Monday, 23 February 2015

84 Charing Cross Road

When was the last time you fell in love with a book before reaching page 10? It happened to me last week when I picked up 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I'm not fond of telling people that they have to read something, but for all book lovers this book is a compulsory. It all started back in 1949 when Miss Hanff wrote a letter from New York to the Marks & Co. bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road in London to ask about second-hand books for a reasonable price. What followed was 20 years of correspondence with mainly one of its staff members, Frank Doel. In her third letter, Hanff had dropped the formality and was already expressing her wit and wonderful sense of humour, but it took a bit longer for Frank Doel, the Brit, to do so. This is an extract from her sixth letter in March 1950 (the spelling is hers):

Where is the Leigh Hunt? Where is the Oxford Verse? Where is the Vulgate and dear goofy John Henry, I thought they'd be such nice uplifting reading for Lent and NOTHING do you send me. you leave me sitting here writing long margin notes in library books that don't belong to me, some day they'll find out i did it and take my library card away. (p. 10)

Her complaining, yelling tone just cracks me up. I don't have Hanff's courage to write margin notes in library books, but I mark sentences and passages with an x or a vertical line in mine.

Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road is 95 pages long; a quick read. Most of the letters are simply delightful and then there are a few, at least one, that will break your heart. I won't say more. Not only did Hanff send letters, she also sent food parcels (meat and eggs) to the staff members to express her gratitude for the books she was receiving. The correspondence started in post-war Britain and the rationing appalled her. In the beginning, the staff would hold on to the books she was interested in and ask her in a letter if she still wanted them. This was what she wrote to them in September 1950 from her apartment on 14 East 95th St.:

Never wonder if I've found something somewhere else, I don't look anywhere else any more. Why should I run all the way down to 17th St. to buy dirty, badly made books when I can buy clean, beautiful ones from you without leaving the typewriter? From where I sit, London's a lot closer than 17th Street. (p. 15)

The book reminds me of another delightful read, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, which I talked about in another blog post. When I finished reading these two I kept them close to my heart for just a few seconds. That's how much I loved them.

My edition of 84 Charing Cross Road includes the sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which is about her trip to London (the illustration on the cover is by Sarah McMenemy). I wouldn't even consider reading the former without having the latter ready. After finishing the book I wanted more of Hanff, so I ordered Letter from New York. I got a used copy, which should arrive soon. I also found an audio version of 84 Charing Cross Road on YouTube, which I have already listened to twice while doing house chores. Then there is a film from 1987, starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, which I haven't seen.

If it's raining this is the perfect book to read under a blanket with a cup of coffee or tea and simply get lost in the delightfulness. I recommend having a stationery ready because after the reading you probably want to catch up on your correspondence. By that I don't mean emails!

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Cloudy Day in South Yorkshire

Today is Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, in the UK and some other countries. The sun is out, the birds are singing, and the day is filled with promises, at least one: I have promised to make pancakes. Yesterday, however, we had clouds. My son and I went for a walk in the grey weather before heading back home to bake bread buns with sesame seeds. There is no song called Cloudy Day in South Yorkshire but the song Rainy Night in Georgia was constantly playing in my head and I started thinking about the lyrics:

I feel like it's rainin' all over the world,
How many times I wondered, It still comes out the same
No matter how you look at it or think of it,
It's life and you just got to play the game…

~ • ~
It's life and you just got to play the game ... that's a good line.

Yesterday in Iceland was bolludagur, 'Bun Day' or 'Cream Puff Day'. It's an old tradition and in most homes the day starts with the children spanking their parents with a stick that has crepe paper glued to it. The population of Iceland is about three hundred and thirty thousand (pause for laughter or astonishment) and according to the news over million buns are baked and devoured. They usually have a chocolate glaze and are filled with jam and whipped cream. I still remember the Sundays when my mother was busy in the kitchen preparing for the day, which is on a Monday, and I remember my lunchbox filled with buns.

