Friday, 29 September 2017

Torta della Nonna

Italian dessert recipes, Italian cakes

Torta della Nonna or Granny's Tart is one of classic Italian recipes which has as many versions as there are Nonnas in Italy. I've been looking at my Italian recipe books as well as browsing recipes online, and the amount of egg yolks for the custard varies from four to eight. Some cooks add vanilla seeds, some add lemon zest, and the amount of pine nuts is also different from recipe to recipe.
I've been planning to bake this simple custard tart with pine nuts ever since I finished reading The Thousand Lights Hotel by Emylia Hall.
This delectable dessert has been mentioned more than once among the numerous food descriptions and menus (one of the protagonists and a love interest is a chef in the eponymous hotel, so food features heavily in the book which I found very enjoyable).
"A wide slice of torta della nonna - she recognised it straight away - sugar-dusted, scattered with pine nuts... She took a forkful of tart, and felt her chest heave. She'd forgotten the flavour of the sweet custard, the toasted pine nuts. Torta della nonna, she said out loud, Granny's tart, it meant, but as a child she'd always called it torta della mamma, because it was her mum who'd made it for her, just as she had done everything else".

Italian desserts, Italian cakes

Torta della Nonna
For the pastry
150g cold butter, from the fridge
300g 00 flour
100g caster sugar
4 egg yolks
pinch of salt
2-3tbsp icy cold water
for custard:
1 pt of milk
125g caster sugar
4 egg yolks
3tsp cornflour
2tbsp milk, cold
vanilla, grated or paste
100g pine nuts

Sift the flour and salt into a big mixing bowl and add cold cubed butter. Cut the butter into flour into smaller pieces, so that they are coated with flour. Using hands, rub the flour and butter together until the mixture looks like fine crumbs.
Beat in 4 egg yolks. Add a bit of water to make the dough more pliable. Knead it until smooth and elastic, form into a ball and put the bowl in the fridge for half an hour.

Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured work surface into a big circle about 5-6mm thin. Cut out a circle bigger than a round pie/baking dish, so that you have enough to have the sides. Drape the dough disc over the rolling pin and place it inside the pie dish. Gently press down.
Bake for 10 minutes at 180C.
While the pastry case is baking, scatter the pine nuts on a baking tray and place inside the oven on the lower shelf to toast for about 5 minutes. Remove and set aside.

In the meantime make the custard filling. Heat up the milk with caster sugar, then remove from the heat and let it cool a bit. Beat in the egg yolks in a pan or bowl, add a bit of hot milk and whisk, keep adding all milk and whisking. Add vanilla (I used a vanilla grater) and cornflour which has been mixed with a dash of cold milk separately.
Cook custard over the low heat, stirring constantly, or put a pan with custard over another pan with boiling water, and keep stirring. Once custard starts to thicken, set it aside and let it cool slightly.

Scatter half of the pine nuts over a pastry case and pour custard over them, scatter more pine nuts over custard. Place the pie into the oven preheated to 180C for about 20-25 minutes.

If you don't fancy making your own pastry (and I very rarely do that, it's usually Jus-Rol) or custard, I think any bought good quality dessert pastry and custard would be just fine.

Italian dessert, best Italian recipes

This Italian custard tart is lovely warm or cold. My guys loved it. For a more authentic touch dust it with icing sugar before serving. I didn't add more sugar, as the tart is quite sweet as it is.

Have you tried Torta della Nonna on your travels to Italy, or perhaps in an Italian restaurant?

best Italian desserts, custard tart

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

I Sea Pasta Tagliatelle from Seamore

alternatives to pasta, sustainable food

If you watched the latest episode of Outlander season 3 on Amazon yesterday, you might remember the scene where Jamie asks the prison governor if he would allow prisoners to go on the moors to catch rabbits and collect seaweed from the shores. The governor seems to be taken aback, until Jamie explains that the seaweed is a food source and a known cure for scurvy.
Years ago, I remember reading The Camerons by Robert Crichton, and the famous scene with the kelp soup prepared by the poor Highlander Gillon.

These days of healthier food trends as well as challenges towards a more sustainable future, seaweed is becoming in vogue as an alternative to everyday foods.
Seamore is a brand on a quest to change the way we eat with their healthy seaweed range.
Seamores founder Willem Sodderland is on a mission to replace half the world's pasta with seaweed alternatives. While I think it's not going to happen very soon (and we are not ready to give up on pasta; it would cause a revolution and chaos in Italy), I'm happy to explore the healthy food niche and discover new foods, especially that I do enjoy seaweed products.
I often buy seaweed thins (I find them very addictive) and sea salt with seaweed.

