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

Exercising Cynicism / Chai & Honey Buttercream Cake

I’m sitting in a cycling cafe. It’s not my usual haunt. There’re ten lycra-clad spinners only metres from me, furiously wiping sweat out of their eyes as they pedal faster than I have a desire to move any part of my body. I’m writing while wearing a jacket, jeans and boots. I don’t fit in all that well. But coffee’s on its way, so I’m sticking it out and hoping the high-octane, ecstasy-induced music ends before my parka-clad friends arrive in a few minutes.

This cafe was my suggestion. I was pretty excited a new cafe had opened in the area and thought that the name Art of Cycling was a cute reference to the classic pedal bikes they had hung on the walls. Apparently not. And I can already feel the sheepish, mildly defensive look that’ll be on my face as my friends trickle in, looking around in amused cynicism.

I don’t have anything against exercise. I like a run as much as any inherently unhealthy person (that is, not at all, but I will run so I can eat more pastry), but I have friends who adore it. They swear by the endorphins that flow after a good muscle torture session and proclaim that it’s the only feel good that delivers as much as it promises.

My mind immediately counters with ‘sleep’, ‘chocolate’, ‘meditation’, laughter’, ‘sex’, ‘night out with friends’. But apparently this is only because I haven’t caught up with the running shoe brigade.

I’ve just started work with a personal trainer so I can’t hit the ‘snort with laughter and go buy a croissant’ button for at least an hour a week, during which time she goads me into all sorts of awful things like planking and bicep curls. I threaten to revolt at least once a session but it’s half hearted as I’m painfully aware that my inability to do a single push-up is probably not something to be proud of. Even after a few weeks I’m recovering faster and beginning to not hate it quite as much.

And, possibly most important of all, I can enjoy cakes like this chai and honey buttercream cake, guilt free.

Over time, I’ve adapted a classic hot milk cake recipe into this rather grown up affair. Lovely on its own, it’s complex and darkly flavoured. The addition of a delicate and sweet honey buttercream lifts the cake’s flavour to a whole new level. Truly delicious.

Enjoy.

chai & honey buttercream cake slice

Chai Cake

  • 300ml whole milk
  • 140g unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1½ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground cardamom
  • 1 large pinch ground cloves
  • 1 large pinch ground nutmeg
  • 4 black teabags (cheap, strong tea is better – I use Yorkshire Gold)
  • 4 eggs
  • 300g caster (superfine) sugar
  • 280g plain (all purpose) flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp salt

Preheat oven to 180˚C / 350°F

Lightly grease and line a 20cm springform cake tin

In a small saucepan heat the milk, butter, spices and tea on medium-low until the butter is melted and the mixture is just below boiling point

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

In a large bowl, beat the eggs on high speed for 5 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 and sift into the egg mix before folding in with a wooden spoon until smooth

Remove the teabags from the milk (press the teabags through a strainer back into the saucepan to get out all the juices)

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

Pour into your prepared springform tin

Bake for about 45 minutes or until a skewer inserted near the centre comes out clean

Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack

Honey Buttercream

  • 120g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 3 tbl sp honey
  • 250g icing (powdered) sugar + extra for dusting
  • A large pinch of salt

In a mixing bowl, beat the butter and honey on a high speed until smooth

Sift in the icing sugar and salt and continue mixing until smooth and fully combined

If the frosting is too runny, add more icing sugar until it reaches the right consistency. Likewise, if the frosting is too stiff, a splash of warm water will thin it out

Cut the cooled cake in half lengthways and spread the honey buttercream on the bottom half before sandwiching the two halves back together

Dust with icing sugar and serve before, after, or instead of a run

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Dessert, Easy, Sweet

The Crazy Food Lady’s Three Dreams of Ice Cream

It’s been a really tough week. Our son’s barely sleeping and the deprivation’s playing havoc with my mood. I’ve also been writing a piece on vulnerability for this post, before realising I’m not a good enough writer yet to say what I feel I need to, which left me feeling worse. I then wrote a fluff piece about the food I’m making, as I did last Wednesday, a cop-out to the promise I made to myself when starting this blog.

Food was never going to be the star of my blog, it was always going to sit in the background against living the life that creates my recipes. I’m not too sure how many of you read the words, versus shooting straight down to the ingredients list. May be I’m just writing to myself here, which on a day like this feels just fine.

So you want to know what I really think about the food I’m pushing at you today? Here goes…

I could tell you that I chose pomegranate because I like the flavour and the health benefits. But really I chose it because my mother lives in Egypt part of the year, where pomegranates run wild and rampant, and I miss her. And because running my hands through the deep red colour of the arils makes me feel alive. And tearing open the bleeding flesh satisfies a primal urge, on a week like this, that my prefrontal cortex can’t engage…

I hear endlessly about the health benefits of coconut, and the flavour’s delicious. But I really choose coconut because I feel I’m tapping into an entire garden of produce, housed in one joyfully hairy shell. Flesh, water, flour, sugar, cream, milk. It’s the veritable land of plenty, and I imagine coconuts sitting on our market shelves, worshipped by the other produce as they sway to a cool calypso beat. Having grown up in a country where coconut was one of the pinnacles of exotic I still feel a small child’s thrill whenever I stroke my hands over their balding heads.