Yesterday, very untrue to Icelandic tradition, I made bread buns. I wasn't in the mood for the other kind and the kids didn't complain. Come to think of it, I haven't baked the traditional ones in a long time. I think the last time was in Denmark in 2010! I guess it's a tradition I haven't held on to.

By the way, this is my third week of grass-widowhood. Hubby is on the Continent, attending a workshop. His absence is felt, perhaps because we don't have any family members living near. Hubby and I share the cooking, certain dishes are his entirely, certain are mine, and then there are some we always prepare together. There is no rule; the one in the mood for cooking is the one who cooks. Anyway, with him away the meals are more planned because I have the groceries home delivered, and instead of falling into the habit of always preparing the same things, I use the opportunity to try something new. I very seldom bake with yeast so I find it a bit interesting that with him away I have been baking these bread buns quite frequently. All that kneading must be grounding. I also have a long-standing love affair with sesame seeds.

Speaking of sesame seeds, I just read that there is a new cookbook coming out: Sesame & Spice: Baking from the East End to the Middle East by Anne Shooter. The words sesame and baking caught my attention. I have no idea about the recipes in it, whether they are all sugary or leaning towards healthy, but the cover looks good. It's time to start the pancake making but first I wanted to share the bread buns recipe.

Those of you who have been following my blog are used to recipes with spelt flour. I like mixing white with wholegrain spelt flour when making bread or buns. These days, however, it seems to be hard to come across the white one, at least in this area of the UK. To make these buns I simply use organic plain flour or bread flour. Instead of warming the milk, which is common when baking with yeast, I boil the water and mix it with the milk and honey. Sesame seeds are a good source of calcium, magnesium, and iron; in my opinion, you should eat some every day. We love these buns with hard-boiled eggs and cucumber, or home-made pesto.


450 g organic plain flour or bread flour
2 teaspoons fast-active dry yeast
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
125 ml milk (½ cup)
100 ml boiled water
½ tablespoon organic honey
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
topping: 1 egg white or milk + sesame seeds

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, yeast, salt and sesame seeds with a wooden spoon.

In a smaller bowl gently stir the milk, boiled water and honey. Let it sit for 1-2 minutes. Add the oil to the mix before slowly pouring it into the larger bowl while stirring gently.

First mix the dough with the spoon, then knead well with your hands on a floured surface for 5-10 minutes. Return the dough to the bowl and cover it with clean, damp tea towel. Set aside for 1½-2 hours in a warm place, or until doubled in size.

Divide the dough into 8 parts and roll into balls. Place them on a baking tray lined with baking parchment and flatten each slightly with the palm of your hand. Brush each one with egg white or milk and sprinkle sesame seeds on top. Bake at 200°C/400°F (180°C fan oven) for 12-14 minutes.

Uppskrift á íslensku

bread buns with sesame seeds ready for the oven

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Man with a Blue Scarf

As someone who wrote a BA thesis on autobiographies, I tend to have opinions about memoirs and biographies. I have no patience at all for writers who get caught up in gossip stories about their subject, and endless name-dropping. That said I want to tell you a bit about the book I'm reading, Man With a Blue Scarf, which has hardly any of that. Earthy brown shades are also on my mind, and pancakes, pancakes with rice.

Currently I'm thoroughly enjoying Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud by Martin Gayford. It's not a biography but has extracts from Gayford's diary. He takes us into Freud's studio when he sits for a portrait and gets to know the artist better. Lucian Freud (1922-2011), the German-born-British painter, was one of the most influential artists of his generation, and quite a character (he was the grandson of Sigmund). Gayford's accounts show us the artist at work; how he approaches his subject.

