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Book review: Angelica's Smile, by Andrea Camilleri

Review by Richard Beesley.

If you've read our previous book reviews, you will know that I love a good mystery. Having never read any of the Inspector Montalbano Mystery series before, I wasn't sure what to expect. But Andrea Camilleri does not disappoint. Angelica's Smile is a fun, easy to read book following the Inspector as he tries to solve a series of high-profile burglaries of the wealthy elite in his town of Vigata in Sicily.

It was a pleasant change to read about a police inspector with a sense of humour in this light-hearted stroll through the Sicilian countryside. Clearly regarded as something of a loose cannon by others in the justice system, and happy to side-step protocol to get the job done, Montalbano strikes a balance between doing the correct thing and doing the right thing.

Whilst the series of burglaries happen in quick succession, this is a gently meandering book with no sudden chases or gripping terror. Camilleri deliberately avoids too much detail, with the effect of slowing the story down and allowing the reader to create the rest of the picture. No detailed forensics to worry about, and no complex psychology. I was pleased to have solved the crime (or at least part of it) before the Inspector although the final detailed outcome couldn't really be predicted until the final clue a page or two earlier.

A pleasant read, certainly, and one I would recommend for a little light relief.

Angelica's Smile, by Andrea Camilleri, is published by PanMacmillan and is available from their website.

Disclosure: Pan Macmillan sent me this book to keep for the purposes of review. All opinions are our own.
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Book review: Southern Cross The Dog, by Bill Cheng

Review by Richard Beesley.
This book is simply stunning. The evocative language, the writing style, the descriptions. The characters jump off the page, and you can see, hear, sense and smell them. The landscape emerges and engulfs you, and the river, swamp and forest fill your senses. Beautifully written, Southern Cross The Dog by Bill Cheng is set in Mississippi from 1927, following the story of Robert Chatham, an eight-year-old African-American boy whose family lose everything in the Great Flood.

Jumping from 1927 to 1932 to 1941 and back, we see the difficulties and struggles that Robert and his family face. Throughout these years, he encounters a range of dangerous people and situations, from the ex-con turned musician turned preacher, to the trappers, to the crews reclaiming the swampland, to the racist thugs he encounters.

The American south at that time is different to the world we are used to, but the descriptions of every scene are so clear that the reader can really see and feel it.

There are a number of characters that are seen several times throughout the book, and recurring patterns of dangerous encounters and destructive behaviours. But the overall theme is one of choice. Choices that Robert must make between right and wrong, faith and fate, the past and the future.

If you are looking for an easy read and a happy ending, this might not be your first choice. But if you are after a gripping and beautifully written book with complex characters and more complex themes, then this might be just what you are looking for.

Southern Cross The Dog, by Bill Cheng, is published by PanMacmillan and is available from their website.

Disclosure: Pan Macmillan sent me this book to keep for the purposes of review. All opinions are our own.

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Crossing three counties and then into Wales: Arriving at St David's Hotel and Spa, Cardiff Bay.

We seem to have totally lost track of days of the week with all the travelling we've been doing. Despite today being filled with a huge long journey spanning three counties before crossing the Severn bridge into Wales, we still seem to have crammed loads in and there seems to be lots to write up.

We set off from Tregenna castle, St Ives around 9.30am. D felt car sick almost straight away (and I really felt sympathetic towards him after my bout of sea sickness yesterday!). Miss T had woken up extremely early in the morning so she dozed for a while which made the long journey more manageable for her.
We pushed on up the M5 but needed a break after 3 hours of driving before getting to Wales. We stopped at Clevedon which was really close to the motorway, so wouldn't be too much of a detour, and was a seaside town which is always good.

It didn't seem a particularly big place and the coastline was mainly mud flats. The kids had a run and a stretch along the seafront before crossing the road to Tiffin, a lovely cafe and tea rooms situated right opposite the sea.

