Sunday 18 December 2016

Rich Christmas cake

My Christmas cake this year is simple to prepare and inviting. It has the traditional ingredients of the season, like dried fruit, with a twist (glacé ginger and cherries) and beautifully finished off on top.

You need: 250 g of flour, 150 g of golden granulated sugar, 3 eggs, 70 g of butter, half a tsp of bicarbonate of soda, one tsp of baking powder, half a glass of milk, 50 g of dried cherries, 5 glacé cherry halves, 50 g of cut mixed peel, some drops of Madagascan vanilla extracts.
To decorate: 100 g of dark chocolate, 5 glacé cherries halves, one tsp of icing sugar and gold and silver sprinkles.

Soften the butter in a bowl using a wooden spoon, add the sugar and the yolks of the eggs. Mix well then add half of the flour, the dried cherries, mixed peel and five glacé cherries. Combine the bicarbonate of soda and baking powder with the milk and pour it in the mixture. Whip the egg whites until stiff and then add to the mixture along with the rest of the flour. Pour the mixture in a round greased tin and bake for 30 minutes at 180 °C.

Let it cool and prepare the decoration in the meantime. Set five glacé cherries halves on the cake, melt the dark chocolate in a pan and pour it on the top of the cake covering the glacé cherries halves using a tea spoon. Add gold and silver sprinkles and dust some icing sugar to give a snow effect.

Alternative recipe:
Use the same ingredients but with different kinds of dried fruit, e.g. 50 g of dried blueberries, 50 g of candied orange peel cut in cubes and 50 g of glacé ginger. To decorate the cake, use the glacé ginger and/or the candied orange peel. You can use dark chocolate to finish and/or white chocolate.

I wish you all a very yummy Christmas!

Sunday 4 December 2016

Some books I read in summer 2016

I read mainly poetry during summer and autumn, brand new works and old ones, both English and Italian. All enchanting, here are some of them.

Plum by Elizabeth Burns (Wayleave Press 2016)

I wrote about Elizabeth’s work several times in this blog. Her pamphlet Clay was shortlisted for the 2016 Ted Hughes Award and was runner up for the 2016 Callum Mcdonald Memoria Award. Plum was published last summer, a posthumous gift to her readers; the poems were found and collected by family and friends after her death.
It is a sequence of superbly crafted poems describing a plum tree through the seasons. They are short, intense poems in couplets and triplets, their poignant images stand out in the sparing verses. The beauty of these poems is in the careful choice of words and their sounds. They express meanings that go far beyond a simple description of a tree and its fruits and dig deeply into the core significance of our life.
I read some of them at an open mic at the New Inn in Send. Elizabeth’s voice echoed in my ears, her presence beside me:
how much they want the sun
to turn their green skins
yellow, pink, purple

how their riper colours
come in a rush, a rash, a blush
a mottling of pink

the first taste –
sweet yellow flesh
around the stone


the tree grows bare
closes in on itself
for winter

snow lies along the branches
covering the places
where buds will come

The door to colour by Myra Schneider (Enitharmon Press 2014)

Myra’s rich, narrative poems tell the story of her unlimited imagination, a chain of images that unravel flawless reasoning. The colours she evokes in her poems, especially in Kaleidoscope, have the consistence of facts filtered by experience and delivered in powerful images:

is the leaves you try to catch
as they drop into winter, the flare
from the Halloween turnip’s heart

that lights up its cut-out eyes,
the dooking for apples in water,
the solid prize you bite into.


is silver so you try to hoard it
in your small room among books,
folders, boxes topped with dust,
the dangle of computer cables.

Pictures and everyday objects (like a spoon, a throw or a teapot) speak to her and open an unexpected world to the reader, create stories, make connections and reveal mysteries. The presence of some inexplicable, though realistic entities the poet perceives in the rays of the moon, in the fog or in a post box build a bridge between real and unreal, dream and ordinary:

A crucible for salt grains, ground pepper,
a dab of mustard, it speaks of moon –
not a harvest moon hanging heavy
as cow udders, but winter’s glinting coin.

