6 of the Best Newsletters

Drying flower

I used to read almost everything online via RSS in Google Reader. I love RSS; all those websites collated neatly in the one place, easily readable on mobile. Not many other people felt the same way (or at least, only an unprofitable number of people), and as a result Google Reader died a very sad death in 2013. I replaced Google Reader with Newsblur, but the end of Reader was probably the trigger for me finding things to read in other places – often via Twitter, but also through email newsletters. Newsletters seem to have become increasingly popular over the last couple of years – partly I suppose because it gives people control over a mailing list, partly because it enables them to send their “content” (I’m using that despised term for want of a better one) directly to readers, and therefore having a better chance of capturing their attention than passively publishing on a website and trying to lure readers via links on social media.

Anyway! I am becoming increasingly fond of receiving beautifully curated and written newsletters in my email on a regular basis. My preference is for newsletters that contain a mixture of essay/personal writing and links to interesting and thought-provoking things. (Newsletters containing poetry or fiction are not my thing, although there’s plenty of those around too).

Here are a few of my favourites, all very delightful in different ways:

  1. Two Bossy Dames is a very funny and lengthy collection “cultural recommendations and commentary” sent out weekly. I’ve found so many things (music, articles, tv shows) that I’ve enjoyed via this newsletter.

    “I think any friend I’ve ever made or romantic partner I’ve ever had liked me because I’m funny. But mostly, when I hear other people compliment me (sometimes when you eavesdrop, you DO hear nice things about yourself), they don’t focus on my effervescent wit. WHY IS THAT? Noted historian & funny lady Rosa Lyster (with an assist by her equally funny Frith) explain that Anne Boleyn is both to thank & blame for this state of affairs, as she was obviously hilarious, but Henry VIII and all his male courtiers simply couldn’t conceptualize female…humor??? So they decided she was a witch. As one does! Sound logic, Tudor bros! “

  2. So Far, I’ve Had No Complaints by Caroline Crampton includes sections such as Things to Read, Things to Listen To, Things to Watch, and Compulsory Medieval Thingamabob. I love that it includes tempting excerpts of the articles it links to – I’m not into newsletters that are just a plain series of links without description.

    “I think I find old-fashioned murder mysteries so comforting because they represent the triumph of order over chaos. The side of right always prevails. Unlike in real life, logic and hard work always win in the end.”

  3. Grief Bacon by Helena Fitzgerald are irregularly delivered (which makes them a wonderful surprise) and beautifully written essays on life.

    “Love allows us to see – and be seen – in not just our raw or ugly selves, but our boring selves, the person who sits on the couch and watches television, the person who wakes up in the morning and makes coffee, the person who doesn’t have much of anything to say. We already know to praise ourselves for our rare special occasion achievements. In love, we elevate the unsightly things, the boring day-to-day, into the spectacular. Love celebrates another person’s existence rather than their achievements.”

  4. …the fuck is this by Bim Adewunmi is a sporadic mixture of thoughts and links, and always a pleasure to read.

    “It’s only August, but I feel the slipping away of summer very keenly, perhaps because I’m British.

    We are a people of a somewhat gloomier disposition, used to a somewhat… accelerated summer season. Lazy summer days are a dime a dozen in this new place, not snatched moments in the local park, half-naked and resolutely baking sun-deprived skin.”

  5. Three Weeks is appropriately delivered every three weeks, and always contains three things to read, watch, and listen to (in addition to a variety of other interesting links).

    “Hello to everyone, but warm greetings especially to the heartbroken and those in need of courage. Email can be a pretty decent place for finding what you need. Particularly if what you yearn for is some extra browser tabs and a bracing dose of Motivational Britney.”

  6. Links I would Gchat you if we were friends by Caitlin Dewey is a weekly collection of links that helpfully rounds-up the major news stories/interesting articles/Stuff Happening Online, with incisive commentary.
  7. “The hardest-working women on the Internet … are these Kate Middleton bloggers. (They’re like three parts insane workaholics and one part insane voyeurs.) There’s apparently a small army of these women, live-tweeting Middleton’s life; it’s a fascinating glimpse into the extremes of fandom and labor online.”

