Dessert, Easy, Sweet

Four Small Steps to a Big Life / Pecan & Chai Spiced Hot Milk Cakes

“Listen—are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” Mary Oliver

I’m thinking about living big. You may have picked up on the theme some time ago as I steeled myself to step out from my safe life and embark on this authentic one. The final days before leaving my marriage and home were a surrender, through gritted teeth and a shattering soul, that my problem wasn’t that I didn’t try hard enough, but that I kept trying to be a bunch of someones I can’t be.

So, in finally accepting I need a life that’s mine, the rest of the journey’s simple. Right?

Not so much. After all, the light can be blinding after so long in the false-safety of the dark. So, my recent behaviour’s been consumed with wild fears, obsessions, avoidance of practical matters, perfectionist-led procrastination and so many other unhelpful actions as I scrabble away from feeling exposed and vulnerable.

And damn it’s exposed. As I step hesitantly into a big life, I feel on the edge of failure most of the time and can rapidly turn into a dribbling mess. I may have been squashed into solitude before but at least I knew what each moment brought. Today, it can feel as if I know nothing.

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But then I remember that I know how to do this. Sure, I don’t know how to leap in a single bound to the end of this journey, but I’ve spent over a decade learning what it looks like to live big in each moment, and I’m finally getting to live it…

Firstly, just keep walking. Fear is a wily, sneaky, petrifying bastard and needs to be stared down. This week, I spoke with a friend about doing some apprentice work with a baker she knows whose work I adore. I baked and photographed. I wrote. My fear tells me I need to do so much more to be enough, but even one step forwards is a good day.

Secondly, in this moment, all is well. I’m currently sitting in my kitchen writing to you, while a thunderstorm rolls overhead. I lit some candles for my meditation this morning and they’re still flickering. Ryan Adams and Goldfrapp keep my reflective mood in good company, they mingle with the downpour as lightning cracks open the sky. Conversely, my head wants to be wrapped in future financial fears, while arguing with a person I’ve never properly met but who recently upset someone I love. I’m completely winning the argument (in my head), but am feeling hurt and angry (in real life) because they said things to me that I don’t like (in my head). My head can get pretty bonkers. So I focus on staying present. Far less madness…

Thirdly, don’t do it alone. I had to find my gang and let them see me. It’s horribly exposing to be vulnerable and human. But, once I found friends in the seas of people who weren’t mine, I no longer lived alone. This morning I had breakfast with one of those friends and spoke a little of my financial fears, they’re not gone but I feel so much better. Like now-I-can-eat-cake-and-grin better. I tell them stuff and they tell me the truth in return; lovingly, honestly and usually while teasing me. I just hear it better that way.

Finally, trust in life. I say and write this often. I need to write it often because I don’t naturally trust anything. I’m convinced a decreasing amount of the time that life’s out to get me. It’s exhausting and untrue. I had a bad case of the fears (again) last week, convinced (again) I was an idiot for trying something new, that culminated (again) in being unkind to someone I love. Afterwards (and I really do look forward to the day I can write ‘before’), I called a friend I trust to tell me the loving truth. After reminding me (again…) that I’d started walking this path to seek a bigger life, she sent a recording from Elizabeth Gilbert about creative fear, which I now listen to constantly. Another friend dropped in moments later to surprise me with a gift for a food styling course. Later, I was accepted into a photography masterclass I’d applied for. The friend who’d sent me the recording laughed, saying, “So it seems you haven’t been saved from drowning only to choke to death on the shore!” Trust. That is all.

Well, not all, because these cakes might be needed for everything to be completely right with the world. They’re super-light and fluffy, warmly spiced with superb chai flavours and dotted with pecans. They’re one of my most comforting bakes, set aside for those days when the past and future are crushing the present into misery. They stand proudly on their own merits, no adornments needed to improve them. Each bite reminds me the moment’s a deliciously preferable place to be, they’re best eaten in good company and, best of all, it’s a foolproof recipe; simple to follow and entirely trustworthy.

Enjoy.

