Monday, 23 February 2015

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff · Lisa Hjalt

When was the last time you fell in love with a book before reaching page 10? It happened to me last week when I picked up 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I'm not fond of telling people that they have to read something, but for all book lovers this book is a compulsory. It all started back in 1949 when Miss Hanff wrote a letter from New York to the Marks & Co. bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road in London to ask about second-hand books for a reasonable price. What followed was 20 years of correspondence with mainly one of its staff members, Frank Doel. In her third letter, Hanff had dropped the formality and was already expressing her wit and wonderful sense of humour, but it took a bit longer for Frank Doel, the Brit, to do so. This is an extract from her sixth letter in March 1950 (the spelling is hers):

Where is the Leigh Hunt? Where is the Oxford Verse? Where is the Vulgate and dear goofy John Henry, I thought they'd be such nice uplifting reading for Lent and NOTHING do you send me. you leave me sitting here writing long margin notes in library books that don't belong to me, some day they'll find out i did it and take my library card away. (p. 10)

Her complaining, yelling tone just cracks me up. I don't have Hanff's courage to write margin notes in library books, but I mark sentences and passages with an x or a vertical line in mine.

Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road is 95 pages long; a quick read. Most of the letters are simply delightful and then there are a few, at least one, that will break your heart. I won't say more. Not only did Hanff send letters, she also sent food parcels (meat and eggs) to the staff members to express her gratitude for the books she was receiving. The correspondence started in post-war Britain and the rationing appalled her. In the beginning, the staff would hold on to the books she was interested in and ask her in a letter if she still wanted them. This was what she wrote to them in September 1950 from her apartment on 14 East 95th St.:

Never wonder if I've found something somewhere else, I don't look anywhere else any more. Why should I run all the way down to 17th St. to buy dirty, badly made books when I can buy clean, beautiful ones from you without leaving the typewriter? From where I sit, London's a lot closer than 17th Street. (p. 15)

The book reminds me of another delightful read, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, which I talked about in another blog post. When I finished reading these two I kept them close to my heart for just a few seconds. That's how much I loved them.
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff · Lisa Hjalt

My edition of 84 Charing Cross Road includes the sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which is about her trip to London (the illustration on the cover is by Sarah McMenemy). I wouldn't even consider reading the former without having the latter ready. After finishing the book I wanted more of Hanff, so I ordered Letter from New York. I got a used copy, which should arrive soon. I also found an audio version of 84 Charing Cross Road on YouTube, which I have already listened to twice while doing house chores. Then there is a film from 1987, starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, which I haven't seen.

If it's raining this is the perfect book to read under a blanket with a cup of coffee or tea and simply get lost in the delightfulness. I recommend having a stationery ready because after the reading you probably want to catch up on your correspondence. By that I don't mean emails.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Cloudy Day in South Yorkshire | Bread buns

Today is Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, in the UK and some other countries. The sun is out, the birds are singing, and the day is filled with promises, at least one: I have promised to make pancakes. Yesterday, however, we had clouds. My son and I went for a walk in the grey weather before heading back home to bake bread buns with sesame seeds. There is no song called Cloudy Day in South Yorkshire but the song Rainy Night in Georgia was constantly playing in my head and I started thinking about the lyrics:

I feel like it's rainin' all over the world,
How many times I wondered, It still comes out the same
No matter how you look at it or think of it,
It's life and you just got to play the game…

~ • ~
It's life and you just got to play the game ... that's a good line.

Yesterday in Iceland was bolludagur, 'Bun Day' or 'Cream Puff Day'. It's an old tradition and in most homes the day starts with the children spanking their parents with a stick that has crepe paper glued to it. The population of Iceland is about three hundred and thirty thousand (pause for laughter or astonishment) and according to the news over million buns are baked and devoured. They usually have a chocolate glaze and are filled with jam and whipped cream. I still remember the Sundays when my mother was busy in the kitchen preparing for the day, which is on a Monday, and I remember my lunchbox filled with buns.

Yesterday, very untrue to Icelandic tradition, I made bread buns. I wasn't in the mood for the other kind and the kids didn't complain. Come to think of it, I haven't baked the traditional ones in a long time. I think the last time was in Denmark in 2010! I guess it's a tradition I haven't held on to.

By the way, this is my third week of grass-widowhood. Hubby is on the Continent, attending a workshop. His absence is felt, perhaps because we don't have any family members living near. Hubby and I share the cooking, certain dishes are his entirely, certain are mine, and then there are some we always prepare together. There is no rule; the one in the mood for cooking is the one who cooks. Anyway, with him away the meals are more planned because I have the groceries home delivered, and instead of falling into the habit of always preparing the same things, I use the opportunity to try something new. I very seldom bake with yeast so I find it a bit interesting that with him away I have been baking these bread buns quite frequently. All that kneading must be grounding. I also have a long-standing love affair with sesame seeds.

Speaking of sesame seeds, I just read that there is a new cookbook coming out: Sesame & Spice: Baking from the East End to the Middle East by Anne Shooter. The words sesame and baking caught my attention. I have no idea about the recipes in it, whether they are all sugary or leaning towards healthy, but the cover looks good. It's time to start the pancake making but first I wanted to share the bread buns recipe.

Those of you who have been following my blog are used to recipes with spelt flour. I like mixing white with wholegrain spelt flour when making bread or buns. These days, however, it seems to be hard to come across the white one, at least in this area of the UK. To make these buns I simply use organic plain flour or bread flour. Instead of warming the milk, which is common when baking with yeast, I boil the water and mix it with the milk and honey. Sesame seeds are a good source of calcium, magnesium, and iron; in my opinion, you should eat some every day. We love these buns with hard-boiled eggs and cucumber, or home-made pesto.


450 g organic plain flour or bread flour
2 teaspoons fast-active dry yeast
1 teaspoon fine sea/Himalayan salt
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
125 ml milk (½ cup)
100 ml boiled water
½ tablespoon organic honey
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
topping: 1 egg white or milk and sesame seeds

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, yeast, salt and sesame seeds with a wooden spoon.

In a smaller bowl gently stir the milk, boiled water and honey. Let it sit for 1-2 minutes. Add the oil to the mix before slowly pouring it into the larger bowl while stirring gently.

First mix the dough with the spoon, then knead well with your hands on a floured surface for 5-10 minutes. Return the dough to the bowl and cover it with clean, damp tea towel. Set aside for 1½-2 hours in a warm place, or until doubled in size.

Divide the dough into 8 parts and roll into balls. Place them on a baking tray lined with baking parchment and flatten each slightly with the palm of your hand. Brush each one with egg white or milk and sprinkle sesame seeds on top. Bake at 200°C/400°F (180°C fan oven) for 12-14 minutes.

Uppskrift á íslensku

Bread buns with sesame seeds ready for the oven