The uncanny becomes familiar. Her poems convey the joy of being alive and discovering a new perspective on everyday life.

Folle, folle, folle di amore per te by Alda Merini (Salani editore 2015)

I wrote about Alda Merini in the past. I go back to her poems again and again, fascinated by her words of love that strikingly contrast with her excruciating life. This book (Crazy, crazy, crazy in love with you) is a collection of her love poems ‘for young lovers’, says the subtitle. In fact, it communicates a mature disenchanted idea of love, a sentiment explored both in its carnal and spiritual sides. Her femininity is ambivalent, maternal and passionate, vulnerable and aggressive. She is always aware of her fragility and vulnerable exposure when she falls in love, nevertheless her feelings are unconditional under all circumstances, even abuse. But at the same time she can be demanding and cruel, a predatory side that manifests itself with total abandon. Her last word is of total acceptance, our most basic instincts combined with a spiritual yearning she never denies. Naked, exposed to the reader, a mad woman deprived of everything, who takes her identity back, loving without limits. This is her revenge and her salvation.
Here are some examples of her touching poetry:

A volte Dio
uccide gli amanti
perché non vuole
essere superato
in amore

(Sometimes God kills lovers because he doesn’t want to be surpassed in love)

Io ero un Uccello
dal  bianco ventre gentile,
qualcuno mi ha tagliato la gola
per riderci sopra
non so.
Ma anche distesa per terra
io canto ora per te
le mie canzoni d’amore.

(I was a bird with a gentle white belly, somebody cut my throat to laugh on it, I don’t know.
But even lying on the ground I sing now for you my love songs)

Così ti fermerei
e potrei disegnarti
un arabesco sul cuore
(Perché t’amo, Because I love you)

(I’d stop you like this and draw an arabesque on your heart)

Dibattendoci come due rettili infami
mentre perdiamo l’anima

(Writhing like two vile reptiles while we lose our souls)

Eating fire by Margaret Atwood (Virago 2010)

This is a collection of selected poems from 1965 till 1995, it includes: Circle Games (1966), The animals in the Country (1968), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Procedures for underground (1970), Power Politics (1970), You are happy (1974), Two-headed poems (1978), True stories (1981), Interlunar (1984) and Morning in the burned house (1995).
It’s a political kind of poetry, tough, direct and punchy. It’s also very readable, sometimes almost prose like; the rhythm is dictated by the abrupt line breaks, the bewildering rhetorical questions, the wittiness and extreme irony of his verses that turn ordinary life and common beliefs upside down. These are the techniques she uses to show how things really are.

This collection from the 60s describe the crisis of the relationship with her first husband and refer to a more general crisis between man and woman. The lines are short, unexpectedly broken, to reflect lack of communication, alienation and fruitless search for identity:
I want the circle
(The circle Games vii)

There is no centre;
the centres
travel with us unseen
like our shadows
on a day when there is no sun.
(A place: fragments vi)

Reality is completely deconstructed, disassembled, while she tries to rebuild it in a more authentic way. Bitter irony, unveiling the contradictions of a ruthless world (especially ruthless with the defenceless, like women, children, animals and nature) are the weapons Margaret Atwood uses to fight an endless battle for fairness and justice:

Starspangled cowboy
sauntering out of the almost-
silly West, on your face
a porcelain grin,
tugging a papier-mâché cactus
on wheels behind you with a string,

you are innocent as a bathtub
full of bullets.
(Backdrop addresses Cowboy)

The poems from Power Politics are certainly the most famous ones, and rightly so:

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye


You take my hand
I’m suddenly in a bad movie,
it goes on and on and
why am I fascinated

Her words are sharp, the images merciless and surprisingly funny, the reader is totally engrossed in her original reasoning and unexpected questioning. This is not just because of the pressing rhythm, the original images or the music of the verse, but more for the surprising reality she unveils and unfalteringly shows to us.