  • 300ml (10.5oz) whole milk
  • 140g (5oz) unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1½ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground cardamom
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves
  • ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 ½ tbl sp of strong, black breakfast tea leaves (equivalent of about 4 teabags), I use Yorkshire Gold
  • 4 eggs
  • 250g (9oz) caster (superfine) sugar
  • 280g (10oz) plain (all purpose) flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 80g (3oz) pecans

Preheat oven to 180˚C / 350°F

Lightly grease two 12 hole muffin tins

In a small saucepan heat the milk, butter, spices and tea on medium, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted and bubbles are just starting to appear

Remove the pan from the heat, cover and set aside to let the spices and tea infuse the milk

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, beat the eggs on high speed for a few minutes until they are thick, foamy and a pale yellow

Gradually add the sugar, beating until the mixture is light and fluffy

Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl

Sift the flour mix into the batter, before gently folding with a wooden spoon until smooth

Gradually add the milk mixture to the batter, stirring with a wooden spoon until just combined

Gently stir in the pecans

Pour into your prepared muffin tins, filling each hole almost to the top

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a skewer inserted near the centre of a muffin comes out clean

Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack

Eat as many as you feel you need in this moment

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Dessert, Easy, Sweet

A New Beginning / Lemon, Blueberry & Thyme Slice

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Aesop

We’ll call it a leave of absence, shall we? I think it’s justified, but then I would, I’m the one who disappeared and it suits me to call it that. A few weeks with my family in England, winding through the streets of central London. Reclaiming a version of my youth while introducing my son to the joys of London’s gorgeous parks and the unique political views of our taxi drivers.

There was a particularly bad day about a week in. I woke with my jaw clenched in tightened anxiety and immediately sought out the self-recrimination and self-loathing that can sear through my mind like wildfire since my marriage ended. Everything stood out in negative, the light in my mind utterly doused.

I left my son with my family and went for a walk, but nothing could shake my overwhelming fear and sorrow. Battered and broken by my thoughts, I wandered into an elegant cafe and ordered a tea, hoping to find some solace in the comings and goings of the world around. I turned my mind to the kindness I trusted still existed somewhere in the world, and asked desperately for some sign of hope.

lemon blueberry & thyme

Hunched over my tea a short while later, I nearly missed her as she shuffled in. A garish, floor length skirt under a shirt so small it rode up to show her ample stomach, her hair stringy and wild, dirt encrusted feet pushed into near-shredded ballet shoes, a big toe poking out from one in a gasping bid for more space. She stood in the middle of the floor, as out of place as a left shoe on a right foot, glaring around her with no seeming idea of where she was.

“I’m hungry!” She announced to the room, “Hungry! Hungry! I want food!”

The owner hurried over from the corner where he’d been smoothing a white table cloth onto a just-vacated table. He paused at the counter and then strode towards her. She shies away and I shy away with her because we both know what’s coming. He’s going to move her on; push her out. She’s smelly and bedraggled. They don’t want her sort in here making them look bad to the patrons who can actually pay a bill and may not if she’s here.

Instead, he stops in front of her and holds out a fresh blueberry muffin. He reaches onto the table next to her and pours a glass of water, “Let me know if you need a coffee love,” he says, eyes warm and inviting.

She snatches the food and crams it into her mouth, crumbs tumbling from her lips in protest from being overfilled. She doesn’t thank him, too far gone in her made up world to see his kindness.

lemon zest blueberries & chopped thyme

I felt it keenly though, it stabbed through my self-pity and I immediately started to tear up, although I didn’t let them fall. Not in public anyway.

It’s so easy to find darkness at this time, to see where all my fears of how life might be cruel can dictate where I point the mirror I hold up to others. And a man in a cafe, surrounded by a halo of everyday kindness shatters my mirror and presents a new, gentler light. I can almost hear the universe whispering at me; all will be well, there’s more kindness in this world than not, keep walking, keep trusting.

She has the coffee after her muffin and stands outside waving it at people walking by. I smile at the man as often as I can while I finish my tea. He probably thinks I’m a little strange for the constant goofy grin. He doesn’t know that his kindness has given me back the smile I’m currently turning on him. That he’s my sign. He probably thinks his only kind act is giving a sick person some food — but that sustenance has already spread so much farther than he could possibly imagine. How many others in that cafe found their ease in that moment? And how many more experienced his kindness rippling out from me as I left lighter-hearted and hopeful?

And, of course, I immediately decided that some form of blueberry concoction with a joyful twist had to be my first recipe back. Those requirements, coupled with having numerous loving visitors in my new house gave me the idea for this deliciously tender and fresh cake.

Enjoy.

