So you know the rules, then… every birthday person at English Towers gets to choose their own birthday cake. This time, however, we were going to dinner at Glam C’s and I needed something that would work well feeding a crowd too so the Hubster let me choose, bless him.
I looked through my recipe books and found a ‘Congo Brownie’ recipe by Flo Braker and this is an adaptation of that recipe. As far as I can work out, the Congo bar part of it is the white layer – often called blondies and made with nuts, but if any of you can shed light on the name, I’d be delighted to know more!
I’ve split the ingredients and methods up. If you want to have a go at just making the Congo bars, I’d suggest doubling up the quantities and baking for 30 mins in total.
For the Congo bar layer:
85g butter – I use salted with chocolate
225g golden caster sugar
2 free range eggs (1 whole egg, 1 white – save the yolk and bung it in with the brownie)
1 tsp vanilla
175g self raising flour
For the chocolate brownie layer:
200g dark chocolate
170g butter (again, add a pinch of salt if using unsalted)
3 free range eggs
200g soft brown sugar (caster is fine if you don’t have any)
110g plain flour
So preheat your oven to gas 4/180 and butter a square tin/lasagne dish/whatever you have.
Melt the butter gently in a pan and set aside to cool. Whisk together the sugar, egg, egg white and vanilla then stir in the cooled butter. Sift in the flour, stir gently and spread evenly in the bottom of the baking tin.
Pop it in the oven for a scant 15 minutes so that it’s just set.
Meanwhile make the chocolate brownie layer:
Melt the butter and chocolate in a bain-marie (basically, a heatproof bowl (so not a plastic one) over a saucepan of just-simmering water – don’t let the bottom of the bowl come into contact with water). Turn the water off when it’s just bubbling and stir the mixture gently until it’s combined. Take it off the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and sugar together (plop in the extra yolk here) until pale, light and frothy. There is no raising agent in brownies, so the air whisked in at this stage will stop them being a big chocolate brick.
Pour in the cooled chocolate/butter mixture and stir well. Lastly, add in the flour and stir briefly until the flour disappears.
Now pour the brownie mixture over the Congo layer. Bake for about 30 minutes or until the top is cracked and shiny. The centre should still be slightly soft and squidgy.
Finally, I melted a small bar of milk chocolate and spread it over the top of the cake.
Sadly, there were no number 8 candles left, so for the purposes of this dinner party, Hubby had to be 49. He didn’t mind. Especially when Glam C served up the most amazing chilli and the most delicious creamy raspberry cheesecake you’ve ever seen:
English Dad loves his car. It’s his pride and joy. Oh, I know what you’re thinking… yes, the odd wash and buff up on a Sunday… top notch insurance, that sort of thing..
You have no idea. The hubster works away from home. While he’s away, he rings to ask after his car. Not his family – his car. Should there be even the smallest mention of bird poop, there is huffing, puffing and detailed cleaning instructions. The handbrake is left off (with a rock behind the front wheel – you can never be too careful) and the car has to be driven (nowhere dangerous or gravelly) every so often to make sure the battery doesn’t go flat. Oh and it needs to be parked far enough to the right to make sure that the postman isn’t at risk of knocking it with his bag as he approaches. In fact, I could go so far as to list at least ten… the hubby’s commandments, if you will:
Okay so now you’re up to date. Once the above is memorised and absorbed, you might be allowed to go in the back seat. Might. But those rivets on your jeans? They could scratch the leather….
Which is where, incidentally, my car comes in. For my car is, I’m afraid, not very clean (cars are OUTSIDE things!), a bit grubby inside… is used for Tesco runs (yup *gasp* I park in Tesco), is driven in the rain, and often contains all manner of children/sharp implements/dirty things, even the odd dog.
Trust me. You’re better off in mine.
So big changes are afoot at English Towers. English Dad has been offered the job of his dreams. A job that he’s wanted for years. A job that he’s worked his butt off to qualify for. The perfect job, in fact? Well, no, because the job is based a long way away. This ‘perfect’ job will take him away from his family for long periods of time, and will be challenging and dangerous. Perfect? No. Good enough? Hell yes.