Some of her lines reminded me of Frida Kahlo’s work:

Like a deep sea
creatures with glass bones and wafer
eye drawn
to the surface, I break

open, the pieces of me
shine briefly in your empty hands

Similarly to her paintings, Margaret Atwood represents an inner pain using surreal images that evoke the same feeling in the reader.

In later works she rewrites myths, like Circe’s and Odysseus’s one, where the Greek hero is not a heroic figure but a boastful liar, a deceiver who takes advantage of his own friends:

One day you simply appeared in your stupid boat,
your killer’s hands, your disjointed body, jagged
as a shipwreck,
skinny-ribbed, blue-eyed, scorched, thirsty, the usual,
pretending to be – what? a survivor?

Those who say they want nothing
want everything.
It was not this greed
that offended me, it was the lies.
(Circe/Mud poems)

In this way Margaret Atwood reconstructs the myth from a woman’s perspective, which can be as valid as the traditional one (the man’s perspective) where women have been confined to the background, secluded and used by men:

When he was young he and another boy constructed a woman out of mud. She began at the neck and ended at the knees and elbows: they stuck to the essentials.

Differently from Alda Merini, Margaret Atwood refuses to accept everything from men. She feels angry, contentious and relentless in pointing out the contradictions of man’s myths and the unfair treatments women suffer:

Break it, I tell you, Break
it. Geology wins. The layer

of trite histories presses you down,
monotony of stone. Oval frame.
(Head against white iv)

In the later collections she develops two major and recurring techniques to testify the renewed attitude women should implement, to carry on the never ending fight against oppression and seclusion: the importance of being a witness and the refusal to give in to romance. The heart is a ‘lump of muscle’ described with realistic unappealing details; women must bear witness of the tortures perpetrated against them and give voice to the voiceless (‘those with no fingers’). This is the new identity women should be committed to, a new reality, a darkness ‘you can enter and be/as safe in as you are anywhere’ (Interlunar).
Towards the end of this selection of poetry collections, there is the story of Mary Webster, the woman accused of witchcraft and hanged in 1680s in Massachusetts. She survived and lived another fourteen years. Definitely a true witness.

Il sangue amaro by Valerio Magrelli

The title has a double meaning, it means ‘bad blood’ or ‘sour blood’ but also ‘make oneself ill over something’. What makes Valerio Magrelli ill is definitely the present Italian social and political situation:
Giovani senza lavoro
con strani portafogli
in cui infilare denaro
che non è guadagnato.
(Il Policida I)

(Young people without a job with strange wallets where they insert money they didn’t earn)

He describes ironically the half-naked showgirls in Christmas TV programs showing off their ‘rebuilt parts’:

ed io vorrei morirti, creatura artificiale,
fra le zanne, gli artigli, la tua pelle-valuta,
irreale invenzione di chirurgia, ideale

sogno di forma pura, angelico complesso
di sesso, sesso, sesso, sesso, sesso.
(L’igienista mentale: divertimento alla maniera di Orlan)

(and I would like to die with you, artificial creature, between claws, talons, your currency-like-skin, unreal invention of plastic surgery, ideal dream of pure form, angelic ensemble of sex, sex, sex, sex, sex.)

They are symbols of an artificial and degraded reality that apparently prevails in today’s Italy. In a similar way the section about Christmas is emblematic of this disillusion. The festivity is now meaningless, a promise that will never be attained; Jesus Christ himself is the victim of his own beliefs and there is no justice, no change and no hope in a better future. Baby Jesus might as well turn over in his manger and have a nap:

Sta’ nella mangiatoia, accucciati su un fianco,
rimettiti a dormire, lascia perdere,
tanto lo sanno tutti, che ti aspetta la croce,

vittima, tu medesimo, di questa creazione malvagia
di cui sei lo smarrito spettatore, la preda
abbandonata sul ciglio di una curva.
(Babbo Natale gnostico)

(stay in the manger, crouch on one side, go back to sleep, forget it, everybody knows the cross is waiting for you; you are the victim of this evil creation, the lost viewer, the prey abandoned at the edge of a bend)