My frustrated and flat mood makes it a perfect week for ginger. I love that it feels a little rebellious, punching me in the mouth each time I bite down. Its very own “screw you!” to its demise. It’s one of the gang members of the produce world. Backed up by wasabi and horseradish. Sneering at the apples, carrots and blueberries. Cautiously respectful of sour citrus, that cause all my taste buds to shrivel up and squeal. I picture the ginger, unmuffled by this coconut ice cream, screaming in maniacal and joyful defiance all the way down my throat. K’POW! K’POW! K’POW!!

The warming, delicate tang of far-travelled spice can liven even the most boring dish, I use spice in nearly everything I make. But that’s not why I’m making chai ice cream. It’s because I miss my little sister every day and chai is her favourite hot drink. I’m making it, because with each soft pinch of spice, the distance of 10,496 miles (16,892km) between us doesn’t feel so overwhelming. I like to think that she’ll smile when she reads this recipe, my sisterly love letter to her.

I get a lump in my throat every time I make my Fruit & Nut Loaf. I made it shortly after I found out we’d lost our first baby. I sang a quiet lullaby as I sifted the flour and wept as I stirred everything together. I grieved with my hands that day, and every time I pull out the ingredients I remember our children that could have been and call a small piece of my love and gratitude to the place they might be. And it reminds me to be intensely grateful for the child I have, sleeplessness and all. A slice of this sweet bread, warm from the oven, goes beautifully with any and all of these ice creams.

So join me in revelling in the stories we tell about our food. The pasta you love because it’s just the way mum made. The chicken dish handed down from your grandmother. The tinned soup you ate every Sunday night as a student. I really hope that food doesn’t just mean something to me, otherwise I’m just the crazy food lady warbling into the world-wide inter-web cloud.

Having just spent an entire post telling you how unimportant the food is, I can’t help but write that I think these are some of the best recipes I’ve ever created. The coconut sings a sublime introduction to the ginger’s punch. The pomegranate borders on super sweet until the encroaching flavours of cardamom and lime melt the sweetness down. The chai is just about the best thing I’ve ever tasted in ice cream form, tangled flavours that dance on the tongue and develop magically while eating. I’m ridiculously proud of them all.

Coconut & Ginger Ice Cream

  • 350ml (cups) coconut milk
  • 250ml (1 cup) double cream (heavy cream)
  • 80g (3/4 cup) desiccated coconut
  • 75g (1/4 cup) sugar
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 75g crystallised ginger, chopped into small pieces

In a saucepan, mix the coconut milk, cream, desiccated coconut and half the sugar

Heat on medium-low to just below boiling point, remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool a little

Meanwhile, combine the egg yolks with the remainder of the sugar in a mixing bowl and whip for a couple of minutes, until fluffy

Add the egg yolks to the milk mix and stir constantly on medium-low heat, until it coats the spoon and you can draw a line with your finger on the spoon (if you have a food thermometer, it should be at 85˚C / 185F)

Take off the stove and let cool, ideally leave overnight in your fridge to let the flavours develop

If you don’t have an ice cream maker, pour into a container and place in the freezer

Add the ginger after the first two hours and stir well

Stir every hour or two until frozen

Pomegranate & Cardamon Ice Cream
(based on a Nigella Lawson recipe)

  • 2 pomegranates
  • 1 lime
  • 175g icing sugar
  • 500ml double cream
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom

Juice the pomegranates and the lime into a bowl
Add the icing sugar and whisk to dissolve
Whisk in the double cream and cardamom and keep whisking until soft peaks form in the pale pink cream
Spoon and smooth the ice cream into the airtight container of your choice and freeze for at least 4 hours, or overnight
Scatter with some pomegranate seeds before you eat, if you like

Chai Ice Cream

  • 150 ml (3/4 cup) milk
  • 250ml (1 cup) double cream (heavy cream)
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 3/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cardamon
  • 1 small pinch ground cloves
  • 1 small pinch ground nutmeg
  • 4 black teabags (cheap, strong tea is better – I’ve use Yorkshire Gold in homage to my sister)
  • 65g (1/4 cup) sugar
  • 5 egg yolks

In a saucepan, mix the milk, cream, spices, tea and half the sugar

Heat on medium-low to just below boiling point, remove the pan from the heat and set aside to let the spices and tea infuse the milk

Meanwhile, combine the egg yolks with the remainder of the sugar in a mixing bowl and whip for a couple of minutes, until fluffy

Remove the teabags from the milk (press the teabags through a strainer back into the saucepan to get all the juices out), return to the pan with the egg yolk mix and, on medium-low heat, stir constantly until it coats the spoon and you can draw a line with your finger on the spoon (if you have a food thermometer, it should be at 85˚C / 185F)

Take off the stove and let cool, ideally leave overnight in your fridge to let the flavours develop

If you have an ice cream maker, pour into the machine and freeze according to instructions

If you don’t have an ice cream maker, pour into a container and place in the freezer, stir every hour or two until completely frozen

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