How to be magic at pancakes

I was shopping in a supermarket on the King’s Road a few days ago and I noticed it. The first few signs. Big bags of flour on the promo shelves. Sugar. Eggs. Squeezy bottles of golden syrup … Pancake day is on the way. Easter’s not so very far behind.

ingredients

Can you make a pancake? Can you flip it? Can you turn those simple, cheap ingredients (you don’t have to use the golden syrup) into something delicious and fun that takes five minutes and seems like a celebration and a gift, every time?

If you can’t, it seems impossible: something experts do, with aprons and frilly white hats. If you can, it’s like magic.

When I was growing up, Shrove Tuesday was slightly about pancakes, but mostly about Giving Something Up. I’m all for the power of self-denial, but last year my littlest, Tom – then eight – was asked to do something different at school. Instead of Giving Something Up, the was encouraged to Learn Something New. Tying your shoelaces. Juggling. A poem. The ukulele …

Panake day

We decided to learn how to make pancakes. I found a recipe online and we tried it. Our first couple were terrible, but by the fourth or fifth we were brilliant. Actually, Tom was brilliant. He’s a natural cook and he quickly became more reliable than me. He makes them now, and I help them with the flipping. It’s quicker than making cupcakes, and involves a lot less sugar. Try them with sliced banana and raspberries … mmmmmmmm.

pancakes

Here’s that recipe:

You will need:

100g plain flour
2 medium eggs
300ml milk
1 tbsp sunflower or other vegetable oil
pinch salt

Lots of pancake recipes say you need to prepare the batter in advance – but you don’t! You can make this batter and use it straight away.

  1. Put the flower and salt into a large mixing bowl and make a well in the middle with a spoon.
  2. Crack the eggs into the well, then pour in about 50ml milk and the oil. Start whisking from the centre, gradually drawing in all the flour. (We use a hand whisk)
  3. Once the flour is incorporated, keep whisking until you have a smooth, thick paste. Add more milk as necessary.
  4. Get the toppings ready! We use Nutella, jam, golden syrup, and lemon and sugar. But not all on the same pancake at the same time! (Or not often …)
  5. Finishing the batter: add the rest of the milk in a smooth steady stream, while whisking. (It’s quite good if one person can pour while the other whisks it in.) This will give you thin, crispy pancakes. If you want them thicker, don’t add all the milk.
  6. Heat the frying pan over a moderate heat, then wipe it with oiled kitchen paper. We tend to use about a tsp oil per pancake.
  7. Add a ladle-ful of batter to the pan, tilting it to create the thinnest, widest area you can. Leave to cook for 30 secs. This feels like a long time but trust me, you’ll need it. Then flip. If you’re a pancake genius, you can do this with the pan alone. Or use a fish slice. We tend to use a wide plastic spatula, which does the job well.
  8. Cook the other side for at least 30 secs, then lift to check if it’s the right golden colour. Once it’s ready, turn out onto a plate, cover with yummy stuff and eat!

If you’re cooking Nutella pancakes, it can be helpful to add the Nutella while you’re cooking the second side. Then it will gently melt and be easier to spread along the pancake.

I also rather like the look of these this year:

healthypancakes

Design a Wig!

What Joan Lennon said! Love the Design a Wig idea. And Marie Antoinette’s dress in the main image is insane. In the best possible way. (My wig would feature a sailing ship worth of Pirates of the Caribbean, in honour of Philip Treacy’s magnificent hat for Isabella Blow. Or possibly the Taj Mahal.)

GirlsHeartBooks

I love historical fashions, the weirder the better.  Take Europe in the 18th century for example …

marie-antoinette3b_koningin_der_fransen Marie Antoinette with a dress the size of a house and hair to match

18th century women’s wigs put simple modern hair extensions to shame!

V0019865ER The heads and shoulders of five women who wear elaborate wig Five 18th century wigs, each wilder than the next!

But why just look at pictures when you could be having a go yourself?  Now you can – digitally – at the V&A Design a Wig page here.