Infographics credit: Seamore

I Sea Pasta Tagliatelle from Seamore is a low carb alternative to pasta. It is full of natural goodness, with 50% of your daily vegetables, 80% fewer calories and packed full of iodine, iron and Omega 3.
I Sea Pasta is available from Planet Organic for £5.99 and several London stores (check out My Organic Hunter).

alternatives to pasta

I was very curious to try this alternative to pasta.
As I was cooking seaweed tagliatelle, our house started smelling like a beach on a hot day, with the salty seaweed baking in the sun. It's quite a pungent smell, not unpleasant but strong nevertheless.
It reminded me of our holiday to Agropoli in Italy, where the local beach was covered with big cushions of seaweed after every high tide.

I Sea Pasta Tagliatelle look like something you would kick with a foot on a beach.

sustainable food sources, alternatives to pasta

What does it taste like? Definitely not like pasta, so you won't be able to deceive anyone. Not even like a squid ink black pasta. It tastes, well, like seaweed, which is not a criticism, just an observation.
I served it with a few prawns and tomatoes (fresh and sun-dried) scattered over seaweed, with a bit of chopped basil and mozzarella (I wasn't cooking this for vegetarians or vegans).
I think I will be also trying to add a little bit of this seaweed pasta to a fish-based soup.

alternatives to pasta

One 100g pack of I Sea Pasta provides 4 servings when cooked. This is 100% wild, handpicked seaweed from Connemara, Ireland and Brittany, France.
Nutritional information: 178kcal per 100g uncooked pasta. It is a great source if fibre, protein, potassium, calcium, iodine and vitamin C.

sustainable food sources

It is non GMO, seastainable, vegan, gluten free, organic, low cal - all great credentials.
Once you cook it, the levels of potassium, sodium and iodine go down. If you fancy it super healthy, then soak it in cold water for 45 minutes rather than cook.
I confess I haven't tried it raw, I will leave this foodie discovery to you, please do share what you think with me if you have tried it uncooked.

alternatives to pasta

Disclosure: I received a pack of I Sea Pasta for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are my own.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Matilda by Roald Dahl

"Miss Honey was still hugging the tiny girl in her arms and neither of them said a word as they stood there watching the big black car tearing round the corner at the end of the road and disappearing for ever into the distance"

As soon as I read the last sentence, Eddie said dreamily "Good story!" And he also pondered: "I would like to know what would have happened if the parents said No".

Roald Dahl is considered to be one of the giants of children's literature. His works have reached an iconic status in this country, with school days dedicated to his literary world.
I cannot remember reading Dahl's books as a child, if I have, they clearly haven't left a profound memory like books by Astrid Lindgren, Tove Jansson, P.L.Travers, Lewis Carroll and many others.

Eddie and I spend most evenings reading together - books ranging from modern fiction to old classics, and just recently we turned to Roald Dahl. They had several lessons at school, studying Quentin Blake's artwork and reading short pieces from Dahl's books.

I had no preconceptions at all regarding Matilda. I've never read it before or watched the film.
This is the second Dahl's book which I read to my son.

There is no arguing that Dahl's writing style is unique. He is a superb wordsmith, and can tell a riveting story. But what a sad and miserable world he has created.
His villains are completely unbelievable. I was discussing it with a friend, and she said "But how different it is from Brothers Grimm' stories, which are also gory, dramatic and scary. I think the difference is that their stories are openly fairy tales.

There are of course despicable nasty parents in real life who detest and neglect their offspring, but Matilda's parents - a crook father and a gold-digger mother - seem to be particularly disgusting. There is not a single redeeming feature in their parenting.

Miss Trunchbull is another arch-villain, a female Moriarty who keeps the whole school under her thumb, from children to personnel. Nobody dares to challenge her (Miss Honey's mild protestations at her headmistress's child abuse do not really count, she didn't call social services or police, she didn't even try to snatch poor children out of the evil woman's grasp).

She could throw a child out of the window and nobody bats a lid. She tortures children by lifting them up by their ears or hair, she uses the most disgusting language when addressing them, and again, the grown-ups don't protect children. Her villainness is exaggerated - to justify the revenge which would follow later. She's not even one-dimensional, more like half-dimensional if that is possible.