  • 150g (5 ½ oz) self raising flour
  • 175g (6 oz) ground almonds
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 160g (5 ½ oz) caster sugar
  • finely grated zest from 2 lemons
  • 2 tbl sp fresh thyme, finely chopped
  • 160g (5 ½ oz) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • juice from 1 lemon
  • roughly 80ml full fat (whole) milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 100g (3 ½ oz) blueberries

Pre heat the oven to 180˚C. Grease a 20cm square baking tin and line with baking paper

Whisk the flour, almonds, baking powder, sugar, zest and thyme in a large mixing bowl until thoroughly combined and all lumps have disappeared

Using your fingers, rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs

Weigh out 220g of the mixture and sprinkle it evenly over the base of the tin before pressing down firmly, ensuring there are no gaps

Pour the lemon juice into a measuring jug and top up with enough milk to make 100ml

In a separate bowl, lightly whisk the eggs before adding the lemony milk and mix well

Using a spoon, gently fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, one-third at a time. You want a smooth batter but want to make sure you don’t over-mix

Pour the batter into the tin and scatter the blueberries over the top

Bake for 35-40 minutes or until lightly browned on top and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean

Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes before removing from the tin and taking off the paper. Serve as you like with what you like

Find joy

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Dessert, Super Easy, Sweet

Community Molecules Dancing / Mango, Saffron & Pistachio Cheesecake {gluten free}

“Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.”
Orson Scott Card

Every Thursday night I drive across town to a cottage at the back of a long, gravel driveway surrounded by a white picket fence and winding rows of lavender. Wooden steps and glowing candles lead to the front door, always left ajar for those who come. I’m one of fifteen or so women who meet here weekly and have done so for a number of years. We range in age from mid twenties to mid sixties and from the outside there’s very little we share of each other’s traits.

Every week I say to myself, “I’m tired, I’ll only stay for a little while.” and every week I stay until the moon’s halfway through its nighttime journey, surrounded by a level of companionship and support I could barely imagine a few years ago. We talk of everything, and often of nothing. We laugh constantly and take our turns in tears. We have no leaders, although one in particular’s silently acknowledged as our wise woman, not that she would respond to the title with anything but a top-shelf eye roll.

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Every week we discuss something from books we read together, chosen by group suggestions and a vote at the end of the previous book. Every week we promise ourselves that we’re going to read more than a paragraph before conversation sweeps in to claim its place at the centre of our night. Every week we fail spectacularly and don’t regret it for a moment. If we rushed, we might end up missing something that a woman was about to find the courage to say but needed to sink into the flow of other’s honest and open conversation before she found her own voice. We might also not hear our own answers — the ones we didn’t know we sought until someone voiced them in a moment of their own introspection.

Every week holds a magical moment when the universe appears to tune in and the molecules that make up our separateness start vibrating at the same tempo, connecting the very centre of ourselves into the centre of each other. If there’s any true magic in my world, it’s this feeling of utterly belonging in a moment with others.

Every week I take that feeling and carry it into the world with me. And for as long as it lasts, others are recipients of the connectedness in me. I imagine that after they’re in contact with it, they spread it into their world and that, for a short while, molecules all over my city are vibrating together in a jiggly dance of belonging.

Another jiggly creation of my mind is this deliciously simple, no bake cheesecake. I made it for my Thursday night ladies but it didn’t set in time so I’m sharing it with you. The flavours are a well known community, although on the surface they’re quite different. The complexity of saffron helps hold down the higher notes of mango and the pistachio crust’s flavour is like the grounding, base note of a music cord, while adding a gorgeously textured dimension to the cake. It’s also gluten free, not because I made it with gluten free in mind, but because it genuinely tastes better that way.

Enjoy.

TIK - Mango, Saffron & Pistachio Cheesecake

  • 250g raw pistachios + extra for decoration
  • 65g caster sugar
  • Large pinch of sea (kosher) salt
  • 60g unsalted butter, melted
  • 200ml double (thick) cream, whipped
  • 250g cream cheese
  • 100g greek yoghurt
  • 600g mango flesh (I got this from three 350g mangos, you can used canned pulp if you can’t get fresh mangoes)
  • 1-2 tbl sp caster sugar (to taste)
  • ¼ tsp saffron powder

Grease a 20cm springform pan and line the bottom with greaseproof paper

For the base, place the pistachios, 65g of caster sugar and salt into a food processor and blend until the mix resembles sand

Pour the mix into a bowl with the melted butter and stir until completely combined

Tip the mixture into the springform pan and press it down to form a smooth base, with a ridge of about 1cm around the edge

For the filling, put 400g of the mango flesh into a food processor and blend until you have a smooth pulp, taste and add more sugar if required