The book is a fascinating insight into the life of the artist, who was turning 81 when this passage was written:

In practice, we alternate between conversation and periods when his concentration is intense. During those he keeps up a constant dance-like movement, stepping sideways, peering at me intently, measuring with the charcoal. He holds it upright, and with a characteristic motion moves it through an arc, then back to the canvas to put in another stroke … he mutters to himself from time to time, little remarks that are sometimes difficult to catch: 'No, that's not it', 'Yes, a little' … Once or twice he steps back and surveys what he has done, with his head on one side. (p. 10)

They have wonderful conversations about other artists, about literature (Freud liked Henry James, Gustave Flaubert and Thomas Hardy), and they even talk about food (he liked Elizabeth David's books). The book contains 64 illustrations: paintings by Freud and other artists, and photos from his studio. I haven't finished the book and I even find myself reluctant to finish because I don't want it to end. I borrowed a copy at the library but this is a book I want to add to my shelves.

In December I started reading the book Breakfast with Lucian by Geordie Greig. It started well and I was enjoying the lively descriptions of Freud, even reading some aloud for my husband. Then at some point I lost my patience with it, when the author, who was a friend of the artist, told story after story about Freud's lovers and love triangles. The tone was humorous and harmless but all of a sudden it felt as if I was reading a tabloid (I don't read those) and I didn't have the patience to continue and finish it.

What else don't I have patience for? Clichés in magazines are high on my list.

I have always said that I like the little things in life and one of those is the arrival of magazines in the mail; this week the Elle Decoration, March 2015 issue. A favourite feature of mine is about colours, which is one page with the history of the colour and e.g. its use in the art world. Rich brown is the colour of this issue and the article starts with these words: "Startling news to report from the design world: brown is back." Really? Did brown ever go away? Startling? On the cover of their September 2014 issue they asked: "Is black the new white?" No, it's not, black is black, white is white! Is my pointless irritation coming through? By the way, the earthy tableware is by Reiko Kaneko, the bowl by Nicola Tassie, and the dress in the foreground is from the Chloé (by Clare Waight Keller) spring 2015 collection.

Shall we move on to the rice pancakes?

In Iceland we call these klattar, not pancakes, but every foreigner that has visited us and tasted them has commented on the smart idea of using rice in pancakes, hence rice pancakes. These days I'm hooked on raw almond and chia butter, which I put on mine with blueberry jam. You can serve them with butter, cheese and jam, organic chocolate spread or peanut butter, pure maple syrup, or whatever you're in the mood for.

I often make these for breakfast or as an after-school treat when I have leftovers of rice pudding or cooked rice in the fridge. I got the recipe from a friend in Iceland and later made it gluten-free for a guest with wheat intolerance (normally I use Doves Farm plain flour). You can easily substitute the gluten-free flour with spelt flour, or organic wheat flour, and use less milk. They are softer that way. You can even add some cinnamon or organic chocolate chips for an extra treat. Sometimes I use fresh blueberries: I put 3-4 on top of each pancake once I have ladled the batter into the pan, else the batter will turn bluish! The recipe makes about 10-12 pancakes, depending on how large you make them.


1-2 egg whites or 1 egg, free-range
2 tablespoons raw cane sugar or pure maple syrup / agave nectar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup (250 ml) rice pudding or cooked (brown) rice
1 cup flour, gluten-free (c 175 g)
optional: ⅛ teaspoon xanthan gum
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
175-200 ml almond milk or any other milk

Whisk the egg whites, sugar, vanilla and oil together in a bowl (if using 1 egg, 1½ tbsp oil will do). Add the rice pudding/cooked rice and whisk.

In a smaller bowl mix the flour, salt and xanthan gum (if using, in a gluten-free version). Add the mix to the other bowl with the milk and whisk together. It's good to start with 175 ml of milk (about ¾ cup) and add more (⅛ cup) if needed. The texture of the batter should be slightly thick.