This seems to be a bit of a theme recently, this not-quite-perfection in everything…
Take last weekend – a press trip to Disneyland for me and the Death Wish Dude. We loved it. I’m happy that my travel writing is being taken seriously and I’m lucky enough to be invited to these amazing events. But a problem with an aircraft meant that English Dad ended up being stranded in Ireland, which left the Mad Professor on his own for the weekend. Our scatter-brained, clever, forgetful teenager, alone. Yes, he’s nearly 17, but a teenager? On his own for the whole weekend? Not great.
But do you know what? He survived. His Dad and I rang him often. His Grandad took him out for dinner, he spent one night with friends. And he was fine. He didn’t burn the house down, or have a massive party. He looked after himself and our home and he was trustworthy. Not a perfect situation, but hey, a good enough result I reckon.
And as the invitations continue to come in, I’ll continue to thank my lucky stars that I’m doing something I love, and that I’ve got my family – my so not perfect but definitely good enough family – to help me out with the odd bit of teenager watching.
I’ve got a keyring attached to my car keys. It’s a little chrome heart with the words ‘I love you’ written on it. I saw it in a little shop when I was with the boys. I mentioned to them that I’d love it if their Dad was romantic enough to buy me stuff like that (he’s just not the romantic type). Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened a box from him on my birthday to find that heart gleaming up at me. My boys had told their Dad about the heart and he’d gone and got it. Not maybe the spontaneous romantic gesture, but a wonderful team effort from all my lovely boys. I smile every time I look at it.
So you see – sometimes it just doesn’t matter if things are perfect. Just like the fact that I’ll never get the perfect photo of them in their school uniforms, because frankly they’re far too silly to ever pose properly for a photo, all that matters that it’s them. And they’re mine, and they’re fab. They’re good enough. And good enough’s what counts. Don’t you agree?
So after all my moany, whiny protestations, English Dad actually DID buy me underwear for Christmas (sorry, lonnnnjjjjherrrieeee, you have to say it right). It was very pretty, not too thongy, and actually really nice.
I tried it on.
In front of him.
There was some levering. Actually, there was quite a lot of levering. And a bit of sweating. And a bit of unsightly overspill. Quite a lot, if I’m honest.
Hubby: ‘They don’t fit? *panicked expression*, but they’re a size 12! You’re a size 12! You’ve always been a size 12!’
Me: ‘They don’t. I am. I have.’
And lo, the dawning was slow and painful.
I’ve got a bit porky.
It’s not my fault. I like a gin, admittedly. A gin or three. And fizz! Who doesn’t, right? And a restaurant. Oh I love a restaurant. And I like a cake. And a pie. Oh and those crispy covered peanut things. And a Topic. And I’m an advocate of any problem being solved with a big stew and lots of mashed potato…
Okay so wait. It IS my fault.
And so I decided, rather than take the rather lush underwear back, I would embark on a small period of healthy eating and gin avoidance thus rendering me back in a size 12 and able to wear my new pants.
Well, no. But I thought I’d help out by publishing a few healthy recipes over the next few days to start us off in the right direction. Then we can get back on the gin and forget this ever happened.
We are, dearest reader, a household divided. Nothing new there, you might think – we’re already divided into the pasta haters vs pasta lovers (that’s us three against English Dad), the creamy sauce lovers vs the creamy sauce haters (yup, that’s us three against English Dad too)… hmmm, there seems to be a pattern emerging.
Anyway, we’re two for two on the tea/coffee debate. I have the largest mug in Christendom (pink Minnie Mouse), which I fill on a fairly regular basis with builder’s tea, liberally topped up with milk. The Mad Prof is a tea lover too, whereas the Death Wish Dude and his Dad are confirmed coffee lovers.
