Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for January, 2012

Chocolate pot recipe

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

This recipe is from my favourite recipe book, 1981 Good Housekeeping’s French Cookery by Helge Rubinstein:

Petits pots au chocolat:

  • 200g bitter high cocoa content chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 300ml single cream
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
  • pinch of salt

Heat the cream in a pan slowly and until it is just short of the boil.  Remove from heat.  Add the bits of chocolate and stir until melted and nice and smooth. Stir in the egg, vanilla and salt.  Stir for a minute or two until quite amalgamated and silky but make sure you don’t hang about as it needs to be warm to go into the pots.

Spoon into your pots (I use very small coffee cups, shot or cocktail glasses would also do, or small earthen-ware pots with glazed insides).  Cover with cling film and chill in the ‘fridge for at least 4 hours, but you can make 24 hours ahead of time, at least.  When you serve, add a dribble of single cream or sour cream to emulate cream on coffee.

Variations:  for evening or Christmas servings, add brandy or booze of choice to the egg mix;  for Millington, add chili powder to the choc.

Serves 4 (really, this is so rich, I think it serves 5 or 6, you only need/want a few luxurious tea-spoons…also note that the egg is barely cooked really so not suitable for everyone.

 I haven’t cooked many of the cakes and pudding recipes because I am, contrary to evidence you may have gathered from my blog and workshops, more of a savoury food fan.  The vegetable dishes in this book are also lovely but my absolute favourite is the carbonnade nimoise – lamb baked with potatoes and aubergines.  It is so easy and delicious, the book opens naturally at that page.  I like this book better than my Julia Child because the recipes are much simpler.  It looks so dated now and by no means is it ‘slimming’ food, but I love it.  I think my dad gave it to me, certainly it would have been his dream cook book, bless his greedy little heart.  I would give anything in my power to cook and eat the tournedos Rossini with him again.

2 new workshops at Court Cottage

Monday, January 30th, 2012

In a flurry of festive activity, sparked no doubt by the snow that is currently gracing Court Cottage, I have added 2 workshops to the Court Cottage events page.

First, on 20 October, the Knitted Gift event will now be devoted to mittens.  You can see the details here.  One of the designs will be the Frost Flower Mitts and the other will be a new design.  If you can’t knit in the round, we will teach you.

Next, A Knitted Christmas, on 3 November.  This was so popular last year so I am repeating it in 2012, but with new options for the trinkets so if you attended in 2011, there will be lots of new material this time round too!  You can view this event here.

And don’t forget that there is also the Birmingham event, knitting cuffs, on 21 April 2012.

I just want to say that as you know, I have pets – cats and dogs – and sometimes they are about at events though Medlar (main cat, the other cat is feral and won’t come in at all) is deeply anti-social.  The dogs usually go for the day to a friend, unless Roo is ill.  But they don’t usually come in the room where you will be.  However, one of my lovely workshop participants often attends with her little Dach, Bronte, and Bronte is just so tiny and well behaved you’d never know she was there.  So, please assume that Bronte will be there.  I do hope this won’t be a problem for anyone, it hasn’t been so far!

Chocolate pots

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Obviously (I assume) when you attend a knitting workshop, there has to be an emphasis on the knitting.  So for tomorrow’s sock event – luxury bed-socks knitted from the toe-up – I have been focusing on the technique and the easiest way to teach it, plus a new design (with 2 options for the lace) to knit afterwards.  And the yarns, and so on.

However, I think that a knitting workshop should be a really rounded experience.  Knitting, learning, yarn-fondling, sharing, making friends, talking (hence why I do not, ever, teach fiendish subjects at my events) and laughing.  Oh, and eating!

Tomorrow, I am serving bitter chocolate creams as a tiny pudding following the roasted vegetables and jacket potatoes (with 3 kinds of dairy, for Millington’s delight).  These are served in tiny coffee cups.  Mine are Poole Pottery and I get my Poole things mainly at charity shops and flea markets.  But I bought these at Tremaine Fine Arts in St Ives ( a gem of a shop, do go) and I adore them.  Here they are, empty, trying and almost succeeding in out-lushing the KSH:

and here is one posing, avec its dark chocolate heart, just about to go into the ‘fridge and chill:

The recipe which is French and which I have used for years, is simplicity itself but it says it serves 4. I have to cater for 10 tomorrow, including me and Millington, so I just doubled it. There is enough for at least 16. Left-overs!