Mix the whipped cream, cream cheese, yoghurt and saffron powder together in a bowl

Gently add the mango pulp stirring until all the pulp has been incorporated but there are still plenty of lumps in the mix

Spoon on top of the pistachio base, smooth over the top and place in the fridge for 1-2 hours, or until set

When ready to serve, remove the springform pan and decorate with the remaining mango and pistachios before serving

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Dessert, Morning or Afternoon Tea, Not So Easy, Sweet

A Messy, Hopeful Path / Ginger & Lemon Panna Cotta with Blueberries and Thyme

“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
C.S. Lewis

This year’s been hugely challenging and revealing. I’ve had an unshakeable instinct that life’s been headed in the wrong direction and the quiet, steady voice deep inside’s been nudging me towards alternate routes I’ve been unwilling to walk.

The only outcome to battling myself in this way is heartache; and some days the pain of the struggle’s been immense. I’d love to be able to see things are headed into shaky emotional territory and sensibly guide myself back into grownup land. I’m just not. I fight and holler and stamp my feet until, eventually, I’m curled in a ball on the floor, begging for ease of mind and promising anything to the universe if it stops the pain.

After lots of searching, I’ve found that this path’s about authenticity; specifically to drop behaviours developed in childhood as a reaction to feeling unsafe and unprotected in the world. At a young age, I subconsciously took the hand of the small, scared child I was, placed her in the middle of my heart and started building walls around her to keep her safe from whatever was happening outside. Thick, heavy, impenetrable walls. And I’ve kept her there ever since.

Blueberries - TIK

I built a personality designed to keep her protected and ensure no one could ever hurt her again. I became tough, standoffish, controlling, funny, prickly. I chose a career that guaranteed no softness. I surrounded myself with emotionally distant people who also kept everyone at arm’s length, forming no real connections, making enough money that I didn’t have to rely on anyone, never allowing myself to fully love.

Now, having walked a gentler path these last ten years, having fallen utterly in love the day my son was born two years ago, and having continued to seek a path through this pain all year; the girl in the middle of my heart has found enough courage to poke her head above the ramparts and start asking for a place in the world. And it’s terrifying. I keep wondering who’s going to protect her if I can’t anymore (after all, she’s me and, no matter how multiple personality-esque this piece might sound, I don’t have a mind capable of being more than one person at once…) — she’s the writer, the introvert, the dreamer, the idealist, the one who loves without constantly looking for an exit. She’s also vulnerable, easily overwhelmed and very new to the world.

When I’m her, I’m clunky and awkward. I say clumsy things that replay in my head for hours. I talk to people I no longer want to keep at a distance and find myself ducking for cover mid-conversation. I’m writing, baking and photographing for a living even though I’m not making money and yet the thought of walking back into a big corporate leaves me feeling nauseous. I’m not the me of 3 years ago, but I’ve nothing to replace me with yet.

In short, life’s messy.

TIK - Thyme

But I’m back on the path that brings ease and comfort. It’s muddled and awkward with more challenges to come, but it’s also full of the kind of hope I’ve struggled to find for a while.

On walking this new journey, I’ve already found an unexpectedly loving community in my area. This week, after an impromptu breakfast with a local friend, she went home to find ‘just because’ flowers from a neighbour on her doorstop; and I got home to find a book for my son’s current sleep troubles from a lovely friend in my mother’s group, propped against my front door. The most amazing part is how commonplace these acts of kindness are around here.

I’m also challenging myself to seek people who intrigue me, to see if honest and whole connection is possible; I’m particularly excited that those I’m drawn to are funny, smart and irreverent, with a passion for life and a hefty side-helping of quirkiness. This, in particular, remains a fragile area, but intimacy doesn’t seem like the distant planet it once was.

And if I can keep opening my heart and stay on this tangled path that still makes no sense at all; it’s possible those big, tough walls will be dismantled for good. And who knows which paths I’ll be walking then.

A path I’m entirely happy to walk is the one that ends with this delicious Lemon Panna Cotta and Gingerbread with Blueberries and Thyme from Alisa over at The Family Meal. I’ve been in serious sleep deprivation land again with my toddler’s night-time antics and have been pretty sick for the last few days (which is why this post is so late) so food of any sort is not high on my agenda. Luckily, Alisa writes one of my favourite food blogs and I’m happy to share any of her recipes anywhere, the main photo is hers as well so any kudos go straight to her! I made this about a week after she posted it onto her site and it is truly delicious.