In Valerio Magrelli’s poetry everything is ambivalent, contradictory and this mirrors our own feelings, desires and words:

Impaurito dall’altezza e lontano da te,
significa in ultimo:
attratto da ciò che ci separa.
Il panico di chi teme di cadere
riflette il desiderio di cadere,
ossia di superare il vuoto che divide.
Tutto si intreccia, tutto si confonde
per generare nostalgia.
(La lettura è crudele VIII)

(scared by the height and far from you, it means at the end to be attracted by what separates us. The panic of being afraid of falling, that is to surpass the emptiness that divides. Everything is intertwined, everything merges to engender nostalgia)

As Italo Calvino writes in his wonderful book Invisible Cities: ‘Falsehood is never in words; it is in things’.

My favourite section of the book is the sequence of fifteen irregular rondinets (sort of rondeau, short love poems popular in 16th and 17th century France).  The broad topic is ‘rivers’, and a river is mentioned in each of them, but it’s just a pretext to speak again about our fake myths, illusions, vain fussing and fretting. The only thing that really counts is: ‘ascoltare chi ami’ (listening to the people you love).
The collection ends with a casual warning:

Sul circuito sanguigno

È come nel sistema circolatorio:
il sangue è sempre lo stesso,
ma prima va, poi viene.

Noi lo chiamiamo odio, ma è solo sofferenza,
la vena che riporta
il dono delle arterie alla partenza.

(On blood circuit. It’s like in the circulatory system: blood is always the same, first it goes and then it comes back. We call it hatred, but it is only pain, the vein that brings back the gift of the artery to the start)

Sonata mulattica by Rita Dove (W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2010)

The collection retraces the story of a virtuoso violinist, George Bridgetower, son of a white European mother and a self-styled ‘African Prince’. He was discovered by Haydn and brought to England to perform at aristocratic courts. Beethoven met Bridgetower in Vienna and composed the Kreutzer Sonata (Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major Op. 47) for him, originally titled Sonata Mulattica.
Rita Dove’s work is based on historical documents, but she also imagines the life of the young musician in England and in Austria following his successes since he was a child prodigy. It’s a mixture of facts and literary imagination that don’t avoid episodes of sheer discrimination.
Bridgetower was a ‘phenomenal musical talent’ since he was ten years old, his success was mostly unexpected and the reactions of the audience enthusiastic. The poems recreate the atmosphere of the time, the emotions of the young musician and testify the spectators’ reactions:
...The son, a lad of ten or twelve,
bore a hue that seemed cast in darkest bronze;

he was smartly dressed, possessed an admirable
restraint, and played the Viotti concerto
with an eloquence and refinement
rarely delivered by his more celebrated seniors.
(Mrs. Papendiek’s Diary (1))

I was nothing if not everything
when the music was in me.
I could be fierce, I could shred
the heads off flowers for breakfast
with my bare teeth, simply because
I deserved such loveliness.

If this was ambition, or hatred,
or envy – then I was all
those things, and so was he.
(Concert at Hanover Square)

The verses are rich and musical, evoking for the reader Bridgetower’s own melodies. It is ‘a tale of light and shadow’ like most stories of past and present celebrities, of ‘heavenly music’ and profound depression:

I step out.
I step out into silence.
I step out to take
my place; my place is silence
before I lift the bow and draw
a fingerwidth of ache upon the air.
This is what it is like

to be a flame: furious
but without weight, breeze
sharpening into wind, a bright gust
that will blind, flatten all of you –
yet tender, somewhere inside
(The Performer)

The collection ends with the most eloquent, inclusive metaphor:

Master B, little great man, tell me:
How does a shadow shine?

(The End, with MapQuest)

Sunday 20 November 2016

Pudding Recipes

I adapted these recipes from magazines, changing most of the doses and some of the ingredients. My mum and I had great fun experimenting and the whole family enjoyed the treats.