Books – again

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

This is a blog by a knitter.  But it is not a knitting blog.  In spite of that, I anticipate a knitting-related blog soon.  For now, books.  Again.

Recent reads (or listens) include:

  • Empress Orchid by Anchee Min (book club read)
  • A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
  • Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  • Call for the Dead by John le Carre
  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carre
  • Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford

 Anchee Min is (was) Chinese but now is an American citizen.  This book is not one I’d have chosen, because I usually avoid historical ‘faction’.  But anyway, as head Book Club nerd, I have to read whatever I am given and then analyse it to within an inch of its life.  What can I say?  Once a nerd, always a nerd…


I quite liked it, although I am guilty of super-fast speed reading over many of the lengthy descriptive passages.  The writing is simple and clean, with short, factual sentence construction, in the main.  The chief impact of the book however has been to make me have vivid dreams about China.  Unexpected bonus.  In one such dream, I was with the book club folks IN CHINA on holiday and we were being secretly followed and in some way that my dream didn’t reveal, threatened by Chinese spies. (Note:  I was also reading The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, so there may have been a book/dream overlap there).  In another, Chinese spies – this time in the Lake District – were sabotaging my mountain bike event by letting my tyres down.

I am reading the follow-up to this book The Last Empress, but only because I accidentally ordered that one first. Oy.

Next, A Far Cry From Kensington by Murriel Spark:


A book of simple genius.  I really loved it, because it is witty, dry, slightly (but not very) plot driven and I adored the central character, Mrs Hawkins.  I felt I was right there, in London as the 1950s contemplated clicking over into the 60s, and people  rented rooms in genteel boarding or lodging houses.  Offices employed people to answer the ‘phones and everyone had their clothes mended or altered, by a tailor or seamstress, rather than buying new.  Completely satisfactory in every way.  On the strength of this, I then started The Mandelbaum Gate by the same author, which I am not enjoying yet.  However, I am going to soldier on with it and hope that sometime soon I will stop being so irritated by the main character.  Footnote:  I then realised I have never read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie!  I think this is illegal (though maybe only in Scotland), so I am going to do so, soon.

Next!  Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler:


I have read most of the novels by this American author.  Most of these I have enjoyed and some I have loved.  Another favourite American author of mine is Alison Lurie and they put me in mind of one another, but Tyler is still writing and therefore as you read through her books, you get a sense of moving through decades of American domestic life.  Sadly, Breathing Lessons didn’t really work for me.  I think we were supposed to be exasperated by the main character, Maggie, but in the end – in fact quite close to the beginning – her dizziness and nosiness just annoyed me.  Also, and mainly, although I am far from needing a plot to make me enjoy a book, this one just had no plot whatsoever and the ending, whilst it was a relief, was also just a full stop.  The writing is, as ever, the main joy and that was its saving grace.  She can make the everyday seem poignant and also amusing.  She has a new book out in America soon and I will certainly get that.

The 2 John le Carre novels were genius, especially Call for the Dead.  And Pigeon Pie was drivel which I have been unable to finish.  I am very disappointed because I love Nancy Mitford’s best known novels (now I see why this one is not in that camp) and especially I love her biographies of historical figures.

So, Medlar, do you feel lucky today?

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

This is Medlar:

He is a very large and handsome cat.  Also, very clever, nosey and bossy.  He likes to be in charge.  For example this week we had a meeting here, on a complex IT related matter, never my meeting topic of choice.  Medlar decides that there is not enough Medlar attention going on, busts into the room and proceeds to just take over the lap, chair, lap-top computer, pen, notebook and papers of the person who was kindly conducting the meeting with me, here, in the linen cupboard.  Luckily, the person was not freaked out by Medlar, in fact they kind of bonded.  I fear Medlar may be grooming him for some world-take-over bid.  Again.  He’s always trying to recruit into his private army.

Last night, Medlar did not come home.  This does happen from time to time.  Once he didn’t come home for several days.  That time, he finally did come home on Christmas morning, which was handy as it averted a Christmas that might otherwise have been characterised by a certain amount of sobbing, ‘lost-cat’ poster-making and semi-hysterical village wandering, shaking a cat biscuit box and making weird clicking noises with my tongue.  Yes, but when I’m frantic about Medlar, I lose what shreds of inhibition I started with and simply don’t care how deranged I might appear.  Or indeed, actually be.