We had tasty beef, with mash and veg (they'd even cooked the cabbage to perfection - not mushy at all). D had bangers and mash made with good quality sausages. And J had a fish finger sandwich but not the usual fish fingers that come to mind - these were again good quality, most probably home made, fish fingers.  Service was speedy and efficient. We were delighted with our lovely lunch there and would thoroughly recommend Tiffin
After a quick phonecall to granny (Miss T misses granny and grandad tremendously if she doesn't see them for more than a day or two), we jumped back in the car for the last hour or so of our journey to Cardiff.

After visiting Cardiff in 2011 on a spontaneous outing whilst homeschooling (that's the beauty of homeschooling - you're not tied into when you can and can't go on holiday), I knew I wanted to come back.

It is just such a great city (apart from the rain we seem to have each time we visit). Last time we had stayed in the Novotel hotel just minutes from the city centre. This time we were booked into St David's Hotel and Spa in the Cardiff Bay Area.
We had visited Cardiff Bay when we came in 2011 and it seems to really be on the map now with lots more shops, hotels and places to eat.
St David's Hotel and Spa is situated really close to Mermaid Quay. There are stunning views across the harbour from our rooms. We had two separate rooms on the fourth floor and both had spectacular views. Each room also had a small balcony area too.
If Fowey hall spelled out luxury for the family friendly end of the spectrum, St David's hotel and spa is synonymous with luxury on the corporate / business end of the spectrum. I found myself really admiring the architecture of the place.

The rooms are spacious, clean and very luxurious with The White Company toiletries in the luxury bathrooms.
Like Fowey hall, there are also robes in the bedrooms.

The Spa had been voted Wales best spa in 2012 and we could totally understand why that is. You can borrow a robe and slippers in the spa area. It is all immaculately clean. The swimming pool has crystal clear water.

There are just two time slots each day when children are permitted in the pool. We got there in time for the 5-6pm slot. We were so glad to have made it to the pool for a swim after being cooped up in the car for most the day.

Our day was still not over. We'd arrived to a bustling Cardiff Bay with the Extreme sailing event taking place over this weekend. We took an evening stroll around the area, making sure we could find our way to the Doctor Who experience which we are hoping to visit tomorrow.
By the time we were headed back to the hotel it was early 8pm and we needed to get Miss T some dinner quickly so that we could get her to bed.

Mania coffee shop was just what we needed - open til late and with a fabulous selection of sandwiches, paninis and baguettes. Amazing hot chocolate, fruit smoothies, and cakes too!

Prices seemed very reasonable compared with other similar coffee shops and we were very impressed with the quality.

Much to the excitement of the boys we spotted a bat flying around just outside the hotel. Then it was bedtime. Night night.

Written up on Sunday 24th August 2014 (This was Day 6 of our road trip). Find out more about our road trip here


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Blackberry Bakewell tart

Well Autumn season is well and truly in full swing as our conker haul bears witness to. And we finally got the chance to go blackberry picking too. This is on our autumn bucket list each year but we hadn't got around to actually doing it for years!
I've also been craving a Cherry Bakewell tart for the past few days, so I decided to combine the two things, blackberries and Bakewell tart, and make a Blackberry Bakewell tart. 

It is one of those recipes that I kind of made up as I went along so I don't have exact quantities for the blackberries I'm afraid. We didn't have a huge quantity so at a very rough guess I'd say 300g - 400g of blackberries. 

Ingredients for the pastry:
300g plain flour
30g sugar
125g butter
1 egg
A splash of milk

Ingredients for the blackberry 'jam':
Fresh blackberries (see note above about quantities!)
A splash of Madeira
Some sugar - around 2-3 tablespoons I would guess. 


Ingredients for the filling: 
100g ground almonds
2 eggs
100g sugar
100g butter
15g plain flour
Zest of a lemon
A generous handful of flaked almonds

Icing sugar and water to decorate if desired.