Scone Pizza

Scone pizza

This is very barely adapted from Hungry and Frozen’s scone pizza recipe (I added some thinly sliced zucchini and crumbled feta to the original recipe) and is very much as it sounds; a delicious scone-like base (although significantly easier to make than scones, as it doesn’t involve rubbing butter time-consumingly into flour) with a gorgeous savoury topping. It’s also ridiculously easy – 30 minutes from your initial “hmm, what will I have for lunch” thought to pulling the pizza out of the oven.

Scone pizza, pre-baking

ingredients:
200g (2 cups) plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
25g melted butter
125g (1/2 cup) plain yoghurt
1 large tomato, sliced
1/2 zucchini, thinly sliced
your choice of cheese – I used some grated cheddar and a little crumbled feta

method:

Pre-heat your oven to 210C (190C fan-forced).

Stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt, then add in the melted butter and yoghurt. Stir only enough to form together into a soft dough. You may need a little extra yoghurt to get the dough to form easily depending on how thick your yoghurt was – I needed an additional small spoonful.

On some baking paper, roll the dough out into a rough circle about 1cm thick. Pop the baking paper and dough onto a tray, and then top your pizza – I thickly layered on tomato and zucchini, then sprinkled my cheese over the top. Plenty of tomato is great, as it goes wonderfully squooshy in contrast to the base (and I’m saying that as someone who is not a fan of cooked tomato, generally).

Bake for around 20 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the base is puffed and lightly browned. Devour while hot.

Buchteln (or Sweet Bread Twists)

Sweet bread twists

“They strolled back to their pension where a meal was awaiting them of wonderful pastries, ivory butter piled thickly on fancy bread twists, and what Mary-Lou called “lashings of coffee and cream”.” (from Theodora and the Chalet School)

Sweet bread twists are frequently mentioned in the Chalet School books, either being served to students during Kaffee und Kuchen, or being eaten at cafes while out visiting small towns in the surrounding areas. This collection of Chalet School recipes believes that the sweet bread twists would likely have been made from dough like that used for Buchteln, a jam-filled yeast raised bun. It sounded reasonable enough to me, so I adapted a different recipe and used the dough to make both jam-filled buns and some sweet bread twists.

These are best on the day that they’re made; very soft, slightly sweet, lemony buns, filled with tangy jam. They are excellent morning or afternoon tea fare, and they can easily be revived on subsequent days with a little warming up. The “fancy bread twists” were also nice, especially on the day they were made; on subsequent days, I dunked them in a mug of coffee.

Buchteln

(Adapted from this Buchteln recipe).

ingredients:

4 cups (500g) all-purpose flour
1 tbsp active dry yeast
½ cup (100g) sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
grated zest of one small lemon
100g butter, softened
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 cup (250ml) warm milk
jar of jam – I used raspberry & pomegranate, which was pleasantly tangy
melted butter to brush over dough

method:
Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl – flour, yeast, sugar, and lemon zest – and mix well.

Whisk together the wet ingredients in another bowl – the warm milk, egg, egg yolk, and softened butter. It’s not going to be completely smooth, I just bashed it around as best I could. Possibly you could just melt the butter, but I wasn’t game as I thought it might affect the texture of the dough.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix with a spoon until it forms into dough. (Or if you’re fancy, use a stand mixer with a dough hook). Mine mixed into a fairly wet dough, and I had to add another 60g or so of flour to make it kneadable. Tip it out onto your bench and knead for a minute or so. Form the dough into a ball, put it back into your mixing bowl, cover and leave for 1 to 1 ½ hours or until doubled in size.

Punch down and roll the dough out into a 1cm thick rectangle. Cut out small squares – about 8x8cm, which I actually measured because I’m terribly at eyeballing length, and put any leftover scraps of dough aside to make the bread twists (or re-roll for more squares if you’re only making the rolls). Lightly grease a springform circular pan, and cover a tray with baking paper.