Since we’ve been testing this Tassimo whatnot though, the house has been filled with the delicious smell of coffee, and I’ve even had the odd tongue-scorching, molten lava temperature cup of espresso. I know – not like me at all. It’s like when you really don’t fancy a mince pie, then someone warms one up and you smell it and really want one.
Anyhoo. Digressing. The Tassimo has these little plastic yokes that you pop in and press down on the thingy and then, voila! you get a freshly brewed mug of coffee! No filter papers or coffee grounds or any of that messy stuff. I love it.
Happily, I’ve also got one to give away. Pop over to my Facebook page here and leave me a comment (say hello, say ‘bum’, say whatever you like) on the Tassimo post and you can be entered into the draw. Good luck!
Draw closes Sunday 27th November. No cash alternative. Winner chosen at random.
So clever old English Dad’s been teaching Ralf Little to fly. He’s been rubbing my nose in it FOR MONTHS whilst simultaneously forbidding me from mentioning it anywhere on the interwebz. The fiend. I bloody love Ralph Little. From the frankly amazing Royle Family, through Two Pints of Lager and the brilliant Married Single Other, (which we both loved and were devastated when it ended), I’ve loved it all. I even love his Asda adverts (every time they come on, someone in our house shouts ‘Ralf’s on!’
Plus, he happened to let slip that he was working on something new that he had co-written and I wasn’t allowed to mention that EITHER. The torture. (I know now, it’s called The Café and it’s starting really soon on Sky 1).
‘Tell him about Gary Barlow‘, I begged. Tell him anything, just PLEASE ask him for a video. Pleeeeease…’
Anyhoo. Sitting down to dinner this evening, Old Sneaky McSneaky passed me his phone. ’Check out where we were today’, he said, nonchalantly. So I pressed play. And this appeared:
Ralf, I love you. And thank you thank you thank you for my amazing video. And call you? Too bloody right! *shoves husband out of the way roughly*
Oh, and congratulations on your new helicopter licence. Mind you, you had a pretty good teacher, eh?
So English Dad has a large Asda near his work and often drops in for random stuff like all the various pills, potions and herbal whatnots he pops every morning for his bones and his joints and his whatevers (‘what? I’m getting old’), prune juice (remind me to tell you about the prune juice incident, it’s a cracker) and, occasionally, to have a quick perusal of the fish counter.
English Dad loves the fish counter. This is all good, but it does mean that sometimes he arrives home with a slightly fishy smelling mystery parcel and I have to conjour up some form of accompaniment at short notice. Recently, his niffy romantic offering was a clutch (a school?) of very fresh and rather lovely sea bass. Whole sea bass.
They were beautiful: fresh, gleaming, with clear eyes and that lovely ozone scent (and two quid each. TWO QUID!). But then it all kind of went downhill. Well first of all I’d kind of planned hotdogs. I’d bought baguettes and those horrible ‘lips and arseholes‘ hotdog sausages that come in tins (oh admit it, you love them too). And suddenly to be presented with an enormous bag of slightly wet scales, glassy eyes and gaping maws kind of threw me off kilter.
I know. Horribly ungrateful. His little face fell, bless him.
And then the boys came in. Comments were made. Sulky, teenagery kind of comments:
‘I thought we were having hotdogs‘
‘They’re looking at me!’
I grabbed the knife with a flourish and announced that I would fillet them.
The first thing I did was to impale myself through the thumb with the spiky bit at the top of the fin. Who knew sea bass could be so darned painful? Cursing and beplastered, I swiftly decided to dispense with the filleting and just chop off their heads and tails. They were gutted (there were livid - boom boom!), so this seemed the easiest option.
Have you ever tried to cut off a sea bass’s head? It’s hard work. They’re slippery and there’s nothing to hold on to… I stabbed myself about another three times until, swearing and sweating, my fishy massacre was complete. The kitchen was littered with severed heads, and the poor Ninja Cat of Death was so traumatised by all the hacking and the swearing she went to hide under the table. The beady eyed sea bass heads mocked her as she left: ‘where are you going, you hairy pansy? Never seen a headless fish before? Wuss!’