Method:

1. First make the pastry. I used my food processor to blitz together the flour and butter, then added in the sugar, egg and milk until it started to from a dough. 
2. On a floured surface bring the dough together and knead it a little so that you can roll it big enough for a 24cm tart tin. (The pastry quantities are a little more than you will need for this size tin, so we've kept the spare bit in the fridge to make a couple of mini jam tarts, or similar, tomorrow. 
3. Carefully place your rolled out pastry into your tart tin and prick gently with a fork. Then place in the fridge to chill. I read somewhere that it should be left to chill for an hour, but I'm nowhere near patient enough for that, so I just let it chill long enough for me to get started on making my blackberry jam. 
4. Wash the blackberries well. Then simmer on the hob with the sugar, Madeira and a few tablespoons of water. You may need to add a little more water as you go. Keep it simmering until the blackberries start to go mushy and the water reduces. Then push through a sieve to remove all the seeds to make a smooth 'jam'. I have called it a 'jam' but as I don't have a clue how to make jam properly I use this in the loosest way. It is essentially a thick sugary blackberry liquid to spread over the base of your pastry tart. 
5. Pop a sheet of baking paper into your chilled pastry case and fill with baking beans (or dried rice, lentils, mung beans will do the trick too). Blind bake in the oven for 15 minutes at 200C. Then remove the baking beans and baking parchment, reduce oven temperature to 180C and bake for a further 5 minutes. 
6. Whilst the pastry case is cooking, you can make your filling. I used a mixer with a beater attachment but you can mix by hand. Start by beating together the sugar and butter. 
7. Then add in the ground almonds and eggs. 
8. Finally add in the lemon zest and flour. 
9. Now it's time to assemble your blackberry Bakewell tart. Start by spreading the jam across the base of the pastry case (don't go right to the edges as I did or it will bleed through the filling). Next spread your filling on top of the jam. Finally generously sprinkle your tart with flaked almonds. 
10. Bake in the oven at 180C for 20 minutes then allow to cool. 
11. Once it is cool you can mix together a little icing using icing sugar and water to drizzle on top. Alternatively you could dust with a little icing sugar. 

I was so pleased with how this turned out and it's a great way of using those autumn blackberries hence blogging about it so I don't forget the recipe!
If you're good at making pastry tarts then you might want to tidy the edges of the tart up but my kids love all the extra pastry bits around the edges so I left it on there as I didn't want to risk the whole thing falling apart!
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Fish fingers and Custard anyone?

We spent years feeling smug in September. When everyone else was stressing about getting back into the school routine, we had none of the rush to get out of the house in the morning, or the after school hunger pangs and needing to get tea on the table by 5pm. 

Nope - we spent three years of homeschooling not having to rush about anywhere and being able to eat throughout the day whenever we wanted to. We were seriously smug.

But this year, things were different. BOTH boys were back at school so after the luxury of lazy days and late dinners during the summer holidays, it was a real shock to the system getting back into a routine.

One of the biggest problems is lack of time. And when time is short, as a parent you need to find shortcuts that are effective and that you won't feel guilty about. Whilst I love preparing meals from scratch, there are days when it is just not possible. Not only do we have the school routine to get back into but the clubs begin too with filmmakers club, drama, youth club and boys brigade to fit into the week too, I need some help!
Top tip: Have some easy meal ideas to hand to avoid resorting to takeaways and feeling guilty.

Short of getting myself a TARDIS to travel back in time and give myself more hours in the day, I've found that I rely on being able to get healthy meals on the table fast.

I seek inspiration for those meals all around - often cutting speedy recipes out of magazines and getting inspiration from food blogs. But my very best friend is my freezer. My freezer can store spare portions of meals I have already cooked, it can store ingredients to keep them from going to waste and being thrown away, and it can store some brilliant meal ideas ready to go go go on a busy weekday after school.
Top tip: Make your freezer your best friend.
We tend to keep a huge supply of Birds Eye fish fingers in the freezer as they are a favourite, along with waffles and peas. It's a meal you just cannot go wrong with.

But rather than mealtimes being a rushed chore, it is also important to be able to enjoy your food and have fun with food. So we decided to have a little #AfterSchoolChefs fun of our own inspired by one of our favourite characters.
Top tip: Don't rush your actual mealtimes - make sure they are kept happy and fun!