Put a tablespoonful of jam in the middle of each dough square, then bring the opposite corners together and pinch in tightly, to close up the dough into a small ball. Put the ball into the springform pan, closure down. Roll out the dough scraps into 20cm long snakes, and twist in appropriately fancy manner. Put the twists on the tray. Cover your springform pan and tray, and let rise (for around another 1 to 1 ½ hours) until doubled in size.

Heat at 190C (170C fan forced) for about 15-20 minutes for the twists, and 25-30 minutes for the rolls. Let cool slightly, and if you like, dust with icing sugar before serving.

3 months

3 months

Baby number 2 is three months old. It seems far longer than that, like she’s always been around, hanging out in one of my arms while I do everything else one-handed.

Things I’m enjoying at 3 months:

  1. The one tiny laugh we’ve heard, a throaty “haHA” accompanied by a wide gummy grin. She’s quite a jolly little thing, usually happy to smile, but we’ve only coaxed one laugh out of her so far.
  2. Admiring her chubby little tummy and legs, and the vigorous way she thrashes about in the bath. I have to curve my fingers around her head so she doesn’t rocket herself skull-first into the side of the bath.
  3. The way she sleeps far better than her brother did at the same age. I am doing exactly the same things I did with him – swaddling, feeding on demand, feeding to sleep – and the way she sleeps is completely different. She will even wake up as I put her down in the cot, and then DRIFT BACK TO SLEEP ON HER OWN. Previously I had thought everyone who said babies did that was lying. It seems that the way babies sleep is just the way they sleep, and there’s not a whole lot you can do to change it.

Things I’m not enjoying at 3 months

  1. The fact that I have another child who only has decent naps while in a baby carrier. I can’t say that I’m too devastated about this given how comparatively well she’s sleeping at night (I feed her two, sometimes three times during the night), and I’m optimistically presuming that she’ll grow out of this habit, unlike her brother.
  2. think there were more things I wasn’t enjoying a month ago, when she was spending much more time in unexplained tears while I jiggled her and put in the baby carrier and walked up and down pointing the Baby Shusher at her (a virulently orange electronic thing that “ssssshhhh”s loudly at your sobbing child. It’s actually surprisingly effective, which is nice given that I spent $50 on it). She abruptly changed at 12 weeks, suddenly becoming more settled. It was a pleasant surprise, and I am very much enjoying dropping her brother off at kindergarten without her howling hysterically in my arms.

At the Chalet

Chalet School covers

The Chalet School books are a series of 59 children’s novels by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, published between 1925 (with The School at the Chalet) and 1970 (finishing with Prefects of the Chalet School). I had several of these books when I was young, and read as many of the others as I could find in our little local library. I loved the boarding school stories genre, but the Chalet School books were my favourites.

The timeline of the books roughly follows the years in which they were written. The school is founded by Madge Russell in Tyrol in the Austrian Alps in 1925. The Chalet School in Exile, published in 1940, involves encounters with the Nazis and the school moving to Guernsey (and then, in 1941, to Wales). In 1954 with The Chalet School and Barbara, the school moves back to Europe, this time to Switzerland, and remains there for the balance of the series.

Living in tropical northern Australia, the world of the European boarding school was so exotic as to almost amount to secondary world fantasy. The strictures of life at the Chalet School – the days on which the girls could only speak French and German; the hurried morning routines where each girl had to bathe, strip their beds, and say prayers before breakfast; the solemn nature of “prep”, where homework was completed en masse under prefect supervision – were oddly alluring. Boarding school is a place free of parental supervision, and yet with its own labyrinthine internal structures and rules. The characters’ freedom to determine whether they would keep those rules, or experiment with breaking or bending them; to find their own place in the school community, is part of the appeal of the genre.

