Breakfast, Easy, Morning or Afternoon Tea, Sweet

Choosing Life’s Colours / Apple, Goat Cheese & Elderflower Turnovers

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” C.G. Jung

It’s the last limping steps of summer in our neck of the woods. We’ve been sneaking in as many beach days as possible, while slowly moving into long-sleeved tshirts, thicker duvets and autumn produce.

I love this time of year. I love autumn clothes, I love autumn food, I love that my Englishness feels increasingly comfortable as sunrises arrive later and the weather cools, I love that Melbourne sits in comfortably warm temperatures for many weeks yet. I love the anticipation of switching our summer wardrobes for winter ones; the gorgeous coat I haven’t worn for months, the new dress I bought for this Australian winter while in England last October. I love discussing the turning of leaves from green to gold with my son, the first time he’s been consciously aware of the change in season.

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Coincidently in line with this, I’m embracing all manner of change at the moment. My mood’s increasingly one of willingness to live a little differently, a little bolder. I’m no longer pushing down the rainbow of colours that flood through me, the parts I may have been embarrassed to show previously. I’m more anxious than I’d care to admit, and often more neurotic. Certainly more fragile than I’ve ever allowed myself to openly show. These have always seemed like negative traits, the dark sides I wished  away and tried to whitewash and replace with characteristics I once decided (and who knows when or how) were more acceptable.

I was standing outside my home yesterday, staring at a flat tyre on my car and wondering what comes next. Conversely, my friend was rummaging around in the boot, pulling out metal contraptions and wheels, asking where I keep my jack. Ummmmm… Moments later, two local boys came around the corner and asked if they could help and between the three of them I had a new tyre on my car within 10 minutes. The old me wouldn’t have let them do it, I’d have been ashamed that I’m not very practical and would’ve tried to hide it by assuring them I had it all under control. Yesterday, I let them help. And today I thanked them by baking for them. Practical I am not, but I know my way around an oven… So they got to feel good for helping, I got to practice honesty and humility by letting them and we all get some food.

Sounds like a fully coloured life to me.

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These creamy and sweet turnovers are a simple go-to on those days when a warm tummy is entirely welcome at any time. The soft goat cheese is the flavours’ foundation, tangy and decadently creamy; while the elderflower dances on taste buds with its cheerily floral notes; and right in the middle is the timeless combination of buttery, hot apples and a light flaky pastry. I like to sprinkle mine with sesame seeds before I pop them into the oven as the hint of smokiness adds an even great depth to this delicious combination of flavours.

Enjoy.

  • 800g (1.75lb) or 5 sheets of ready made puff pastry
  • 1kg (2.2lb) green apples (about 10 small apples), I use Granny Smith, only because we don’t get Bramley or Cox apples in Australia’s woefully limited varieties. If you can find something tarter, go for it
  • 75g (3oz) brown sugar
  • 3 tbl sp elderflower cordial
  • seeds from 1 vanilla bean
  • 75g (3oz) unsalted butter
  • 100g (3.5oz) Chèvre (fresh goat cheese)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 3 tbl sp sesame seeds

Peel, quarter and core the apples before cutting each quarter into four (quarter them again)

Heat the butter in a frying pan over high heat until foaming

Add the apple, half the sugar, elderflower cordial and vanilla and cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes or until the liquid reduces to gooey sweetness

Transfer to a heatproof bowl and set aside for 15 minutes to cool

Stir through the rest of the sugar, cover with clingfilm and place in the fridge for 30 minutes or until chilled

Preheat oven to 200˚C / 390˚F and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper

Roll out half the pastry, using a lightly floured rolling pin, until about 2mm thick. Use an 8cm-diameter (about 3 inches) round pastry cutter to cut 12 discs from the pastry (if you’re using the ready-rolled stuff, you’ll need two sheet for this)

Place the pastry discs on the prepared baking tray

Pile 2 tablespoon of the apple mixture onto each pastry disc before dotting with the goat cheese and placing in the fridge (this can be a balancing act but trust me, it’s worth it!).

