It was always the same routine; I would get up early and walk through the empty campus to the library in the mornings. It had only just opened and there was still a lingering smell of disinfectant at the bottom of the stairs. A man watched whoever came in and out. He seemed ageless with pale skin, a young face and grey hair; we never exchanged words but simply smiled. As I pushed through the door to enter the stacks, a feeling of exhileration came over me. This was my space where I was free to read whatever I wanted for as long as I wanted and I remember just enjoying endlessly wandering among the different rows of books. The large, light reading room was silent and empty so I picked a table in my favourite part next to long windows which looked out onto the park so I could admire the changing colours and light and didn't feel I was missing out on too much of the day outside. Once there was a tiny grey squirrel scuttling by with a large piece of toast in its mouth.
Although I was a philosophy student, it wasn't the books in my chosen subject which most attracted me but the French literature ones. I used to take huge piles of them over to my desk and study each one in turn. I couldn't read them all of course, but I was greedy. Never before had I had so many books by unknown authors available to me or rare books by writers I loved. I remember the complete corrspondence of Proust and books by and about Duras and Baudelaire as the things I cherished the most. Over time, the books became like friends to me with their own history; sometimes, I used to leave notes or photocopies for friends in old, dusty editions of Sand or Flaubert which didn't seem to leave the library.
At another desk close to mine was often D., an Erasmus student from Italy who had spoken to me before one of my very first lectures when I had arrived too early (as usual) and was nervous. In lectures, she used to squeeze my knee whenever she knew that I had the right answer but was too shy to respond. "Why don't you answer then?", I asked her. "I'm not English and everyone will know I'm Italian if I open my mouth." She was so warm and vivacious and I had never found anyone I could talk to so easily. We shared films and books and she came to sleep over at my place where our conversations continued into the early hours. Although her English was often broken, she also said the most wonderful things. On the station platform waiting for her train, she told me that the best thing about coming to England was meeting me, words which really touched me.
Sometimes she could be a little too pushy; why bother reading Verlaine when Rimbaud was so much better? Wasn't it important to me to be the best philosophy student? (I ended up being the worst by the third year because of the literature addiction and lack of interest in analytic philosophy).
Ironically, the thing that divided us the most was food. Everything I made for her she hated. The shortbread was too fatty and she was horrified when I suggested eating a pot of cottage cheese because it was 200g! Even back then, I had long abandoned the idea of having a dream figure and reassured myself that anyone who ever went out with me would love my baking and never expect me to diet (or at least that's my excuse for lack of discipline and gourmandise). For her though, it was obviously different. I can only imagine my look of disbelief when I made her a fondant au chocolat, only to be told that she hated cake. When I told her of my admiration for Nigella and my love of her recipes, she snapped "Why are we talking about this?!" Somehow, I felt rejected and hurt, probably an overreaction. From that point on, I didn't treat her very nicely. Over Christmas, her boyfriend came to stay and I didn't once get in touch when they much have felt a little bored or lonely. At our last meeting after logic exams, she gave me a copy of Albertine disparue which I finally hope to start next week after all this time and my very first Panettone, in spite of her dislike of cake. Something was broken between us though and she left shortly afterwards for Italy.
Later I searched desperately for her address which must have got lost in piles of papers and which I still hope will turn up one day. There are so many things I have forgotten about her and often wonder whether she ever thinks of me. Most of all, I regret not being kinder to her. Perhaps it was because I was searching for someone who could understand me completely, reassure me and with whom I could share everything, an idea of friendship that was too demanding and idealistic. I especially think of her in the colder months when I see panettone in the supermarket and it reminds me too of my first New Year's Eve in Berlin with Lisa when she made a delicious panettone trifle. After we went down to a bridge on the Spree and drank Sekt in a mass of fireworks exploding as the new year began. I love that the word "trifle" means something small and unimportant, like a bagatelle because as a dessert it's so spectacular and extravagent. It's something you can't make quickly but also not impossibly complicated either.
Trifles have always been something special for me because ever since I can remember, we have eaten it at Christmas. I'd been wanting to make my own for ages, only to find it was in Nigella's Feast all the time and that I simply hadn't noticed. I made mine with real custard like in my mother's trifles but feel free to skip it if it's too time consuming or stressful. You can also use Pandoro like Nigella does if you don't like raisons or prefer something simpler.
Panettone trifle (adapted from Nigella Lawson's Feast)
For the base
1 panettone (500g)
1 tin of sliced apricots in juice (I hate tinned fruit in syrup but if you like it sweet, you can take this instead. Other fruits are also possible but I think apricots or peaches work best)
For the custard
8 egg yolks
350ml full fat milk
250ml double cream
2 tablespoons sugar
750ml crème fraîche, sweetened slightly
Some grated dark chocolate
1. Cut the panettone into 1 cm slices and place at the bottom of a large glass bowl. Place a layer of apricots on the cake and then pour over the juice. Place in the fridge.
2. To make the custard, begin by heating the cream and milk either in the microwave or in saucepan until just under boiling point. Remove and put to one side.
3. Beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl and then pour over the slightly cooled milk and cream. Wash and dry the the saucepan.
4. Pour the eggs and cream mixture back into the clean pan and place over a low heat. Stir all the time until it thickens. The most important thing with custard is NOT to let it boil. Nigella suggests filling the sink before you start with cold water, placing the pan in it and whisking very fast if this happens so please don't panic. She cooks her custard on a high heat but I'm not that courageous and prefer to be patient and stir for a long time (you'll probably need 10 minutes + but don't worry, it will thicken). When the custard is as thick as you want it, turn off the heat, pour into a jug and cover the top with clingfilm to stop a skin forming.
5. When it's cool, pour it over the fruit and panettone in the bowl, cover with clingfilm and place in the fridge overnight.
6. To decorate it the next morning, whip the cream with some sugar until it's thick enough then spead it over the custard with a knife and grate chocolate over it. You can eat it straight away but the flavours intensify and it tastes even better after 1-2 days.
Variations: trifles are extremely versatile. You can use plainer cake or chocolate cake if you prefer. An alternative to tinned fruit could be dried fruit soaked in water which Nigella uses and instead of fruit juice, you could pour alcohol over the cake. Greek yoghurt is a nice alternative to cream.