I was reading the book to Eddie and commented, that I found it very unpleasant to read. I'm trying to pinpoint just why I found this book so uncomfortable to read. Probably because I don't find a theme of child abuse entertaining.
It also made me think that Roald Dahl didn't like people very much.

Even Matilda is not exactly a role model. She is a wunderkind who taught herself to read and do maths (how is that even possible without someone teaching you the basics?!).

She gets her kicks from taking revenge on her horrid family and atrocious headmistress. You can say they deserved it. But for a child of that age, she surely is vindictive and unkind.
Do you remember that episode where she puts a caged parrot up in the chimney overnight?! Did she feel sorry for the parrot's ordeal? Did she heck. She rejoiced in scaring her parents.
Or adding undiluted peroxide to her father's hair tonic. How is that funny? It can cause deep burns.

You cannot dispute Dahl's talent as a writer, it's the characters and plots I have issues with.

I'm prepared to be flamed for disliking this children's classic, but it gave me a mental indigestion.
Eddie, on the other hand, found it fascinating and now wants me to read Witches to him.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Banana cake with salted caramel mascarpone frosting

best banana cake

Caramel, bonbons et chocolat
Par moments, je ne te comprends pas...

I've been humming this old tune since watching the last GBBO episode. Caramel was the theme of week 4. I rarely cook caramel, or cook with caramel, but I do have a good recipe for Millionaire's shortbread with Terry's Chocolate Orange.
I like salted caramel flavours, but my homemade caramel is inferior to bought varieties, so typically I just buy a jar of Bonne Maman Salted Caramel or Waitrose own caramel sauce.

There was a huge hullabaloo when GBBO moved to Channel 4 and got rid of several presenters and one of its judges. I can't say I was aggrieved or even flustered a little bit, as I've never been a big fan of Mel and Sue with their puerile jokes and - though I appreciate that might sound like a sacrilege - I find Mary Berry quite boring too (sorry, Mary).
The current contestants seem to be a diverse bunch. Some friends asked me if I'm cheering Julia on, since she is from Russia.
I appreciate Julia's baking skills, but find her grimaces absolutely embarrassing to watch.
Now that the token Nana (Flo) left, I'm undecided who to root for.

Back to the caramel bakes: I fancied a caramel-flavoured cake, but would not dream of doing any of the spun sugar or fancy caramel decorations. I prefer easy bakes without any froufrou.

best banana cake recipe

Banana cake with salted caramel mascarpone frosting
2 big-ish bananas (442g weight, peeled - 272g)
150g sugar (mix of brown, molasses and caster)
2 medium eggs
80g Flora (or butter)
200g self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
1tsp cinnamon, ground
1/2tsp cloves, ground
1tbsp salted caramel, heaped
2tbsp ground almonds, heaped
for the frosting:
100g softened butter
100g icing sugar
100g mascarpone
2tbsp salted caramel + 1tbsp for drizzle
a handful of choco caramel curls (optional)

In a big mixing bowl mash peeled bananas with a fork, add sugar and mix well. Beat in two eggs, and Flora, add the flour, baking powder, spices, salted caramel and ground almonds. Mix together well until you reach smooth thick consistency.
Cut out a circle to fit inside a spring cake tin, and oil the sides and the circle. Pour the cake batter inside the tin. Put the tin in the oven preheated to 180C. Bake for about an hour. Check if it's ready with a wooden toothpick.
Take the tin out of the oven. Once cooled, slice the cake into two layers.
Prepare the frosting by beating together the softened butter with icing sugar and mascarpone, stir in the salted caramel.
Use one third of the frosting to spread over the first layer. Sandwich the second half on top.

Cover with more frosting.
In a small bowl mix together 1tbsp of salted caramel with a little bit of warm water to reach a runny consistency. Drizzle this caramel over the frosting and decorate with choco caramel curls (found in Lakeland).

This cake will keep well in the fridge for a couple of days.

banana cake recipe

banana cake recipe, best cake recipe

In this recipe I used a mix of three sugars, as I wanted to finish the ends of packets of brown sugar and molasses sugar, but by all means just use a demerara or brown sugar. Mascarpone could be swapped for cream cheese.