This morning, I set off to the log store, which is a kind of open-fronted shed once used for storing a boat I believe, not by me.  It is now my log store and it also houses things I think I might one day like to burn. (Have I ever shared with you my love of FIRE?  Oh, OK, well one day. And no, it’s not why I joined the Fire Service).  Among these things is a old wooden toy box.  So there I am, worrying about Medlar and filling up the log basket, when I hear a squeaky noise that instantly makes me scream like a banshee because I assume it is a rat and that it will soon jump on me or bite me.  I freeze.  The squeak stops.  I resume log-wrangling.  The squeak happens again.  I stop screaming and listen.  It is so hoarse, I think it’s an injured bird and my mind instantly vaults off into a fantasy in which I have to deal with a fatally injured bird.  Yes, ask Mark, it is indeed an unalloyed joy to live with me!  I try to follow the faint sound, but it stops.  I start making my weird tongue-clicks, the language that I’d like to fondly imagine Medlar and I exclusively share but which I suspect he thinks is pathetic, even embarrassing.

A squeak.

I trace the source of this noise to the toy box, perched on top of another box, and with 2 intertwined old chairs stacked on top of that.  There is a tiny finger-opening at the top. I peer in.  Medlar peers back.  Oh, he’s not his usual cocky, assured self.  He’s terrified.  I tear the chairs off the box, lift the lid and scale the log-pile to scoop him out.  He rewards me with a violent struggle, some careless slashes across my hand and a hind-leg-kick-scuffle move on my stomach, so I drop him.  Later, after I have done his bidding and fed him, and he’s gone out for a pillage, I ponder the question of how a huge cat got into a box that has no openings other than the lid which was wedged firmly shut by 2 chairs.

I go back to look at the box.  Of course, like you, my first idea is that he is a magical cat as I have always suspected and his powers enabled him to do a kind of cat-Houdini in reverse trick.  Well, I’m still not ruling that out, but I notice that the base of the box – cheap plywood – can be lifted from outside.  Or, if you prefer, dropped into place from the top.  So I think (if my magic cat theory is wrong) that he may have got under the box, for it stands on short leg-posts off the ground, shoved his head up enough to make a narrow space, got in, and then been unable, of course, to get out.   My blood still runs cold at the thought of this.  His voice was cracked and squeaky because he’d been calling all night, I imagine.

I think, secretly, he was pleased to see me.


Going on tour

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

(If by tour you mean 1 date).

Yes, I’m going to be running a workshop in Birmingham on Saturday 21 April this year.  It will be hosted by a good friend of mine, also an expert knitter and fully qualified domestic goddess, Lisa.  Her house is in an area of Brum called Wylde Green which is Sutton way.  There is Wylde Green station about 3 mins walk away and lots of street parking.

Her house.  Well, it’s gorgeous, also huge.  Perfect for a host of knitters to have a happy workshop day. We will accept only 12 bookings though to make sure everyone has a proper workshop experience.  I’m keen because not everyone can get down here to the Shire for a day and also I can only accept 6 or at a push 7, due to Hobbit-like cottage that I dwell in.

The subject of this day is Kidsilk Haze cuffs.  We will learn all the tips and tricks of the as-yet-unpublished Le Marais cuffs, which boast (yes, they do) beads and sequins, frills, flounces, simple lace and picot-edges.  They are not difficult.  You only need to be able to knit, purl, cast on and off and be fairly confident about those things.  You need never have knitted with KSH, beads, sequins, or done a frill or a picot, ever, because we will teach you. 

So on the day, you’ll be pampered and fed, as only Lisa can (her CAKES, my dear! they are divine, I still sometimes think about a cake – or it may have more accurately been a pudding – she once made when we knitted there…) and you will choose 2 shades of KSH and beads and sequins and we will cast on and knit all day, learning as we go. You will depart with the pattern and all you need to complete that pair AND another pair in the reverse colour way. 

Want to come? Good!  Pop the date – 21 April – on your calendar and next week I will add the booking form to the workshop page, along with a couple of other Court Cottage dates for the autumn and winter.

Converting the world to glitter – one sequin at a time; and my time in the fire brigade. Complete opposites.

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

(You may want to make a cuppa and really settle down for this one – it’s a big one).