Almond flakes biscuits
 You need: 400 g of self raising flour, 3 eggs, 150 g of light brown sugar, 100 g of melted butter and some drops of vanilla extract.
For the topping: 50 g of butter, 50 g of light brown sugar, 2 tbsp of honey and 200 g of flaked almonds.

Mix the ingredients for the dough, knead it then roll it out. Place the pastry on a greased oven tray and cut it into squares. Bake for 10 minutes at 180° C. In the meantime prepare the topping by mixing all the ingredients in a pan and heating it for 5-10 minutes on the hob. Take the biscuits from the oven and spread the flaked almond mixture on top, keeping the squares separated. Bake for another 10-15 minutes till slightly brown.

Chocolate meringues
You need: 3 egg whites, 150 g of icing sugar and 50 g of dark chocolate chips.

Whip the egg whites until stiff, then mix in the icing sugar. Melt the chocolate chips in a pan and add most of them in the meringue folding it gently, not mixing it in completely. Spoon the meringue mixture on a greased oven tray and drip the remaining melted chocolate on top. Bake for 50-60 minutes, 150° C.

Biscuits and dark chocolate semifreddo
You need: 100 g of golden caster sugar, 150 ml of double cream, 150 ml of milk, 100 g of rich tea biscuits roughly chopped, 100 g of dark chocolate and 4 eggs.
Whisk the eggs with the sugar, melt the chocolate in a pan with 50 ml of milk and add it to the eggs together with the biscuits and 150 ml of milk. Whip the cream and add it to the mixture. Pour it into a loaf tin lined with cling film and freeze it overnight. Serve cut in slices with cream or raspberry coulis.

Walnut and cream Swiss roll
For the Swiss roll you need: 4 eggs, one tbsp of honey, 100 g of sugar and 100 g of self raising flour.
For the filling you need: 2 tbsp of milk, half a tsp of instant coffee, 150 g of whipping cream, one tbsp of sugar and 100 g of ground walnuts.
Prepare the sponge for the Swiss roll by beating the eggs with the sugar, add one tbsp of honey and all the flour. Pour the mixture on an oven tray lined with baking paper. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or till slightly brown at 180° C. Spread a damp tea towel on a surface, sprinkle some sugar on it and turn the sponge out onto the tea towel. Roll it up while still hot and let it cool.
Prepare the filling by whisking the cream with the sugar. Warm the milk and add the coffee granules. Mix the coffee with the cream and add the ground walnuts. Unroll the sponge and spread the cream and walnut mixture on it, leaving some aside for decoration. Roll it up again and decorate with the left over cream and maybe some walnuts. Chill overnight before serving.

Filling for cannoli siciliani
We bought the cannoli shells in an Italian supermarket in Surrey, so we had only to fill them.
For the filling you need: 750 g of ricotta, 300 g of sugar, 75 g of chocolate chips, mixed peel and/or glacé cherries halves.
Mix the ricotta with the sugar and chill them for two hours. Add the chocolate chips and chill again for one hour. Fill the cannoli shells using a piping bag and decorate the ends with mixed peel and/or a glacé cherry half. Chill before serving.

I used this ricotta mixture to fill a sponge cake and a Swiss roll, instead of chocolate chips I had 100 g of ground dark chocolate. I mixed all the ingredient and chilled them for two hours. I cut the cake in half and dampened the two halves with milk, then spread the ricotta mixture on one, put the other half on top and chilled everything overnight before serving it. For the Swiss roll you follow the same procedure of the previous recipe. Decorate with icing sugar and ground dark chocolate.

Nutella and yogurt bread loaf
You need: 250 g of flour, one tsp of baking powder, half a tsp of bicarbonate of soda, two tbsp of sunflower oil, 150 g of golden caster sugar,  three tbsp of nutella, four tbsp of full fat plain yogurt and 2 eggs.