There is a wealth of writing on the world of the Chalet School books online. The World of the Chalet School discusses among other things the Chalet School as an educational institution and the moral themes of the series. I also love LH Johnson’s wonderfully funny reviews of many of the books, such as this one of Althea Joins the Chalet School, the penultimate book in the series published in 1969:

“It’s no secret that quality dips substantially towards the end of the Chalet School series, and Althea is emblematic of that shift. Following the now traditional format of ‘new girl attending the school’, we witness Althea’s eventual and inevitable integration into a true Chalet Girl during the first half of the term. The Borg-like overtones of the Chalet School at this point in time are hard to escape, and resistance is truly futile.

There are moments in this book which are truly legendary, and not in a good way. Whilst the actual quality of the writing has slipped, the tendency to ‘throw a maelstrom of incidents into the plot that make little to no sense’ has not. As a result of this, we get to witness a genuinely jaw-dropping moment where, and please note this is not hyperbole, Miss Ferrars manages to leap from one speeding motorboat to another. Frankly it’s an incident which sells the entire book.”

In 2008, prompted by a fit of nostalgia, I started re-reading the Chalet School books from the beginning of the series. I made it to around book 23 or so (Carola Storms the Chalet School) before succumbing to weariness. Too many Chalet School books read in quick succession ensure that the flaws of the series become all too apparent. This year, awake in the middle of the night with a baby, I took up where I left off, starting with book 30 and continuing up to book 43 (my collection is unsurprisingly incomplete, given the length of the series, and I’m missing many volumes between books 30 and 40.) They’re perfect midnight reading while breastfeeding; short, easy, and comforting. Brisk walks are taken in the mountain air, social dilemmas are solved over Kaffee und Kuchen in Jo Maynard’s garden, series of very unlikely disasters happen (avalanches! car accidents! infectious diseases! sometimes all in the one book) and are resolved.

I’m taking a break again from re-reading, partly because I started getting more sleep and wanted to read books with a bit more substance again, and partly because I wanted to avoid Chalet School burnout. One of my favourite tropes is the oft-repeated “new girl at school” plot, when new girls are brought kicking and screaming (mostly metaphorically) into the fold and emerge reborn as “real Chalet School girls”; morally upright little cogs turning within the school community. Jo neatly summarises this principle at the end of Ruey Richardson, Chaletian, “You’ve become a real Chaletian – someone who can face the hard things of life as well as accepting the pleasant ones. Someone who’s going to be some good to the world and her fellow human beings.” It’s all very soothing. May we all go out and be of some good to the world.

Bitter Lemon Gelato

Bitter Lemon Gelato/Ice-cream

Originally I thought that this wasn’t really a gelato because it has cream in it, but I’ve since looked it up and realised that gelato does indeed usually contain cream/milk fats, just less than what we commonly term “ice-cream”. I have therefore spent my whole life living a lie when it comes to the definition of gelato. A very sobering thought.

This is a recipe that comes before one of the chapters in Livia Day’s Drowned Vanilla (a lovely Australian culinary mystery that you should totally read if you’re into that sort of thing). It is wonderfully sour and tangy, a lovely palate cleansing sort of dessert to have after a meal.

ingredients:

1 cup water
2/3 cup caster sugar
1 cup lemon juice (around 5-6 lemons)
2/3 cup double cream or thickened cream

method:
Put the water, sugar, and lemon juice into a small saucepan and stir over low heat until sugar is dissolved. Pour into a metal bowl, and put into the fridge until well chilled.

Whisk the cream into the mixture, and cover with plastic wrap. Pop it into the freezer. Pull it out every half-hour or so and whisk or stir again, until it’s turned into gelato (about three hours or so). I must admit that I only whisked it a few times, because I was trying to get the baby to sleep and then accidentally fell asleep myself, but it still turned out quite well. I expect some additional stirring would have only made the texture smoother and creamier.

Dark Chocolate Chunk Biscuits

Dark Chocolate Chunk Cookies

This is a recipe from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet which is actually entitled “Dark Chocolate Chunk Cookies”. I know this is much more alliterative than my version, but saying “cookies” makes me feel un-Australian. Biscuits it is. They’re extremely chocolatey and rich and magnificent. Lepard suggests using them for ice-cream sandwiches, but honestly despite my extremely sweet tooth I think that would be overkill. They’re pretty great as an accompaniment to coffee, though.