Anyhoo, bloodbath aside, stuffed with parsley and lemon, drizzled with oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper and wrapped in a comfy foil blanket, they were delicious (bake at 180/gas 6 for about 1/2 an hour), served with little oven roasted new potatoes…
They were proclaimed ‘alright, but a bit bony’ by de brevren, (which they were – you just have to be a bit careful), but apart from one near-choking incident and the fact that I was riddled with sea bass spine puncture wounds, it was an altogether delicious dinner.
Tonight, adorned with slightly fishy smelling plasters, I shall be making hotdogs.
I’ve taken to annoying English Dad by sending him a nightly email telling him how many sleeps there are until we’ll be together again. He’s probably enjoying having a bed to himself in England, sleeping like a starfish and snoring his head off without anyone jabbing him in the ribs, but hey, he’ll soon get used to it.
English Towers is rented out (a difficult decision after the damage that was done by our last tenants – did I tell you I solved the mystery of one of the missing huge Oak wardrobes? I found one of the handles fused to the bottom of the fireplace). Still I’ve been extra careful this time and met them and they seem really nice. The letting agent wouldn’t actually allow me to give them all a questionnaire when they were looking around (Q5: How often will you clean the cooker? A: Every time I use it B: Once a week C: Once a month D: Never), but I sussed the really nice ones and startled poor Padraig the agent by texting him a big fat ‘NO’ after a particularly odd lady appeared at the door.
I’m feeling quite unusually efficient actually: the Bio-Flow sewage treatment unit thingy has been mended, meaning that the scent of poo no longer lingers in the air, and now the mower too, has been serviced so the lawn doesn’t have little grassy mohicans in the middle of each stripe. I’ve even packed a little, although my lovely friend Poppy’s Mum has made this a little more difficult as she gave me a load of newspaper to wrap my ‘delicates’ in and I keep finding interesting bits to read – and then there’s the fact that she finishes all the crosswords, too. I find myself sitting checking her answers with only one glass wrapped after half an hour.
We can’t go straight away at the Mad Professor has to finish his exams. They’ve now finished school for the summer (I know, right? three months off?) and he’s now lurching between periods of confidence: ‘I think I’ll get all As, no, A*s…’, and utter panic: ‘I’m going to fail them alllllllll!’.
The Death Wish One (I’m not allowed to call him the Death Wish Child any more as he is now 13) can think only of England and the skate park and emails Grandma on a regular basis to make sure she’s guarding his Remz with her life (these are his beloved skates).
Poppy’s Mum has adopted my chickens. I’ll miss lovely Lucy and her fluffy bottom, but I can’t ship them back and I know that they’ll be well cared for. I’m missing popping out for a nice warm egg for breakfast, though…
What else will I miss? I’ll miss lovely Poppy’s Mum, who is a wonderful friend with a wicked sense of humour and the kindest heart… oh, and my kitchen, and the mama cows with their babies… and my garden (the trees we planted are really getting big now – the Willow is actuallly weeping…
BUT I miss my family and I have to do what’s right for the boys – they should be with their Dad. It also means that I’ll be able to say yes to all the lovely things I get invited to, although recently when I declined a press invitation, the PR replied ‘is there anyone else in your team that would like to go?’
I really want a team now.
So when the email came through last week saying ‘fancy going to Dubai on Friday to check out what facilities they have for children?’, my initial reaction was ‘Friday? What, THIS Friday?’. It just seemed an impossibility. I was especially disappointed as after I’d had to turn down a once in a lifetime invitation to join the Disney Dream inaugural cruise, I’d kind of promised myself that I wouldn’t let another amazing opportunity pass me by. I’d decided that, come what may, I’d always embrace every opportunity that comes my way. Hey, life is short. Carpe diem and all that.
Sadly, after consulting with English Dad, who was too busy at work to come over and look after de brevren, it seemed like it was not to be. With a heavy heart, I sent a ‘thanks but no thanks’ email back to lovely Abbie, the PR.