Adding this recipe to #KitchenClearout linky run by Cheryl at Madhouse Family Reviews, as I emptied the remains of a couple of bags of sugar, as well as used over-ripe bananas.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

A Match for Mary Bennet by Eucharista Ward

Jane Austen spin-offs and sequels

Mary Bennet is not portrayed too kindly in Pride and Prejudice. She is right in the middle, the third of five sisters, and possesses none of their wit, beauty or vivacity. Bookish and prim, she is a bit of a caricature.
"Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached". Ouch.

This much-mocked sister is a magnet for Pride and Prejudice spin-offs and sequels. Far from being a neglected minor character, she takes centre stage in several novels, while her illustrious sisters fade in the background.

A Match for Mary Bennet is written by Eucharista Ward, who is a Franciscan nun.
Not sure how much this is relevant to the creation of the novel, but religion plays an important part in Mary's world outlook and everyday life. She's pious and goes to the church not because she has to, but because she loves it. She intends to follow God's path for her life, and believes with three sisters married, she can leave her life as a spinster happily ever after.
Not surprising, as the eligible bachelors around her do not inspire much affection.
There is a foppish Mr Stilton who has a not so hidden agenda: he wants to marry Mary or anyone really just to get hold of his inheritance.
There is a grumpy Mr Grantley who likes to discuss serious matters with Mary and who believes that young women go to the balls only to catch a prospective husband.
And then there is a sweet but rather spineless clergyman, Mr Oliver, who enjoys book-binding and who chuckles, reading St Augustine's City of God in Latin. He is not as pompous as Mr Collins but who nevertheless comes up with such an effected and pretentious declaration of love: "I fell asleep in Inferno, and the candle went out. I awoke in Purgatorio. But all the light is on now. I have found Paradiso".

Having found her soul mate, Mary changes her views on matrimony and there are even references to "spouse's physical pleasure" (that's as daring as it gets when a nun describes sex).

The novel treats all its characters sympathetically and is quite harmless as it doesn't change their personalities dramatically or place them into the totally unbelievable situations (like in another Mary Bennet's spin-off created by McCollough).

There were minor things that made me wonder just how authentic it would be, for example, the Darcys call their second son Bennet, or Darcy serves himself ham (where are his servants?); Mary gets a rasher of bacon from her sister to cook breakfast and then slices it (just one rasher?). The Darcys were too lovey-dovey, with Elizabeth losing her wit and irony altogether and turning into an almost simpering wife, who even sheds a tear for Lady Catherine.

It is a likable and charming story, but it does lack Austen's wit and style.
Janeites will rejoice at being reunited with famous characters - the Darcys and Bingleys, the Bennets, Lady Catherine, and many others.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Sourdough Ciabatta

Italian bread recipe, best bread recipe

Every week day morning, I force myself to get up, trying not to throw the alarm clock against the wall (sorely tempted though). All week I'd be counting days till the weekend, and the weekend comes and - whoosh - it's already over.
Arrgghh. There is some recompense though to Monday mornings: once my children are at school, I take it easy and catch up some of the TV programmes from the weekend.

Yesterday I was glued to the screen, watching the 2nd episode of Outlander (season 3). Jamie is still gorgeous, once rid of his beard. Can't say I was in raptures, but he's quite dishy.

Then I procrastinated even more, going through a week's load of newspapers.
I haven't completely wasted the day, as I baked a lovely ciabatta loaf with the sourdough starter, plus did all the usual chores: cooking, washing, ironing etc etc.

best Italian bread

I received a PR email/pitch yesterday, which was suggested as a possible story for my blog. The story revealed that Brits spend an hour and 40 minutes every day, striving for perfection. Apparently we spend 12 hours a week on average trying to improve our looks, career or love life.
Sorry, but this pitch only made me do an evil cackle sound.

My "beauty routine" amounts to 5 minutes in the morning and a couple of minutes in the evening.
I don't spend hours photo-shopping selfies, if anything, I forgot when it was the last time I took a selfie.
Anyway, what is a perfect life? Surely a pouting selfie does not count as such?! or does it?
Hmm, for me a reasonably quiet night, undisturbed sleep and a cup of tea in the morning sounds perfect.
I think this story pitch was sent to a wrong person. But it did make me laugh, so that's a bonus.