Enjoy.

http://familymealblog.com/2014/07/17/lemon-panna-cotta-and-gingerbread-with-blueberries-and-thyme/

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Dessert, Easy, Sweet

Lover’s Ache / Hot Chocolate, Orange & Szechuan Pepper Cake

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back.”
Plato

I wander into one of my regular cafés and catch the eye of the barista. He’s the young surfer-dude stereotype; soft drawling voice, small scruffy goatee and dark hair cropped at chin length. I followed him here about 6 months ago from another café where he used to work. He’s just that good at making my drug of choice. We chat, as usual. He’s quiet, a little dampened. His fun and flirty banter doesn’t have its normal sparkle.

“What up?” I ask, “You look pretty flat.”

He sighs, ducking his head and looking up at me from eyes that I’d never before thought to meet, “Really? I mean, you really want to know? Cos I could seriously blurt today.”

I laugh, thinking if only he knew about the thoughts that whirl madly around my head on a daily basis, “Give me your best shot.”

Hot Chocolate, Orange & Szechuan Pudding - TIK

He sighs heavily, silent while grinding the beans and sliding the coffee basket into place before starting the machine, then glances around the cafe to make sure we’re alone, “It’s a girl. An ex.”

“Ah. The worst.”

“Yeah, well, we broke up, y’know, two months ago. I mean, I broke it off man, y’know? I was so into her and she just brushed me off all the time. So, I ended it. Thought it was okay, and she’d started seeing someone else, so y’know, time to move on.”

He breathes in deeply and stares at the last drips of coffee spilling into my cup.

“But, y’know, we got together again, a few weeks ago. And, ahhh man, I just love her man. I just fucking love her.”

His pain’s almost tangible as it comes up for air, his usual professionally shallow cheer swallowed down low. It’s tempting to dismiss his feelings as a naivety of youth, but he’s so raw and aching that I just ask whether he’d said anything to her.

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“Yeah man, I told her. I told her. She didn’t say anything. She’s still seeing this other guy, y’know? I dunno what to do. All my friends say I was so unhappy with her, but I love her, I just dunno.”

He huffs a small laugh, attempting to insert social acceptability into a pain that rarely shows in public, “Whatever man. Doesn’t matter. Fuck love, right? It’s all Hollywood bullshit anyway.”

I try to tell him that it does matter but he barely hears me, pride and vulnerability fighting for the same spot in his heart. There’s more silence as he steams the milk and swirls it gently. He suddenly leans back against the wall, continuing to stare at the milk like it’s holding more answers than dairy ever really could, before looking up at me, his uncertainty shining through. And in that moment, he’s not a surfer-dude barista, he’s a vulnerable and slightly fractured twenty-something man looking for the safety of certainty and not sure when he’d drifted so far from it, “What should I do man? Should I just give up? I just don’t know what to do.”

I look inside for wisdom and find myself severely lacking. We’re silent again as he pours milk over the coffee and pushes the cup my way. And, as I start to stumble over words that feel wholly inadequate, someone walks into the cafe and he quickly buttons back up his soul, flipping out the hospitality frontman routine. He’s good at it too, before long he and the other customer are laughing and chatting; you can barely see the pain leaking out, like an old ballpoint pen in his shirt pocket.

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I take my coffee and he vaguely waves at me as I wander out the door. And all through the day, the conversation keeps popping into my mind and I think about how much love aches, and how incredible it is, and how bloody confusing it can be and I decide that this bake’s going to be about the love that’s unspoken in Hollywood movies. The sweet, satisfying and bitter flavours of dark chocolate, layered with the light bite of orange and finally, szechuan pepper — both smoking for the good times and numbing for the bad. And all of them in innocuous little molten cakes, so innocent looking until your first bite of incredible, explosive, unforgettable flavour.

Enjoy.

  • 185g (6.5oz) dark chocolate
  • 185g (6.5oz) unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 6 tbl sp caster sugar
  • 3 tsp plain (all purpose) flour
  • Zest from 1 large orange
  • 1 tsp szechuan pepper

Preheat the oven to 230˚C / 450˚F and grease 6 moulds or ramekins

In a small saucepan, dry toast the szechuan pepper for 2-3 minutes until the aroma is wafting up and they are just threatening to smoke. Remove from the stove and grind into a fine powder using a pestle and mortar

Break the chocolate into small pieces and melt with the butter, either in the microwave or over the stove.