Have fun!

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Fame, Fashion and Heroes … Let’s Dance

It’s 10.08, and it’s already been a rollercoaster day.

David Bowie’s death was announced. My friends and I have been knocked off-course, like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. He was 69, but he was eternally young. He was still making music, still surprising and inspiring people around the world. I’ve just heard an interview with him where he said he felt eternally 20 (he was 57 at the time), and that’s how he felt to us too. His classic songs were the sound-track of our youth. It hurts. It really hurts.

I wrote about Bowie in Love Song. I had to, as it’s a book about lots of my musical heroes. I’m so glad I included him – more than once. Nina dances to one of his songs, and the musicians reminisce about playing with him. It’s a tiny, fictional connection. My tribute to a star of stars. RIP SpaceMan

Meanwhile, the bound copies of Love Song (with their beautiful yolk yellow covers, and some rather lovely swag) have gone out into the world. It’s always scary for a writer. Like sending your children off to nursery school. What will happen? Will anyone like them? Will they make friends? LoveSongSwag

Well, so far people seem to be falling in love. (So not like nursery school: more like college.) I’m so, so happy! Thank you to everyone who’s fallen for Jamie (and/or Angus, and/or Nina, and/or the other boys), and taken the time to tell me so.

Now back to writing. I have four stories on the go. Today I have Lauren Laverne in the background, on 6 Music, playing Bowie. In his honour, I will dance.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s top 10 tips for writers to stay inspired

Today, I’m sharing a post I read on Goodreads this week, and simply loved.

GilbertElizabeth Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray Love, which I loved in book and film form – but particularly the book – and also of one of my favourite talks, at an Oprah event, about living with failure, and juggling our difficult lives. It’s the story of being a woman in a society where women haven’t been powerful and autonomous before, and are still working it out. It’s a story of a missed flight, and a panic, and something we all recognise, and she tells it beautifully.

http://www.oprah.com/video_embed.html?article_id=23558

Since the phenomenal success of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth has been fascinated by what happens next when someone has, it seems, reached the peak of their creativity. What do you do after that? How to you go on? Her new book addresses the spark of creativity, and she’s been answering readers’ questions on Goodreads about the creative process.

Here are the top 10 tips and observations that Goodreads have put together, based on her answers. I think they’re great. If you’re writing, or not writing and want to, check them out …

Where I write … and my top 10 writers’ retreats

This post appeared originally on the Girls Heart Books blog, where I post once a month. You can check out posts by loads of great writers for girls here

23 October 2015

I’ve just launched my new website, and I hope it’s a colourful, comfortable place for readers to visit. A website feels like a home in some ways – somewhere that reflects your taste and interests, and where you invite people in to find out more about you.

Ideas 2015-10-20 It got me thinking about where I write. I have a wonderful shed in the garden, and the picture featured here is of my Danielle Scutt Barbie (my good luck charm when I wrote Threads) standing on my desk in front of my mood board. You can see more of the shed, inside and out, here.

I know that all a writer really needs is a tabletop, something to write on and with, and her own imagination. But a shed helps too! I’m not the only lucky writer to have one, or some sort of special retreat. Here are my top 10, and where to find out more about them …

10. JK Rowling’s first writing cafe in Edinburgh – The Elephant House

9. Dylan Thomas’s shed in Laugharne

8. Phillip Pullman’s garden shed in Oxford

7. Roald Dahl’s super-famous Writing Hut in Great Missenden

Dahl-GreatMissendenThere’s a lovely piece in The Guardian featuring these last 3, and more. Check out the pictures and stories here:

Five best writers’ sheds in pictures

And there’s more on Dahl and Thomas in another great piece, which also features some lovely quotes about George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain: Famous writers’ small writing sheds and off the grid huts