Returning to the above-mentioned ciabatta - it is one of my top favourite breads, especially when freshly baked and hot from the oven. Ciabatta in Italian literally means "slipper" as the shape resembles slippers.
The aroma of hot bread is always amazing.

The other day I mentioned Jane Mason's book Perfecting Sourdough. Now that I have made a fresh starter, I am hoping to test a few bookmarked recipes from the book.

I cannot reproduce the recipe for copyright reasons, but an almost identical recipe for sourdough ciabatta recipe could be found on Jane's blog Virtuous Bread - for the step by step see her post Sourdough ciabatta.

I halved ingredients in her recipe, as I only wanted to bake one loaf rather than two. I have also added a glug of olive oil to the dough, as I love the flavour it gives to bread. JAne also adds olive oil to the recipe online, but not in the book.

I began working on the sourdough starter back on Tuesday. By the weekend it was ready, and I made a batch of sourdough pancakes aka Yukon flapjacks.
The day before yesterday I measured 100g of sourdough starter and added more flour and water to it.
In the morning it was all bubbly. I kneaded the starter with more flour and left to rest for 4 hours.

Then more kneading and folding, and leaving to rest.

20 minutes in the oven, and the loaf was ready. It sounded hollow, when you tap it, as it was supposed to be. Crusty outside and soft inside, it was delicious.

I toasted a few slices today, and made bruschetta with tomatoes. It's a very good bread. A bit fiddly, and you cannot bake it on the spur of the moment, but it's worth waiting.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Yukon flapjacks (sourdough pancakes)

pancakes recipe

Inspired by last week's Bread Week challenges at GBBO, I fancied making something different from my usual cakes and bakes, though certainly not a bread sculpture.
When it comes to baking bread, I'm a rather hesitant baker.
I'd love to do a bread workshop one day to properly learn the basics.
Last year I reviewed Jane Mason's Perfecting Sourdough, and since then I haven't done much with it apart from looking at the photos and reading recipes but that does not count.

Yukon Flapjacks was one of the bookmarked recipes. They look pretty similar to Russian blini or Scottish pikelets, but they are made with a sourdough starter.

pancake recipe

For white wheat sourdough starter I suggest you visit Jane Mason's Making Sourdough Starters page at Virtuous Bread. I have followed her recipe, as printed in the book, but it's exactly the same on the web page.

Yukon Flapjacks are not what we know as flapjacks in the UK. These are sourdough pancakes.

pancake recipe

If you don't have the book, the recipe could be found on Jane Mason's blog - see Easy recipe for delicious sourdough pancakes.

You will get a big amount of pancake batter. Since my pancakes were smaller in size than suggested 10cm in diameter, we ended up with more than 25 pancakes. I wasn't sure if I could just halve the recipe, but Stasher did just that, see her post for Yukon flapjacks.

pancake recipe

I'm glad I have tried the recipe. Sourdough pancakes have a definite sour note, which works well with honey or maple syrup. Saying that, my blini are a good competitor, and my family prefer my pancakes.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Italian meatball and pasta soup

best soup recipes

Mention meatballs, and I'm going back in time to our old kitchen, with Mum making my favourite meals. I loved meatballs as a child, served either with mashed potatoes and gravy, or in a thick pasta or rice soup. For me this is one of those comfort foods which bring happy memories.

Most children that I know (in omnivore families) love meatballs.
My sons are quite fussy when it comes to meat, they wouldn't eat roast meat, for example. But sausages, meatballs and anything made with mince are a totally different matter. Eddie would even happily gobble up school lunches if there are meatballs or sausages on the menu, and I can just imagine the quality of those products.

Lean red meat is a versatile ingredient in many child-friendly meals, from cutlets to shepherd's pie, from Ragu Bolognese to chilli... Meatloaf, tacos, lasagne, sloppy Joes, pies, pirozhki, and so many more wonderful dishes could be cooked with red meat.
Food nutritionists recommend including red meat in children's diet from weaning onwards, as it provides important nutrients that are often low in toddlers and children - including iron, zinc, B vitamins, selenium and potassium.

Dr Emma Derbyshire, a public health nutritionist and mother, says: "Including a small portion of red meat in the diet a few times a week after weaning can help to bridge nutrient gaps and so help to maintain good health through childhood and beyond"

Recently BritMums and Meat Advisory Panel have invited bloggers to join in the #HealthyRedMeat challenge and create a delicious recipe including beef, pork or lamb - "to bring a little variety and inspire some enticing ways to include red meat into your family diet".