The original recipe calls for 300 grams of dark chocolate. I reduced this to 200 grams because that was what I had in the cupboard, and I think if I used 300 grams there would have been more chocolate than dough. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course; sometimes one is in the mood for a biscuit that consists mostly of chocolate. They turned out perfectly well with the reduced amount, so you could probably add chocolate chunks to taste without anything too terrible happening.

I presume the 25g of caster sugar is doing something vital texture-wise, otherwise I’d be tempted to leave that out as well just so you don’t have to haul two types of sugar out of the cupboard.

ingredients:

125g unsalted butter, softened
175g dark brown sugar
25g caster sugar
2 tsps vanilla essence
1 egg
175g plain flour
25g cocoa
1 tsp bicarb soda
300g dark chocolate, chopped into chunks

method:
Preheat your oven to 170C or 150C fan-forced. 

Beat the butter, sugars and vanilla essence together until smooth and creamy. Beat in the egg until well combined.

Either sift together the flour, cocoa, and bicarb in a seperate bowl and stir them into the butter mixture (per the original recipe); or measure them out on top of the butter mixture, refrain from sifting, then stir it all together. I promise the lazy method works perfectly fine. It mixes together into a fairly stiff dough, and is consequently too difficult to stir with one hand while holding a baby. You will have to put the baby down and manically sing to her while stirring the mixture frantically. The things we do for biscuits.

Stir in your desired amount of chocolate chunks with a firm and unyielding hand. Disabuse your three year old of his fine notion that we are putting one piece of chocolate in our mouths for every piece that goes in the bowl. While grinning entertainingly at your grumpy infant, scoop up tablespoonfuls of the dough, roll into balls, and place on lined baking trays about 4-5cm apart. This makes around 18 or so biscuits. Bake for around 12-14 minutes – the biscuits should be just firming at the edges and be a little puffed up. Let cool for a few minutes then transfer to a rack. Enjoy with coffee or tea, or possibly sandwiched together with ice-cream if you’re feeling particularly sugar deprived.

The hours

Numbers game

I make notes about the baby’s sleep patterns. When she’s had a string of bad nights I like being able to look back a week and reassure myself that she is capable of sleeping for five hours at a stretch when certain mysterious circumstances align. What those circumstances might be are between Frances and her conscience; she’s certainly not letting me in on her secrets.

I am much more relaxed about co-sleeping this time around. At the moment I’m doing a weird combination of baby-carrier (during the day), putting her to sleep in her cot, and giving up during the early hours of the morning and sleeping with her on a mattress on the floor (as then I don’t have to worry about her rolling off a bed). Motherhood is so very glamorous.

Sleep deprivation steals my patience. Other things as well, but lack of patience is what I notice most; when I’m trying and failing to respond positively to being asked the same question for the fifth time in a row, or repeating my son’s name again and again as he fails to respond. There are quite a few pre-schooler behavioural traits that make me want to scream, but selective deafness is one of the most frustrating. I suppose from his perspective he is busily considering very important matters like volcanos and space shuttles, and in contrast I am wittering on about something incredibly dull like eating.

With a couple of months of broken sleep under my belt, patience is slowly coming back to me and I find myself able to parent with some grace again, to find enjoyment in Edward’s endless questions. “I have spotted an ibis having a drink!” he said to me importantly a few days ago, pointing towards an ibis picking its way along the dam edge. The intensity of his fascination with the world awakens my own joy, and the muddy little dam is transformed; the ibis is beautiful, gleaming in the last light of the day as it gracefully steps through the shallow water; the chirping high calls of the frogs in the reeds are like music, their notes following us as we eventually dust ourselves off and walk hand-in-hand back towards the house.