In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs, yolks and sugar until thick and fluffy

Whisk in the chocolate and orange zest

Working quickly but carefully, fold in the plain flour and szechuan pepper

Divide the mix evenly between each mould and bake for about 8-10 minutes, until the outside is set and the centre is still soft

Turn each pudding onto a plate and carefully remove the moulds

Serve immediately with double (heavy) cream, ice cream or crème fraîche

Eat fearlessly…

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Dessert, Easy, Sweet

Find The Road Home / Pear, Juniper & Lemon Tarte Tartin

“All of life is a coming home. Salesmen, secretaries, coal miners, beekeepers, sword swallowers, all of us. All the restless hearts of the world, all trying to find a way home.” Robin Williams

The Welsh have a word, hiraeth, that has no direct English translation, but can be loosely defined as homesickness for a home you can’t return to, a home which may be never was. I imagine it as a longing for the place you can go exactly as you are without needing any protection around your heart.

It’s a place I find glimpses of; safety in moments of time, people who seem to calm the yearning in me, pieces of music that lead towards the soft glow from my home’s windows, meditations that sink so deep I can nearly step over the threshold. I’ve wondered at times if the culmination of existence is to find our way home.

Peeled pears - TIK

I’ve recently begun picturing mine during meditations. A light-filled cottage with wild flowers and herbs leading up to the front door, surrounded by a garden big enough to grow a myriad of edibles. It’s perched at the base of a hill, overlooking the sea where you can swim all day and catch fish for dinner. I cook the day’s catch over the garden’s fire pit in summer and in the cook’s kitchen in winter, and serve it with homegrown salads to the few I can be comfortably around without switching into the extrovert mode I use to hide from the rest of the world. We’ll laugh and play music and my son’ll fall asleep under the stars long before the apple pie’s out of the oven. Later, I’ll carry him to his bed before heading to the kitchen to knead some dough for morning’s bread, afterwards curling on an armchair in blessed silence to read The Windup Girl for the first time ever, again.

Two things hold us from home. The first is the path to get there is windingly long and often feels like being lost; sometimes the road dips so low we lose sight of home and wonder if we’ll ever find it again. I think many people stop at a waypoint along their path and think, “this is good enough.” and for many of those it seems it is. The second obstacle is the path itself; strewn with false routes, dead ends and seemingly bottomless precipices, it can sometimes appear a pointless task, especially since the promise of home is just a rumour, easily ridiculed and discarded.

But I have a mind and heart that offer me no choice but to keep searching. For long stretches in time it feels as if I’m blindly stumbling from one confused moment to the next, trusting that the precipices I come across are actually invisible bridges of light, that if I can find the courage to step off, they’ll lead me to the next challenge and so, incrementally, to home’s freedom.

Juniper Berries - TIK

Very recently, it’s been made clear to me that the precipice I’ve been walking towards for the past two years has been one of living authentically. That I’m not the woman I thought I was, and I never was. That even some basic beliefs about myself are painfully misguided, brought on by years of a noisy and busy life, where I never gave myself the time to ask if I was really on the right path to my home.

And so, I’ve been gradually letting go of the good girl who toes the party line and looking for what’s real. I’ve been letting myself be imperfect, first to myself and then to others. I’ve a long way to go. Some days it feels like this’ll be my eternal struggle; authenticity requires courage I’m still not sure I have the fortitude to wear. But the promise of home whispers through threads of constant hope, the dream that it could one day be a reality in every moment.

Until then, I’ve started to recognise people who seem to be walking this path with me. There aren’t many, surprisingly few in fact, but I feel their longing as a mirror of my own and they calm the yearning, some knowingly and others who have no idea that just the sight of them or the smallest touch is enough to still the ache for a moment or more.

TIK - Lemon Caramel Pears

I have a child who reminds me all the time to be present; to make up a song together, or chase each other around the house breathless with laughter, to keep my temper when he’s not keeping his, to hold him close as he weeps and to gently guide him to be who he needs to be.

I have these words, baking and photography which never fail to challenge me to be utterly authentic and to keep moving forwards.

I have music and books that inspire me and fill me up every day. And then there’s this guy

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And I have whole days in silence, where I can allow my rapidly expanding introvert to breathe, and the highly-honed performance skills of my extrovert can drop into increasingly adored quiet.