The boys have long been into Doctor Who and recently Miss T seems to have become a little bit Dr Who obsessed so what better than using some of our Birds Eye favourites to make a Dr Who inspired meal.
How about putting together a couple of Birds Eye mini potato waffles and a pea for the light on top as a mini TARDIS:
and remember the Cybermats (those little cyber creatures that the Cybermen would send out), these 'cybermats' are made from Birds Eye Chicken dippers with a Birds Eye pea for their eye:
Top tip: Let the kids mix together their own fun dips to have with meals. This one is mayo and ketchup.

And one of the Doctor's most feared enemies and the monster I find the scariest of them all...A Dalek - Made from a tasty Birds Eye potato waffle, a Birds Eye mini potato waffle, Birds Eye peas and a few carrot batons and pieces of cucumber:
Top tip: Keep some fresh carrots cut into batons in the fridge as a healthy snack whilst waiting for dinner. 

The Birds Eye Chicken Space shapes with star, moon and spaceship shapes make the perfect backdrop for our Doctor Who themed #AfterSchoolChefs meal.

Most regular readers will know that 8 year old D loves to cook (as you can see from his own blog called The Brilliant Chef) but helping to make this themed meal, he discovered that sometimes the 'recipe' for making food fun is just as important as the cooking itself.
Top tip: Get kids involved in food and cooking from a young age. They'll be able to help you more and more as they get older and it teaches them valuable life skills.
Now let's not forget dessert and what better way to end the meal that with the Doctors all time favourite food, anyone for Fish Fingers and Custard?
Top tip: Never be afraid to experiment with food and try new things!

This post is an entry for #Afterschoolchefs Linky Challenge, sponsored by Birds Eye. Learn more on the Birds Eye Facebook page.
Birds Eye Fish Fingers and Custard - Yum!
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Minute make cake: Carrot Cake


A little while ago we made a minute make chocolate cake, that is, a chocolate cake that cooks in a minute.

So I wondered whether we could do the same for carrot cake. I often think carrot cake is a 'healthy' cake with all that carrot in it and with wholewheat flour instead of white flour so I set about trying to make it even healthier in this recipe. It is not that sweet on its own but when topped with sweet cream cheese frosting, it works.  

This recipe makes three small ramekins and each cooks in the microwave in 1 minute.

Ingredients: 
100g whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg
Half a teaspoon of mixed spice (you can make your own if you don't have any - see below)
20g maple syrup
5g honey
50ml rapeseed oil
30ml milk
20g walnut pieces (plus extra to garnish if desired)
1 carrot (approx 80g) grated.
A little fry light spray to oil the ramekins

Method:
1. As with the chocolate minute make cake, you can try using mainly one bowl placed on the scales and weighing things straight into it to reduce washing up. Spray a little frylight oil into small ramekins (or you can even use a mug as long as its microwaveable).
2. With the exception of the grated carrot and walnut pieces, add all the ingredients into a large bowl and mix well.
3. Add the grated carrot and walnuts and mix again.
4. Spoon the mixture between the three ramekins.
5. Microwave each one in turn in the microwave on full power for 1 minute (you will know your microwave best so if it is a lower wattage then it may need longer, if higher, then a minute should be just right. Ours is 800w to give an idea). 
6. Allow to cool a little whilst making some cream cheese frosting. 

For the cream cheese frosting you will need a 2:1 ratio of icing sugar to full fat cream cheese. Place in a bowl and mix until combined. This turns out runnier than the usual cream cheese frosting found on carrot cake but is great for drizzling over (and you don't need to wait until the cake is completely cool as the frosting is runny anyway). Add a walnut piece on top if desired. 

If you don't have any mixed spice you can make your own by mixing together the following (I don't use ground cloves but technically I think mixed spice does usually have ground cloves in). Remember this carrot cake recipe and other recipes requiring mixed spice usually only need a small amount so the amount you make here will last a while.

Mixed spice recipe:
1 tbs ground cinnamon 
1 tbs ground all spice
1 tbs ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground mace
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground ginger

The great thing is that you can tweak this to get it tasting just how you prefer. I'm usually generous with the cinnamon and add less mace than is suggested because that's how I like it. 

I used maple syrup for this cake as I had a little left at the end of a bottle that I wanted to use up - you could use a little more honey in place of maple syrup if you prefer. 

So there you have it. Carrot cake in a minute!




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