Roll out the remaining pastry until about 2mm thick. Use a 10cm-diameter (about 4 inches) round pastry cutter to cut 12 discs from the pastry (3 sheets of the ready rolled pastry). Brush the edge of each disc with the beaten egg

Remove the tray from the fridge and place the larger pastry discs on top of the apple mixture. Gently press the edges of the pastry discs together

Brush the pastry tops with egg and sprinkle liberally with sesame seeds

Cut a small slit in the top of each turnover before baking for 20-25 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and golden

Serve with cream or vanilla ice-cream, if desired

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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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Morning or Afternoon Tea, Super Easy, Sweet

Six Dollar Man / Peanut Butter, Chocolate & Shortbread Blondies

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Plato

I met a guy at the petrol station this morning. Dark haired, Mediterranean heritage, wiry body. He jittered constantly, as those on large doses of speed do; his hands, eyes, legs and speech all falling over each other for attention.

He was standing in front of me in the queue to pay, quibbling over the cost of cigarettes and repeatedly asking about newspapers.

“How much are the cigarettes?… 25 dollars? But I’ve only got 23!… I’ll give you 23 for the cigarettes and the newspaper. Although I need two newspapers don’t I? What if I miss some news?… What?… No! I said I’d give you 23! I don’t have 29, I only have 23!… But I need them… Nonononononono, I need them.”

Peanut Butter, Chocolate & Shortbread Blondies - TIK

With four people behind me and the guy becoming increasingly agitated, I lean forwards and offer to add another 6 dollars onto my petrol.

The attendant looks relieved and immediately takes my card. The speeding guy spins around and peers closely at me, “Thanks mate. Thanks so much. I wouldn’t normally accept but I got to get them, see? I’m on my way to my parole officer. Just out of jail. Yup, just last week out of jail.”

I smile at him and start typing in my pin as he peers a little closer, “Hey mate, I know you, don’t I? Yes! I never forget a face! I know you from somewhere! Where is it?”

Peanut Butter Chocolate & Shortbread Blondies - TIK

I finish paying and look over at him. He looks vaguely familiar, but in the way that all strangers who insist they know you look vaguely familiar, “Maybe,” I say, “are you local?”

“Nope.” he jitters, “Nopenopenope. Not me. Just out of prison. Just out. Been in a long time this time. Ha! Got out though, yes I did! Hey! Are you on the prison board?”

“No.” I smile, watching the index and middle fingers of his left hand as they tap a furious, syncopated rhythm on his thigh, “When did you go in though? May be we knew each other before?”

He suddenly rears up on his toes and squeals in excitement, “Yes! Yesyes! I knew I knew you! You know Dave and Linda! And plumber Ron! You! I know you!”

Peanut Butter chocolate and shortbread blondes - TIK

And it hits me who he is. Eight years ago I was living with a woman called Linda, who was friends with a guy called Dave. We spent a bit of time together and he had a friend called Frank who would occasionally come along. Dave was worried about Frank because he was drinking too much and had just started taking drugs. Dave said that Frank was a guy who couldn’t help how much he drank once he started and became nasty after too many beers. Frank’s job as a high powered executive in an advertising firm was under threat because he’d attacked a client when drunk, and his wife was threatening to leave.

Eight years later, this man standing in front of me; just out of jail, off his head on speed at 10 in the morning, without enough money to buy cigarettes, was practically unrecognisable from the successful family man I’d been introduced to so many years previously.

“Ah!” he shouts, pointing at the road, “My bus’s here! Gotta go see my parole officer! Yupyup, gotta go! Good to see you mate! I never forget a face!”

And he runs down the road, cigarettes firmly clasped in one hand, the other waving frantically at the bus headed away from him, his flannel shirt ripped from armpit to stomach, his trousers held up by string.

Peanut Butter, Chocolate & Shortbread Blondies - TIK

I climbed slowly into my car, all worries and plans about my life temporarily stilled. And sent out a quiet word to whichever powers in the universe save us from the worst of ourselves, asking them to show him as much love as they could spare this day.