I am finally able to reveal the real reason why Alesha has quit SCD.  I am the new judge.  Yes, see what happened was, the producers were reviewing the last series and they thought:  what’s missing?  Glitter!  We need more.  They may also have been reviewing the CD I sent in of my new dance routine, hence why I’m not in the 2012 line-up.  Again.  Anyway, Ms Dixon was regarded as not quite sparkly enough:

Alesha Dixon

So I’m going to be the new face on the panel.  Unlock the costume room, I’m moving in! 

It won’t be the first time I have been appointed to a job that, on the face of it, I wasn’t really *right* for.  For example, many, many years ago, I was a new graduate in Coventry and instead of doing what all the others on my course did and apply to be a trainee buyer for HoF or Sainsbury’s, I joined the West Midlands Fire Service.  I was in fact, the first graduate they had ever appointed in the Control Room. (The Control Room is the emergency call centre, where all the 999 calls, less urgent calls, press queries and so on, are handled.  It is also the nerve centre for tracking and deploying resources, and communicating both internally and externally).  The WMFS was – possibly still is – a very busy Fire Brigade, covering a huge geographical area and with a very imaginative range of risks:  dense population centres, heavy industry, chemical and hazardous substance plants, dozens of hospitals and an extensive rail and road network.  For example.  To be effective in this environment, you need to be very calm and measured.  Me!  That’s me! (jumps up and down at the back, waving a pink sparkly hanky). 

I remember the Principle Fire Control Officer at that time, an invincible woman called Miss Webb (I later learned that her name was Pat, but I was never able to think of her as Pat.  Still can’t).  Miss Webb said to me:  Lass (she called all the women lass), I am going to take a chance on you,  don’t let me down.   Seriously?  You’re going to take a chance on me?  I’m not an arms dealer or a drug smuggler you know, I’m a graduate.  Of history and stuff.  Turned out she was right though.  It was huge gamble.

Well, naturally, when someone says something like that to you, you think:  Oh God, I’m totally gonna let you down!  But it was effective because I was haunted by those words and I took my new job – trainee Fire Control Operator – very seriously.  No, that’s not quite true.  The truth is, I did take it quite seriously, but the level of seriousness that I seemed to display was in fact the result of a potent and toxic mixture of fear and utter exhaustion.  The latter remained with me for the entire 5 years that I stuck it out. 

It was an odd place.  The Control Room was in the old central fire station (called A1) in central Birmingham.  I thought of it, when I walked in for the first time, as a Colditz wannabe.  I was wrong.  Colditz modelled itself on A1.  Gloomy, dark and forbidding, you first went through some giant gates into a court yard.  All round the yard were high, dark-brick buildings, offices, flats and the control room.  At night – and even in daylight, on quiet weekends – it was haunting and menacing.  I soon got used to it.  If by soon you mean within 2 years. 

 These are the main things I remember about that time. 

I did (eventually) make some amazing friends there.  This took a while because of the barrier of language.  Or more specifically, accent.  This was also, by the way, a significant drawback in the taking of 999 calls.  I was unable to fully comprehend the ‘orders’ I had to get my crew from ’round the shop’ – I think it was called Charlies.  Yes, you see the Fire Service at that time operated a sort of Eton-style system of ‘fags’.  The youngest/newest (I was both) had to do things such as fetching huge batches of food, cigarettes and cakes from Charlies.  These included exotic items such as cheese and onion cobs (rolls).  RAW onion – in huge, thick slices, and about half a pound of eye-watering cheddar.  Despite my Mancunian origins, I had never heard of or seen the like.  Nor could I take to them, though I did grow to adore the ham-and-jelly cobs that my friend’s mum used to make.  Another feature was upside-down pineapple cakes with a thick topping of fondant icing and a little glace cherry.  Also the milk.  In Birmingham, people used to fall into 2 milk camps:  stera and pas.  I know!  What is that all about?  I was in my second month before I discovered that stera meant sterilized milk (the milk of the devil) and pas meant normal milk – pasteurised.  It was an absolute minefield.  A tea order went:  5 teas stera, strong, no sugar; 2 teas stera, weak, 2 sugars; 3 teas pas, strong, 1 sugar; 5 teas pas, normal, 2 sugars.  And so on.  It was like the shipping forecast.  And woe betide you if you got it wrong.  They can smell pas in their tea, if they usually have stera, at 20 paces.