6. George Bernard Shaw’s shed at Shaw’s Corner, called ‘London’

This is my favourite description of it, via the BBC

The tiny structure of only 64 square feet (5.9 m2), was built on a central steel-pole frame with a circular track so that it could be rotated on its axis to follow the arc of the sun’s light during the day.[2] Shaw dubbed the hut “London“, so that unwanted visitors could be told he was away “visiting the capital“.[3]

5. Virginia Woolf

“She was always being distracted – by Leonard sorting the apples over her head in the loft, or the church bells at the bottom of the garden, or the noise of the children in the school next door, or the dog sitting next to her and scratching itself and leaving paw marks on her manuscript pages. In winter it was often so bitterly cold and damp that she couldn’t hold her pen and had to retreat indoors.” – from The Guardian

4. Mark Twain

“It is the loveliest study you ever saw…octagonal with a peaked roof, each face filled with a spacious window…perched in complete isolation on the top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills. It is a cozy nest and just room in it for a sofa, table, and three or four chairs, and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lighting flashes behind the hills beyond and the rain beats upon the roof over my head—imagine the luxury of it.” – Mark Twain, in a letter to William Dean Howells, 1874.

Finally, my favourite article on the subject, 7 Inspiring Writers’ Retreats, includes…

3. Lawrence of Arabia’s Cloud’s Hill cottage (best retreat name)

2. The bandstand TS Eliot borrowed in Margate to write bits of the Wasteland …

Eliot-Margate-Traveljournals

… and last but very not least …

  1. Vita Sackville-West’s tower at Sissinghurst

Sackville-sissinghurst-Oast House Archive and National TrustWho needs a shed when you have one of these …?

Which is your favourite? And where do you write?

Dragons and Detectives

In my last post, I recommended some great YA and young teen novels, and good places to look for recommendations for more.

dragonBut at home, I’ve been reading more books for slightly younger readers recently. My youngest has just finished Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series, and Oh. My. Goodness. What a bang it went out with. The world practically ended. What started as a gentle, funny story about boys and their pet dragons ended up as a clash between species of epic proportions.

dragon2Still funny, still page-turning, but densely packed with illustrations now, and keen to address issues of slavery, courage and leadership in absolutely uncompromising terms. It’ll be a classic for decades to come.

And, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it includes my favourite female character at the moment – Camicazi (who sort of becomes Astrid in the film and TV series because, as Cressida admits, Camicazi is not the most internationally politically correct name). These are books for girls as much as boys. Camicazi spends a lot of time trying to rescue Hiccup, because ‘he’s only a boy’, and it’s lucky she does. He needs her, and she’s brilliant.

CamicaziSo … dragons. And detectives.

As a teenage reader myself, I was a big Nancy Drew fan, before I discovered Dorothy L Sayers, who’s still one of my favourite writers today. To my absolute delight, detective fiction is taking off for 9-12s. Robin Stevens has written the brilliant Murder Most Unladylike series, which is storming the charts with its Agatha Christie settings and fabulous graphic covers, and has recently been optioned for film and TV.

MMU-PAPERBKatherine Woodfine has joined her with the equally impressive Clockwork Sparrow – the first in a series of its own, which was nominated for the Carnegie medal yesterday. Add to those Patricia Elliott’s wonderful new Connie Carew mysteries – also historical detective fiction, set in the early 20th century, and you have a bit of a genre revival going on. Clever girls, solving crimes. Fantastic.

ClockworkSparrowConnieCarew

Back in the world of 9-12s, to my absolute delight, the Harry Potter series is being re-released with new illustrations by the super-talented Jim Kay. Like so many Potter fans, I am hugely protective of the characters and settings, and how they’re portrayed. There were times I felt the films didn’t do them justice, but I think Jim Kay is doing an extraordinary job. JK Rowling likes them too. If you’re interested in art, and making things, as I am, then check out the video of his studio at the end of the interview. It’s wonderful.

Happy reading!

sophia xxx

Children’s book recommendations

The Great British Bake-Off is over (Nadia: “I can. And I will.” An inspiration to women everywhere.) Strictly has begun. The nights are drawing in and bookshelves are groaning with books to be read in the long, dark evenings, and bought for friends and family as presents in the months to come.