Not ten minutes later, he sent a text: ‘wait, why don’t you bring the boys over here?’, and suddenly, it was that easy. The Mad Prof wanted to stay here, but with nobody to pop in and check he was okay, we decided to bring him too. Armed with books, and with his Xbox in his hand luggage, we hopped on a Ryanair – the Death Wish Child already frantically texting friends to meet him at the skate park.
We got up at ridiculous o’clock, flew to Luton, and then went back to English Grandma’s for a few hours. The plan was that English Dad would rush home from work, pick me up and drop me at Heathrow in time for my flight.
And then another setback. A text: ‘I’m stuck at Battersea Heliport. Not going to make it, sorry’. Nooooo! After all our planning and hard work, the trip was just doomed to failure.
Or was it? Another text: ‘can you get to the cricket club? I’ve got a plan’. So we rushed to the cricket club. And this happened:
And so I got to travel in style to start my holiday! It was really amazing. I made sure he kept his hands on the controls…
While I had a quick nosey out the window as Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire spread out below me:
And before long we were landing in High Wycombe:
Huge thanks to the amazing, fantastic, talented, gorgeous and utterly brilliant Leon for the loan of his pilot and aircraft!
On, then, to Heathrow Airport, and 7 hours later, Dubai, where the 40 degree heat hit us all like the blast of a hairdryer. Much much more to tell you, but talking of helicopters, I’ll leave you for now with this little shot of the Burj Al’Arab:
Oh and by the way, if you fancy going up, up and away just like me, or even fancy having a go at flying yourself (ably assisted by my rather talented other half) you can contact the wonderful Helicopter Services here.
So here’s one for all you petrol heads. English Dad was at Goodwood yesterday. He was supposed to be working, but judging by this, there wasn’t much working occurring… (check out the smile – makes me laugh every time I watch it):
Just check out that noise!
They were at Goodwood for a track day so that Matt could have a play with his new toys: a beautiful white Ferrari 599 GTO (‘ £300,000 give or take a few lira’, says the hubster, breezily):
… and a new Ferrari 599 F1 California convertible (a snip at £170,000 – sadly only one pic of this):
And Hubby’s new mission seems to be to get everyone to say hello to me. Here’s Matt, one of the Hubster’s helicopter students and the owner of this beautiful machine:
…and then just as they were loading the cars back onto the transporter at the end, a brand new Aston Martin Virage (convertible) turned up, James Martin got out, and stood and had a chat with them all.
Did he get a photo of James Martin? Did he hell.
Sacked, I tell you. Sacked.
Oh we’re having such a fun time at English Grandma’s. I’m slightly worried, though, because I’ve done nothing but eat so far – they might have to roll me into the cargo section of the aircraft to get me home…
On Saturday, while the newly-hatched teenager was trying to mangle himself at Bay Sixty6, we decided to head off into the local area and walk around a bit (four hours watching your child trying to snap off their limbs is not an enticing prospect, believe me). Having absolutely no knowledge of London, we were just going to bimble around and people-watch (the houses in that area are amazing – the one I liked in the Estate Agent’s window was a snip at 1.3 mil).
Happily, though, our bimbling led us straight into Portobello Road, and the market, which was in full swing:
I couldn’t believe it and hopped around like a lunatic while English Dad sort of looked like he wasn’t really with me. ’It’s like Notting Hill!’ I said.
‘It is bloody Notting Hill’, the embarrassed one muttered.
I meant the movie, but anyhoo, we set off to check out the stalls, with me grinning like a loon and English Dad looking a bit perplexed. On a Saturday, the market is over a mile long, with bits spreading out under the Westway and in all directions – we marvelled at the fabulous fresh fruit and veg stalls:
…the piles of gorgeously fragrant freshly-baked bread:
…and all manner of really entrepreneurial stalls – I especially liked the lovely lady that makes and sells cute little knickers and tops (I wasn’t allowed to linger there, hence the lack of photo) and these fabulous wooden spoons and things:
Oh and the fooood! We’d had breakfast, which was a mistake, as everything looked so delicious… the jerk chicken stands, the huge pans of paella bubbling away:
Oh and we saw the Hummingbird Bakery! (wasn’t allowed in there either) and on Saturdays there’s an amazing antiques market, where I tried really hard not to buy any fabulous old enamel ware or ancient silver fish slices, for fear of busting my Ryanair allowance on the way back.