And this week I have this tarte tartin. I’ve taken the sweet and sharp flavours of caramelised pear and lemon before dampening them down with the earthy flavour from juniper berries. Shortcrust pastry (puff pastry always becomes a little soggy the next day, so I’d avoid using it unless you intend to finish this immediately) is tucked, like a loving blanket, around the pears. No matter where you are, the smell of this baking will bring a sense of home.

Enjoy.

Save & print the recipe by clicking here

  • 4-6 ripe pears
  • 200g golden (raw) caster sugar
  • 20ml water
  • 30ml lemon juice
  • 50g butter
  • 12 dried juniper berries
  • 1 tsp of lemon zest
  • 175g shortcrust pastry (either buy or make your own — the recipe I use is below)

Peel the pears, then put in the fridge, uncovered, for 24 hours. This helps them dry out, so they won’t release too much juice and dilute the caramel when you cook them — don’t worry about them going brown as this actually adds to the finished dish

Put the sugar into a 20cm tarte tartin dish (I use an ovenproof frying pan, as it seems a little too far fetched to buy a pan just for tarte tartin) along with the water and lemon juice and leave to soak for a couple of minutes

Cook over a medium heat until golden and fudgy. Take off the heat and stir in the butter, juniper berries and lemon zest, until well combined

Half and core the pears before tightly packing them in a circle in the pan, ensuring that their more attractive rounded sides are pressed lightly into the caramelised sugar and place on a medium-high heat. The pears will shrink slightly as they cook, so don’t be afraid to add another pear half or two

Keep cooking for 15 to 20 minutes until they are a nice dark caramel colour and feel bouncy when pressed with a spoon

Take off the heat and allow to cool

Pre-heat the oven to 200˚C / 390˚F. Roll out the pastry to 5mm thick, and cut out a circle slightly larger than your pan before placing back into the fridge to rest

Put the pastry on top of the pan before tucking it down the sides, using a spoon or knife to lift the pears and tuck the pastry under. This will ensure the pastry ‘hugs’ the fruit as it cooks, keeping the tart nice and compact. Pierce the top several times with a fork

Bake for about 30 minutes until the pastry is golden, then remove from the oven. Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then place a plate, slightly larger than the pan, on top and then carefully invert the tart on to the plate. Best served warm, with crème fraîche

Shortcrust Pastry

  • 225g plain flour
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 120g cold butter
  • 1 medium egg, beaten
  • 2 tsp cold water + extra if needed

Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the sugar and a pinch of salt. Grate in the butter, then rub together until it is coarse crumbs.

Mix the egg with the water and sprinkle over the mixture. Mix together into a soft but not sticky dough, adding more water (if required) very gradually. Shape into a ball, and then cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes before rolling out

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Dessert, Super Easy, Sweet

This Stuff Called Joy / Spiced Rhubarb & Pear Crumble with Vanilla Custard

“Man is fond of reckoning up his troubles, but does not count his joys.”
Dostoyevsky

As a continuation of last week’s post on 10 reasons to be universally grateful, I’ve been thinking about the snippets of life that can’t help but break into joy.

Just to be clear, I don’t mean the schadenfreude joy that reading the annual Darwin Awards brings. Or even the cackling joy brought on by an unpleasant person’s public demise — I’m looking at you Robin Thicke (from a sexually safe distance), while thinking about my favourite #AskThicke tweet of your whole PR disaster, from @JoLiptrott, “When you’re not busy objectifying women, making light of rape and justifying sexual violence, how do you like to relax?”.

No, this post won’t be about the joy that’s dulled by the satisfaction of someone else’s suffering (although I think there’s a place for that in life). This is about the joy that sparkles through life and lights up our days. Unsullied joy.

Like these guys.

I posted this little gif in my Dark Chocolate, Whipped Peanut & Caramel Cookies recipe the other week and every single time I glance through The Imperfect Kitchen page it pulls joy from the base of my stomach, all the way through my chest and tugs at the corners of my mouth and eyes.

Another is my toddler’s singing. I’ve written before about his adventurous additions to the Old MacDonald song. Well now he has an ever-growing repertoire of adorable songs and dance moves. His refusal to sleep still drives me insane, but these days he so often couples his sleeplessness with a quiet rendition of ‘5 Little Ducks’ or a more rousing rendition of ‘Baby Crocodile, Don’t You Bite’. Hearing him sends shivers of love through me and I always have to smile — which only encourages the little monster.