When the rain comes

Raindrops

Our back verandah stretches the length of the house, and if you stand at the top of the stairs you can look down into the garden towards the rear dam. When the water is low, you can sit on the back stairs and watch wading birds picking their way along in the shallow water. After some rain, when the dam level is higher, we see ducks flying in; usually Pacific black ducks and Australian wood ducks. I’ve taken a surprising number of photos of birds and wildlife from the verandah; recently a koala spent the day in one of the grey gums at the side of the house, and I could prop my elbows on the railing and take a few photos of it wedged into a forked branch.

On the weekend we had a full day of steady rain, and I bundled Edward into a rain outfit of ski jacket and surf shorts so that he could muck around in the puddles. Rivulets of water started running down the driveway as they unfortunately do every time it rains heavily, taking stones and gravel with them and depositing them into the drain that runs alongside the driveway and then under it, taking the water into the dam. Or at least it’s supposed to; bits of driveway previously washed into the drain have hampered its operation somewhat.

I stayed up on the somewhat dry verandah, as I had the baby strapped to me as she snoozed in her carrier, taking some photos with my zoom lens and watching the bright blue of Edward’s jacket as he puttered back and forth getting his legs thoroughly covered in mud.

My only zoom lens is a cheap Nikkor 70-200mm that I’ve had for around a decade, since I bought my first Nikon body. (Typing that was the first time I realised I’ve had that lens for a decade and now I feel terrifically old). I would like a better and longer zoom, but it would be an expensive purchase so I perpetually put it off, only remembering this with mild frustration when I’m trying and failing to take a photo of a bird in flight. However, taking a moment to try and find a shot that will work within the limitations of the lens is usually worthwhile; its restrictions create opportunities that I might have overlooked otherwise.

Things I found in my pantry

Common Crow

When I’m on maternity leave, I clean out my pantry. I do not, as a rule, clean out my pantry at any other time. You may think to yourself that this does not sound like a particularly good idea, and indeed, you would be correct.

Recently I had a baby and subsequently in accordance with my innate biological instincts, I spent a day cleaning out the pantry. I found a number of things.

1. Dead moths. In a past life, or possibly this one, I committed some terrible sin against the pantry moth species (Plodia interpunctella, as I just discovered), and as a result they have been hounding me ever since. Moving into my flour, lurking beneath tins and generally making pests of themselves. I bloody hate pantry moths. You may think to yourself, “perhaps if she cleaned her pantry more regularly than once a decade, she wouldn’t have such a problem with pantry moths”. I will thank you to keep such indubitably correct thoughts to yourself.

2. A box containing a set of rather nice mugs that I received as a gift several years ago. Surprise! This made me feel like a rather ungrateful person, but I have now washed them and have been enjoying morning coffee in them. They’re great mugs!

3. Hey, I own a fondue set! I should make fondue!
(This is obviously never going to happen and I will be surprised all over again by the fondue set the next time I clean out the pantry).

4. A rusting can of “Steak and Onion” something or other that I distinctly remember moving with, probably because I thought at the time, “why do I own a can of Steak and Onion Something Or Other?” Alarmingly, I have lived in this house for eight and a half years. The can looked both suspiciously old and quite disgusting, and into the bin it went.

5. A jar of Bovril that my husband bought for reasons known only to himself. Its expiry date was in 2010. Wikipedia describes Bovril revoltingly as a “thick, salty meat extract”. When told that I had thrown it away, my husband declared indignantly that Bovril doesn’t go off, it’s like Vegemite. I am pretty sure that thick salty meat extracts do indeed go off, but I wasn’t willing to open the lid to find out for sure.

6. A very elderly sweet potato grimly trying to grow and propagate on the bottom shelf. Give it up, little potato, that’s never going to work.

7. Four different brands of caramel syrup. Whyyyy.

8. Three bottles of blue food colouring, two of which are unopened. So I guess I thought I needed blue food colouring on at least two different occasions, bought a new bottle, discovered the already opened one, then added the new bottle to the depths of the pantry.

Thankfully the pantry is a lot tidier now, and has no resident moths. (For now). And as thrilling as it is to unearth foodstuffs that expired 6 years previously, in future I’m going to consider the radical step of no longer linking my cleaning schedule to my reproductive system.