An intensive study of the accents – there are dozens – and the food habits soon made the long night duties simply fly.  As soon as I had stopped trying to poison them with the wrong sort of milk, my life incrementally improved.  By now – 2 months in – I can understand almost everything they say to me, and in a big bonus, I am starting to be able to take down the addresses of the blazing fires.  Sometimes.  Luckily, they employed a  sort of fail-safe system of having someone who could understand the accents, listening to all my calls and yelling the address at me in an accent they thought I’d be able to cope with.  The drawback was that it meant I now had two people yelling at me:  the distressed caller, who clearly now thought the fire service employed deranged operatives and my shouty supervising officer, usually the long-suffering and lovely Veronica or Maggie.  Oh!  where are you now?  They were so patient with me.  The hours they spent explaining what phrases such as:  ‘get rrround ear, there’s a foyer on the bonk’ meant. (It means: there is an embankment on fire, please hurry).

But it wasn’t all fun and games, oh no.  Ah.  The institutionalised bullying.  I know. I know it’s an ugly phrase but there is nothing else I can use to describe the night-time uniform they issued us with.  Daps (plimsolls to you and me), crimplene elastic-waisted trousers, and a NATO jumper.  Don’t even ask.  Not a natural fibre in sight.  I was like a permanent ball of frizzy haired static electricity, and I was trying to channel a sleek bobbed look.  Hopeless.  The day time uniform was kind of OK, compared to that.  Hilariously, it featured the option of fully-fashioned seamed stockings.  This was a bad idea if you had, as I did, to undertake a journey that lasted 2 – 3 hours each way and included walking, trains and buses.  I soon abandoned this look for jeans over the top and left my hat in my locker.  If you looked like a copper in Brum in those days, you were fair game.  Miss Webb, by the way, had strict rules regarding things like make-up, the length of your skirt and jewelery.  She had been known to actually measure a girl’s skirt.  And your hair had to be ‘up’ or off the collar-short.  Oh my God, we all looked so fabulous.

I’m making it sound like a really good laugh.  Memory does that.  But in fact, it did have its dark side.  First, my accent.  I don’t actually have an accent.  If you want to imagine my voice, imagine the sort of voice they use to record reassuring messages on phone queuing systems.  No, not the robotic ones.  No, nor do I sound like the food-porn voice-overs on the old M&S ads.  But the absence of an accent was considered, by some of my new chums, posh.  Posh.  A small word that conveys a whole world of condemnation.  A world of inverted snobbery, in fact.  Don’t get me wrong, most of my colleagues were really nice but there were 1 or 2 – well, mainly 1 (may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your pas).  She – for it was a she – had the best fun, like evah! with my accent.  Oh, how we laughed as she never tired of proclaiming:  look out!  here comes Lady Penelope!  or:  oooh la di da, it’s Margo (the posh one off the Good Life).  All good clean fun. 

My first night duty.  That was good, too.  You have to work 15 hour nights.  For me, this meant a 2 hour journey on each end plus the actual night shift.  Nothing in our training period, with the really lovely and very kind Miss Evans (me, Miss Evans and 3 other recruits, roosting in a high-attic in Colditz, learning all the tricks of the trade such as the phonetic alphabet, how to assume excellent radio proceedure – using baby monitors as we didn’t have any real radios – and for me, the great mystery of a cheese and onion cob), prepared me for the First Night Shift.  But it was OK, because there was a lot of fun to be had by pretending to make me go up the tower in Colditz and keep look out.  Here’s your torch, here’s a sleeping bag to keep warm, what are you waiting for – off you go!  She could morph from fun-lovable pit-bull who hadn’t been fed for about 5 days, into savage monster in a split second.

Did I fit in?  Not really; but with my amazing ability to find an activity that would make me just be, like, part of the family, I also took my knitting with me, on night duty.  If anything could have singled me out as even more of a sad loser than my accent, it was probably knitting. 

The 15 hour nights were, in the end, the reason I had to leave.  I was an actual zombie for most of the 5 years I worked there.  Some folks got used to it, some thrived on it, but I never mastered the art of daytime sleeping and so I was just exhausted all the time. Stumbling about in the dark, spooky corridors of A1 in the night, trying to wake myself up by splashing cold water on my lily-white face in the haunted bathroom (you had to walk past the very spooky lift, too) was just too much for me.  Working nights and then not sleeping makes you crazy.  I mean, I once bought a super-shiny satin purple skirt – with a handkerchief hem when I came off a night duty!  see?  Actually, now I come to think of it, that might do very nicely for my new SCD gig!