But which books? How to choose?

spotlight-on-sunny-large

The days of the long, printed colour supplement crammed with children’s book recommendations are over, and this is a shame. And a surprise. Children’s and YA books are leading the market. They’re the most successful sector. Why do the papers and the media hardly talk about them? However, there are lots of enthusiastic and well-read reviewers out there, and I’ve seen some great book recommendations on the web recently. One of them even includes a book of mine …

Here are my suggestions for where to look this October:

12 Teen Books About Refugees. Scottish Book Trust. OK, so first of all, I’m going to include the list that includes me. Because, obvs. We all have the refugees from Syria and elsewhere on our minds right now, and many books bring this issue to life for children in deep and surprising ways. Jo Cotterill’s Looking at the Stars has been nominated for a host of awards, and rightly so. Eoin Colfer, of Artemis Fowl fame, has announced that he’ll be publishing a graphic novel with Andrew Donkin called Illegal about a refugee next year, and I can’t wait to see it. But meanwhile, the Scottish Book Trust has reminded me that my very first book was about a refugee too. I thought I was mad to combine a book about three teenage girls in the London fashion scene with a story I wanted to tell about child soldiers in Uganda, and the repercussions on their families. But that’s what I did. Crow Lamogi is still one of my favourite characters, and always will be. I very much doubt she came into this country entirely legally, but I am equally certain that she will do London, and her heritage, proud. Refugees and their children are often the lifeblood of a vibrant culture and economy. Let’s talk about them, and read about them, and be them for a bit, if only in a story. It will make us more compassionate, and this world needs all the compassion it can get right now.

The best young adult books of 2015 … Daily Telegraph. I don’t have a book out this year (my latest, due out in spring 2016, took ages to write), so I’m taking a great deal of pleasure in all my friends’ success. I’m lucky to have lots of writer friends, and they’ve written lots of great books recently. In fact, I’m off to a launch party for one of them this evening – When I Was Me, by Hilary Freeman, combining quantum physics, parallel universes and the very recognisable pain and promise of being a teenager. You can see Blamemybookshelf‘s review of it here.

One series mentioned by the Telegraph that I’m particularly pleased about is Keris Stainton’s Reel Friends, for younger teens. Keris is an old friend of mine, and we met online because she has always, always championed YA books – since before that’s what they were called. And especially books for and about girls. (Even though she’s the mother of two boys, and has written successfully about them too.) The Reel Friends series subtly addresses issues of diversity that children’s fiction still doesn’t bring to life often enough. Sure, the wonderful Nadiya Begum won the Bake-Off final last night, but how often do you see a girl in a hijab on the cover of a book? Or a girl exploring her developing feelings for another girl? I do a lot of school visits as an author and I regularly meet girls who I don’t think see themselves represented in the fiction they read, and who would hug Keris’s books to their heart. I’m including a link to the review of Spotlight on Sunny by Teens on Moon Lanes – another blog bigging up children’s books right now (and linked to a local bookshop of mine), which I’m happy to see.

If you want more general reviews, suggestions, advice and the ability to buy, there’s always the fantastic Lovereading4kids. If I were to set up a website about children’s books – as Julia Eccleshare did a few years ago – it would be like this. Oh, and I notice that one of its recommendations is for One, by Sarah Crossan. Can a book about conjoined twins, written in poetry, be really, really good? Yes. Yes it can. (Sarah also throws really, really good launch parties. But the quality of her maccaroons in no way biases me. I’d read the book first and already found it wonderful.) CJ Skuse’s Monster is there too. If you feel like a bit of boarding school horror – and who doesn’t? – try this one. CJ never pulls her punches and the ending will leave you with a very uncomfortable feeling. As any good horror should.

More suggestions to come, for 9-12 readers. About dragons and detectives. Two of my favourite subjects.

But for now, happy reading. The right book is out there. You just have to find it …

sophia xxx