What shall I cook for the challenge, that my children would like? Meatballs, of course. I have quite a few recipes for meatballs on my blog - you might have seen my posts for Swedish Meatballs for Karlson on the Roof and Easy Midweek Dinner: Fusilli with Meatballs in Tomato Sauce, and Italian Baked Meatballs with Mozzarella.

This time I am cooking a pasta soup with vegetables and - you've guessed it - meatballs.

Italian soup recipes

Italian meatball and pasta soup
400g minced beef
500g minced pork
3tbsp Grana Padano, grated
1 slice of bread
a dash of milk
1 clove of garlic
1 medium egg
sea salt

1tbsp vegetable stock
1/2 white sweet onion
1 carrot
8 baby tomatoes
1tbsp tomato paste
50g stellette pasta shapes
4tbsp cannelini beans (tinned)
100g fine green beans
100g baby courgettes
2tbsp basil leaves, chopped finely

Ingredients for meatball pasta soup

First of all, make the meatballs. You will make about 44 meatballs from this amount of mince. I didn't use all of them at once. I have put more than a half in the freezer, once they were cooked and cooled - to use later in the week with spaghetti.
Toast a slice of bread, then cut off the crusts and break the bread into smaller pieces. Add a dash of milk and soak for a couple of minutes. Squeeze the milk out.
In a deep mixing bowl grate the cheese. You can use parmesan instead of Grana Padano. Add the beef and pork mince, a crushed garlic clove as well as the soggy bread. Mix all the ingredients together and season the mince.
You can skip the bread, but then the texture will be more dense.

I used a mix of beef and pork mince, as I believe this combination makes the best meatballs. Go for leaner mince - for example, 8% pork mince and 10% Aberdeen Angus beef mince is a tasty combination.

Pinch a walnut-size piece of minced meat and roll it, using hands, into a ball. Keep rolling until you use all the mince.
In a deep pan bring the water with half an onion and stock to boil. Cook meatballs in batches for about 5 minutes. Take meatballs out of the pan with a slotted spoon and put on a plate. Discard the onion.

raw and cooked meatballs

You will be left with a rather murky-looking broth.
Leave it as it is, or clarify it with a help of a beaten egg white which you add to the broth. Boil it for a couple of minutes, then strain the broth through a large sieve with a piece of clean cheesecloth. Discard the egg white with all the bits on it.

Peel a carrot and chop into small pieces, slice courgettes into little discs. Halve the tomatoes and slice the green beans.
First add the carrots to the broth. Cook for 5 minutes, then add the pasta shapes, halved tomatoes, green beans, tomato paste and cannelini beans. Cook for 6 minutes. Add the chopped basil in the last minute of cooking. Put the meatballs in the soup before serving.
Serve hot with 4-5 meatballs per person.

In this recipe I used De Cecco Stellette, which is a tiny star-shaped pasta, perfect for soups. If you cannot find Stellette, any small pasta shapes will do.

The verdict was unanimous - this soup is delicious. It has pasta and meatballs, and is an all-round crowd pleaser.

Italian recipes, best soup recipes

This post is an entry for the BritMums #HealthyRedMeat, sponsored by the Meat Advisory Panel.

Disclosure: I received a £10 voucher to buy meat for the recipe.

meat-based soup recipe

Monday, 11 September 2017

Shadow by Karin Alvtegen

Who doesn't love a Scandi crime novel? Dark, chilling, nail-biting Nordic Noir is a sub-genre with a great following. Earlier this year I bought a bunch of books by Karin Alvtegen, on The Book People (I think I need to avoid that site for a while, at least until I read more of the books I have already acquired there).
Shadow was shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger 2009, won The Danish Academy of Crime Writers Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year and was shortlisted for the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers Award for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year.
Karin Alvtegen is considered to be the Queen of Crime.

The novel starts on a very disturbing note: a 4-year-old boy is abandoned in an amusement park.
The story quickly switches to a death of an elderly woman. Gerda Persson has lain dead in her flat for three days before she was found. While sorting through her belongings, the district commission's estate administrator makes a mysterious discovery - a whole lot of books, wrapped in clingfilm and kept in the freezer. They are all written and signed by the Nobel Prize winner Axel Ragnerfeldt.

