distance, finally. After the longest year that there ever was, we are so very close to it ending and, if we’re really lucky, at least one good night in the pub, a chocolate orange you refuse to share, and some family civilities beforehand. But first, the horrors of Christmas shopping loom large.
I loathe rye bread. Really, truly do not understand it.
It’s either so dense it’s a brick, miserable and damp, or it’s sliced so delicately, it crumbles on contact, disappearing into a mass of crumbs, so quickly and comprehensively that it’s hard to believe it ever formed a loaf. I spent one miserable afternoon cutting countless slices of the thinnest rye bread into tiny triangles to top with smoked salmon for a garden party, more rye crumbling from the sandwiches than staying on them.
Two years ago, Sam and I visited Siena on holiday. And since then, Siena has been my favourite place in the world.
It’s quieter than Tuscany’s biggest city, Florence. It has a breathtaking palazzo, an incredible Gothic cathedral, sleepy streets lined with even sleepier wine bars. I thought it was unbelievably romantic the moment I saw it. And I discovered, soon after arriving, that it’s home to some of Italy’s best food. So when we found out we would be returning to Florence for a wedding this September, it needed no discussion: we were going back to Siena.
Last week was the wedding of two of my closest friends.
We’ve been friend ten years almost to the day; we’ve been friends through engagements and bereavements, we’ve shared drunk tears and sober laughter. We’ve read the same books, we’ve held the same babies, and we’ve watched the same people get married. They are so inextricably a part of my life and who I am.
It’s been an unusual week. A busy week. A week mostly of faltering but also of jubilation. A hot, damp, sticky week. And the last thing I thought I’d be doing would be celebrating with a damp, sticky cake. But here I am, with malt loaf in my sticky paw, celebrating.
A cake has taken over my life. I’m not actually a very cakey person. As much as I love making them, I’m more likely to reach for a biscuit or a pastry or, if I’m brutally honest, a large bag of crisps. And when it comes to cakes, I’m particularly reluctant to go for a chocolate cake. Give me a lemon drizzle, or an almond cake, or something filled with curd or jam. Chocolate is never my choice. Until now. Until this cake.
Oh how I long to be competent. A quick search of my blog throws up the word ‘competent’ no fewer than five times to date. Sam discovered early on that calling me ‘feckless’ (no matter how richly deserved, or warmly expressed) was the surest way to unjustified but unstoppable tears. I am sure that my desire to learn how to cook is at its base, simply a yearning to be competent, or at least appear competent. And for that reason I hold an abiding fondness for any dishes which are deeply practical: delightful in its simplicity, or ease, or using up leftovers that hang around the house: this no-knead bread, these vibrant braised spring onions, and, well, these friands.
I love custard with a passion. Custard in any of its glorious forms. Sometimes I think if I could be guaranteed custard in all its guises, it may well be my desert island food: hand me a pot of the most mass-produced custard and a spoon, and then give us our privacy, please. Ambrosia is ambrosial.
I love recipes. As someone who learnt to cook not at her mother’s knee, but through a combination of google searches and cook books that had previously served only as door stops, I owe a lot to recipes. I am not yet the sort of cook who can confidently throw ingredients into a pan without clinging onto a book for stability and reassurance. If it weren’t for good recipes succeeding and swaddling me during my first forays into cooking, I would likely have abandoned the whole endeavour.
Sometimes, especially when I’m sad, or just find myself in a bit of a cooking rut, I realise that what I need is a taste of home. And growing up in the North East, in Newcastle and South Shields, that taste of home is the stotty bread. So I have spent the last week making stotties, and it has been glorious.