Heat a pan over a moderate heat; then wipe it with oiled kitchen paper. Ladle some batter into the pan (I usually make 2 pancakes at a time) and cook until golden brown on the bottom before flipping over to the other side. Transfer to a plate and repeat.
Uppskrift á íslensku.

behind the scenes: a photobombing by a Persian cat

Thursday, 15 January 2015

New! Lunch & Latte

Hello everyone and Happy New Year! How have you been? I would have loved to start this first post of 2015 on a positive note but as a lover of Paris I just had to start by saying that my thoughts have been with its people. In December we had the Sydney siege and then this tragedy in Paris last week. Like John Lennon, I'm a dreamer and the Paris peace rally gave me hope. As I write this, Lennon's 'Imagine' is playing in the background:

Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too,
Imagine all the people, Living life in peace…

~ • ~
In December I told you I was changing the blog and now it's time to welcome you to my "new" one, Lunch & Latte. Yes, I changed the name but saw no need for drastic layout changes. Before turning back to blogging I wanted to wait for my husband to finish building a farm table for me, to set the right mood from the start. I have been dreaming about this kind of table in the kitchen for some time and as it's custom-made it fits perfectly. It's rustic and has plenty of space for my laptop, notebooks and cookbooks - I'm grateful for having a man with carpentry skills. I will be using it to shoot still life and food photos, which leads me to the main change of the blog: from now on I will only post my own images, which means that I'm letting go of all the blog series. Posts will also be less frequent.

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal, 1874, oil on canvas - p. 171 in the book Masterworks by Iian Zaczek

Initially, my idea was to use only Pinterest for inspiring images from other sources, but I like scrolling down a page with larger images, and I knew part of me would miss the old way of blogging, so I recently launched a Tumblr page for Lunch & Latte. There you will find images I normally would have shared on the blog, but without a blog text; only a short description and photo credit.

I thought to myself that many of my loyal readers perhaps don't use Pinterest, and maybe some of you, like me, would miss scrolling down a page with larger images of beautifully designed and styled interiors and such things. Hopefully my Tumblr page will be a compensation for those who visited my blog for exactly that reason. I have already posted quite a badge of photos there, so it wouldn't feel empty when I shared it, and I arrange them by hues to give the archive page a more visually appealing look. How often and when I post images on Tumblr will just depend on my mood, it's just something to enjoy with my latte.

So, what will I be featuring on the blog? This "first post" is intended to set the mood and show you the table. Some blog posts will be about sharing what I'm up to in the kitchen, the things or the food on my table. Some days I might share something inspiring from the books I'm reading (hint: interiors, styling, art) or the magazines I'm leafing through (I'm about to subscribe to The World of Interiors, mainly for the stunning textiles). On other days I might share with you what I'm cooking or baking, the recipe I'm creating at that moment and what inspired it (a novel I read inspired one of the latest ones). To make things easier, I will no longer be updating the food blog (I only updated it twice last year!), I will just post the recipe here when I share one.

I have enrolled in an online architecture course that starts soon and maybe I will talk something about it (no, I'm not getting a degree, someone else is destined to become the future's Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright). When spring arrives I will be strolling or bicycling with my camera, capturing the gorgeous cherry trees and magnolias in bloom. This will be my first spring in South Yorkshire! Ahem, perhaps the only one given how frequently we seem to relocate! (Honey, let's just hang on to those boxes, shall we?). I'm probably forgetting something … oh yes, the Icelandic cookbook I edited for my friend will be published this year! In fact, I'm currently reading the final draft. We have already seen samples of the layout and the book will be beautiful. I cannot wait to hold it in my hands and share it with you.

In a way I don't really have any nailed down plans for the blog, I just want to embrace this new way of blogging and see where it takes me. Finally, thank you for your visits through the years. May the year 2015 bring you the blessing to spot and the courage to seize the opportunities that come your way! And remember, life is too short for anything but quality coffee!

PS. If some links don't work on the blog, just be patient, some things need to be updated. And for the Icelanders out there, I not only changed the name of the Icelandic blog version to Lönsj & Latte, I also changed the URL.