Beat the eggs then add oil and sugar. Mix all the other ingredients except the nutella and the yogurt. Divide the mixture into two bowls. Add the nutella to one of them and the yogurt to the other. Grease a tin loaf and alternate a layer of the yogurt mixture to a layer of nutella mixture. Bake for 30-40 minutes at 180° C. Decorate with icing sugar and stripes of melted nutella.

Sunday 6 November 2016

October half-term 2016

I had a tremendously busy half term break. I flew to Rome, came back, travelled north to see my autistic daughter in Doncaster and my son in Leeds, and finally came back to Surrey and started work again. Tiring but on the whole a very happy break.
I went to Rome for the weekend, to take my mum back to her home. She had a hernia operation in England at the beginning of October, but then she decided to go back to Italy straight afterwards. She said she missed her home, the area where she had been living for more than fifty year and all her friends and family there.
She wasn’t completely recovered when we left as after the operation (which went very well), she had developed bronchitis and shingles but nothing could stop her. When we arrived at her home, I realized she was very happy to be back in her environment and routines. We went out to do some grocery shopping and she met three people she knew, had a good chat and updated them on her summer. Then we went to the doctor’s and to the pharmacist’s, just a few minutes’ walk from her house. Everything was familiar to her, instead in our house in England, she never remembered where the pots and pans were, she couldn’t reach the glasses and she didn’t like the food. The main problem was that she didn’t speak or understand English so she felt somewhat isolated, though we were with her all the time and translated for her. I also took her to see a group of Italian ladies once a week but it wasn’t enough. When I left she told me not to worry about her, as she had a lot of friends around her. My sister, who lives near Rome, will go and see her from time to time. A lady is also going to stay with her and help her with house chores twice a week. I’m sure she will be all right and after all, this is what she wants. I’ll go back for Christmas.

The day after I came back to England, I left for the north with my husband. We went to see my autistic daughter Valentina who was busy getting ready for Halloween. She showed us the school gym, decorated with fake spider webs and giant stickers of witches and pumpkins. Wherever she went she collected something she liked: a stuffed fake leg, a cushion, a lantern. She ended the tour with her hands (and our hands) full. She also had a brilliant activity, a treasure hunt where she needed to collect the different parts of a skeleton following some written instructions with symbols (PECS) and finally assemble the skeleton. She did it very well and won a pumpkin full of treats. On the whole, we found her happy and definitely improved in her way of communicating with signs.

Our final trip was to Leeds where my son and his fiancée live where we stayed for a day and a half. We visited the Royal Armouries museum together, it was engrossing. They have an incredible display of weapons and armouries mainly from Middle Ages to WW II, from Europe and Asia. Though interesting, it was terrifying to read the descriptions of the excruciating pain a spear or an arrow could provoke penetrating, through the slits of a helmet or between the plates of an armour. Some of the items on display looked fabulous, almost works of art, though mostly meant to protect during combat. What struck me the most were the helmets and some of the armouries, like the Lion Armour, embossed and engraved with beautiful interweaving designs. They are definitely pieces of high quality craftsmanship though disturbing as they were worn in battle and necessarily part of events full of violence and death.

There were a lot of children around and plenty of activities for them, like face painting, archery, a performance with a monologue of a soldier fighting in Vlad the Impaler’s army (known as the inspiration behind Dracula) and interactive games that showed them how to shoot an arrow or explained different kinds of swords.
I felt impressed and bewildered realizing how harmful weapons can be and how much they are an undeniable part of human history. As they say at the entrance of the exhibition: ‘conflict has shaped the world we live in over thousands of years’. It may change in the future, but this is how it was in the past and how it still is in the present day.

In the afternoon we had a long shopping session. I ticked off some of the items on my Christmas shopping list and had a nice walk in the city centre, including a look at the large John Lewis in the new sumptuous shopping centre, Victoria Gate. In the evening we had a gorgeous dinner at Italianissimo, a fabulous Italian restaurant where I enjoyed my first Blind Sailor, not a random bloke, but a cocktail consisting of rum, Ramazzoti, pineapple and lime juice. We had a great time with my son and his fiancée and a fantastic, well deserved holiday.