It’s such a fab place, though. Highly recommended.
Now how does that song go? ‘Roll me on home…’
I am sad, dearest reader. Confused and sad. This is unlike me. I am usually happy. In fact, I’m usually so happy and perky that I verge on the irritating. I suspect some people close to me have to rein in their slap reflex when I’m in full happy.
But everything seems bad at the moment. There is a dark cloud hovering over English Towers that just won’t shift.
The Death Wish Child is unhappy. This is not like him. He’s perky too (I wonder where he gets it from?) – a ray of sunshine who brightens any room. Our very own Mr Blue Sky. But he misses his mates in England and, try as he might, just hasn’t really settled here. He’s a livewire – he’s sporty and outdoorsy – but they only have one PE lesson a week. Plus, he misses the skatepark. He’s hard wired to hurl himself around in a dangerous fashion (the clue’s in the name). He doesn’t feel quite right unless he’s a bit bruised. He is constantly glued to Facebook, talking to his English mates and making himself even more homesick.
Our recent trip back home made him – well, all of us, a little sadder than before.
‘Maybe he just needs to be active?’, said P, the lovely hubby of Poppy’s Mum. ’Get him down the GAA, that’ll sort him out’. But they shout at you a lot at the GAA, it’s just not his bag – he’s a laid back dude. And at the latest game, one of the lads said to him ‘I don’t pass to English people’. Another sneered ‘you don’t belong here’. Thanks fellas. Another nail in the coffin.
English Dad is mostly in England. There’s no work in Ireland and he rarely gets back to see us. This is hard. I’m not cut out to be a single mum. I need family: hugs and banter, long, drawn-out mealtimes, clinking glasses and laughter. Solitary evenings with a glass of wine in front of CSI just don’t do it for me. As hard as I try.
I love this house. This is our dream house. I love the garden… the interior that we spent happy hours choosing: my gorgeous kitchen, the fabulous fireplace… my dream oven… the chickens rootling in the garden… everything perfect.
But is it just a house? Did I make a mistake bringing my family back here because I missed it? I was worried about them growing up attending a big Comprehensive school – maybe mixing with the wrong sort of people… Should I have given them more credit? We thought it would be fine… was I wrong?
The Mad Professor wants to go home too. The lure of the Sixth Form is strong – he can do ‘all that nerdy shit’ that he loves: Maths with Mechanics… Physics… Over here, you do the same subjects for Leaving Cert as you do at Junior Cert – everything. It’s not for him. He’s got his future mapped out. England’s the place to be.
And me? I miss my family. I love my brothers. I want to be with my parents. The recent trip to the Albert Hall was classic Disreputable Dad. The Mad Professor was limping in a ridiculously flamboyant fashion after twisting his ankle at his cousin’s (miraculously, it was completely healed the next day). Trying to bag a taxi in London when you’ve got a teenager limping like Jake the Peg isn’t easy. I got cross. The DD got cross with me. There was swearing. But there was silliness too. And flag waving. Food and wine and laughter. I miss all of it. (Yes, even the swearing).
My mum comes to visit. But it’s not the same as popping in and saying hi, sharing tea, swapping recipes, going shopping…
‘Sometimes you have to try something, after trying something else (!) to find out it doesn’t suit everyone’, said my friend Foxy sagely. She noticed that I wasn’t as ‘ebullient’ (great word, by the way, Fox) as usual, during our recent trip. And she’s right.
‘Home is where the heart is’ is a confusing phrase. English Towers will always be our home – happy memories abound here: family Christmases, visits from friends, sunny wanders down the boat road…
But when everyone spends every day missing people they love… wanting different things? Is it time to call it a day?