The narrative moves from the present to the past and back, slowly uncovering the skeletons in the closets, one deadlier than the other.
The characters are not particularly likable. There is Jan-Erik, Axel's son, who would have been a nobody if not for his father's legacy and laurels. He travels around the country with lectures about his famous father and the origins of his inspiration, portraying his father as a deeply ethical man, a profound thinker and philosopher.
Jan-Erik cannot keep it in his pants. He is a womaniser who thrills in the quick seduction of women in his audience, while totally neglecting his long-suffering wife and young daughter.

Karin Alvtegen is a skilled story-teller, her psychological observations are spot on.
She describes Jan-Erik and Louise's co-existence in a few lines:
"The mood was like day-old ice; a brittle surface over deep water that had to be traversed, with each step tested cautiously. Two people, so intimate that they ate breakfast together in their bathrobes, yet the chasm between them so great it was perilous to try and bridge it. There was nothing to say, about anything".

There is another long-suffering wife, an elderly Alice, Alex's wife, who as a young woman showed a lot of promise as a writer herself. Then children happened, and she took to alcohol.
Even before the tragedy strikes, she seems to have given up on her writing talent.

And then there is a tragic unhinged Halina, a survivor of the Nazi camp. Having seeing the death of her mother and young sister, she is mentally disturbed. A woman scorned, she is set on revenge, with tragic consequences for everyone around.

Gerda is a silent witness to the Ragnerfeldts' family drama... As their housekeeper, she is also a keeper of many secrets. Only once she dares to stand up to Axel, accusing him of never being content: "I'm content, and you're not. You're always chasing after what you imagine you could become".
She is also a co-conspirator to the most repulsive crime, not because she took part in it directly, but because she did nothing to stop it.

It is difficult to find sympathy for most of the characters of the book. Both wives choose to drown their sorrows in alcohol, and they both fail as mothers. Their maternal love is rather tepid. They see their children as a threat to their destiny and a snare. Halina is not capable of loving her son.

The skeletons of the past tend to fall out of the closet, revealing the most repugnant abhorrent events.

This is a gripping psychological story. I felt that the final part was rather rushed and had some loose ends. We never find out why exactly Gerda kept the books in the freezer.

It is a chilling unsettling novel, which makes you think about the meaning of life.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Colin Thompson - Shaped Lighthouse 995-piece jigsaw puzzle from Ravensburger

Mention Colin Thompson to any jigsaw puzzle aficionado, and they would nod their heads in admiration of this artist's talents.
I am a big fan of Colin Thompson, and I don't get tired mentioning that. Simply because his artwork gives me so much pleasure and enjoyment. I'd be happily ensconced with any of his jigsaw puzzles for hours. For me they tick all the right boxes: they are colourful, whimsical and with great attention to detail.
In the last weeks of summer whenever I had a chance, I would take out my big puzzle board and try to find those elusive puzzle pieces to add.

Colin Thompson Shaped Lighthouse is a fantastic jigsaw puzzle, which consists of 995 pieces.
Since it is an irregular shape, you might need to have quite a big board or open space to work on it.

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It measures approximately 97 x 67cm (38" x 25"). It is shaped like a lighthouse and includes seven individually shaped mini-puzzles inside like 3 lighthouses, 2 starfish, a seal and a seagull, each consisting of 2 halves.

Assembling this tricky giant puzzle with mini-puzzles inside is a rather fiendish task.
There is a myriad of small details, with bizarre sea creatures and fantasy mini-figures populating the lighthouse, which are iconic of Colin Thompson's world.

His style is immediately recognisable and unique.
It is such an entertaining puzzle, which will keep you busy for hours, and wanting for more - I'll just find one more piece, and maybe another one too, and you don't notice how the time passes.

This puzzle is suitable for ages 12+, but my 7-year-old son was enthralled by it, and wanted to help me find the necessary pieces. He was very happy to find some of the missing pieces.

As all Ravensburger puzzles, the Lighthouse is made from high quality cardboard, with linen finish to minimise glare on the puzzle image.

If you're being organised and are buying presents in advance for Christmas (or for a birthday or just for no particular occasion at all), consider this puzzle as a splendid gift for any jigsaw puzzle fan.

If you like this puzzle, you might want to have a look at the other Colin Thompson's jigsaw puzzles which I have loved:
Flying Home
The Inventor's Cupboard
The Christmas Cupboard

Disclosure: I received this puzzle for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are my own.