There’s the silent joy at the end of a deep meditation, the belt-loosening joy of an overly full stomach, the breathless joy of uncontrollable belly laughter. The satisfied joy of a job well done, the relieved joy when there’s enough money to pay the bills each month, or when that brown substance around my son’s mouth is mud instead of…

The groaning joy at one of my Dad’s jokes. The excited joy of a reunion with my family on the other side of the world (15 weeks until we fly to London!). The sheepish joy in making up after an argument. The comforting joy of a loving hug at the end of a tough day.

The peaceful joy in writing alone in a cafe with great coffee. The parents-will-get-this joy of a slowly sipped cup of tea. The tastebuds-tingling joy of a beautifully crafted donut or a perfect slice of lemon tart. The incredulous joy at seeing my readers’ engage with The Imperfect Kitchen as it reaches out to more of you all the time.

The reassuring joy of talking honestly with a trusted friend and realising that I’m never alone in anything I feel or experience. The aching joy of facing loss and walking through the pain to a more sincere life. The tentative joy of allowing a friend to love me, without instructing them on how much is too much. The grown-up joy in setting an appropriate boundary of self-care. The releasing joy after great, gulping sobs of grief. The vulnerable joy of opening my heart to life even though my fears cry out.

The joy of getting it wrong and getting it right and getting it every shade in between. The joy of still feeling joy when life is steeped in sorrow. The joy of finding joy again after walking through seemingly endless darkness.

And the most fulfilling joy of bringing joy to others.

And you? Have I missed anything that scatters joy through your life today?

TIK_Spiced Rhubarb & Pear Crumble with Vanilla Custard

What about the joy of a simple and comforting pudding? I make crumbles all the time, they’re my ‘go to’ dessert when I feel like something sweet but can’t be bothered with too much effort. In this one, tart rhubarb and mellow pear are enhanced by smokey maple syrup and warmed throughout by a classic spice blend of ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. This easy dish will impress all your dinner party Joneses, or is a perfect pud during lazy afternoons curled on a cosy chair with a good book and a cup of tea. If you’re cuddling up for winter, pair it with my creamy vanilla custard recipe below; or, if you’re lounging in summer, serve my apple and strawberry version with scoops of vanilla bean ice cream.

Enjoy.

  • 200g wholemeal flour
  • 150g light brown sugar + 2 tbl sp for the topping
  • 3 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¾ tsp ground nutmeg
  • 150g unsalted butter, cold and cut into small cubes
  • 4 ripe pears – peeled, quartered and cored
  • 500g rhubarb (trimmed weight)
  • 50g raw caster sugar
  • 1 tbl sp pure maple syrup
  • 3 tbl sp cold water

Preheat your oven to 200˚C/390˚F

In a medium bowl, whisk together wholemeal flour, light brown sugar and 1 teaspoon of ginger, ½ teaspoon of cinnamon and ¼ teaspoon of nutmeg

Add the cold, cubed butter and, using your fingers, mix the butter into the flour until the whole mixture resembles coarse sand and starts to clump together

Set aside

Chop the quartered pears in half, then chop the rhubarb into finger-length batons

Place the pears, rhubarb, caster sugar and water in a saucepan, cover and cook gently, over a low heat, for 8 to 10 minutes until the rhubarb is just softened, but still holding its shape

Stir in the maple syrup and remaining ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg before tipping into a large ovenproof dish

(Both the rhubarb mix and the crumble topping can be frozen for up to 3 months, just defrost in the fridge before using)

Use your hands to scatter the crumble on top before sprinkling over the remainder of the brown sugar

Bake for 40 mins until golden and bubbling at the sides

Spoon into bowls and serving with the vanilla bean custard

Vanilla Custard

  • 250ml milk
  • 250ml double (heavy) cream
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 tablespoon cornflour
  • 80g caster (superfine) sugar

Combine milk and cream in a small saucepan

Using a sharp knife, split vanilla bean in half lengthways and scrape out seeds

Add bean and seeds to milk mixture and place over medium heat

Cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes or until hot (do not allow to boil). Remove saucepan from heat

Whisk egg yolks, cornflour and sugar in a heatproof bowl until well combined

Remove vanilla beans from milk mixture. Pour hot milk mixture over egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly

Return mixture to saucepan over a low heat

Cook, stirring constantly, for 10 to 15 minutes or until custard thickens and coats the back of a metal spoon (do not allow the custard to boil, as it might curdle)

Eat in greedy joy

TIK_Spiced Rhubarb & Pear Crumble with Vanilla Custard all done

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