And then I came home and slowly made this bake. I’d planned something complex and a bit flamboyant this week. But in the end my heart needed simple and loving. Something to still the ache for those who haven’t managed to make it through this day without a painkiller for their soul. Something that reminds me of where I came from — and of where I am.

Enjoy.

Print this recipe

  • 150g unsalted butter, softened
  • 225g peanut butter (I’ve used both crunchy and smooth in this recipe and either work well)
  • 260g light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1½ tsp vanilla essence
  • 185g plain (all purpose) flour
  • 1½ tsp baking powder
  • A pinch of salt
  • 100g great quality white chocolate, chopped roughly into small pieces (today I used Green & Blacks. Dark or milk chocolate also work well)
  • 100g shortbread, roughly broken into chunks slightly bigger than the chocolate, about the size of a fingertip

Preheat the oven to 170˚C / 325˚F

Grease a 20 x 20cm (8 x 8 inch) square cake tin and line with baking paper

In a large bowl, cream the butter and peanut butter together until very soft. Add the sugar, eggs and vanilla and continue to beat until completely incorporated

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt and gently fold into the peanut butter mix until just combined

Separate half the mix into another bowl and carefully stir in the shortbread

Stir the chocolate into the remaining half

Spoon the shortbread mix into the prepared tin and spread right to the edges before adding the chocolate mix on top and smoothing with a palette knife

Bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes, or until golden brown and almost firm in the centre (always err on the side of caution here, slightly underdone is gorgeously fudgy and definitely preferable to overdone)

Allow to cool in the tin, before removing and cutting into squares

Eat. Smile. Repeat.

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Morning or Afternoon Tea, Super Easy, Sweet

Walking By Starlight / Triple Chocolate & Coconut Lime Cupcakes

“When a dove begins to associate with crows its feathers remain white but its heart grows black” German proverb

I’ve been woken each morning this week by the Dark Crow that once had a permanent place at the foot of my bed. Patient and dangerous, it snuck through unguarded shadows to taunt me once more.

“I’m glad you’re awake,” says the Crow, “we have a problem. No, I can’t wait for you to open your eyes, you have many things to listen to, it’s all bad I’m afraid… Remember that girl who wanted to have coffee? You know the one, she’s pretty and slim, so already better than you? Yup, you messed that up, here’s a flashback of the conversation at the exact moment you were an idiot. And remember that call with your friend when she was too busy to meet up? She’s not, you talk too much so she doesn’t want to see you, you’ve lost another one. And then yesterday when you…”

And that’s just the first millisecond as it warms up to the really good stuff.

I heard the Crow’s stories for so many years they became an indelible stain on my brain. So soaked into the fabric of my thoughts that the Crow could start half way through a monologue, knowing I already had the rest of my imagined failures embroidered into my soul.

TIK - Base flavours for Triple Chocolate, Lime & Coconut Cupcakes

It’s not the best start to a day. It’s not the best start to a life. I was about eight years old when I first heard the Crow, I didn’t know that it was something to be fought until I was 25. I didn’t know how to fight for 2 years after that. For 19 years the Crow was my bed companion, greeting me in the morning and talking me to sleep each night.

Today, my heart breaks for that child who knew no different, who didn’t even know it was unusual to listen to such things. If it had been a person outside my head, rather than a voice inside, it’d be classified as chronic emotional abuse. If anyone spoke to my son that way I’d happily hack out their tongue with a blunt spoon. And yet, I never thought to treat myself as I would anyone else. I never knew to be disgusted and horrified on my own behalf.

And today I speak with scores of people who live with their own Dark Crows, maybe you have one too.

I changed quite suddenly. About 8 years ago I woke up, the Crow opened its beak to start pontificating on my life failures and, Matrix style, I gripped its beak shut and thought, “Stop”. I looked deeply into the part of my mind that housed the Crow and said, “I will not be spoken to like that any more. It’s over. You’re finished.”

TIK - Finnish Proverb Lime & Coconut Frosting

From that moment, every time my Crow would arc up I’d firmly and gently stop it from saying any more. At first I’d catch it halfway through the monologue, I was so used to its noise it took some time to recognise. Gradually, I caught the chatter earlier. My mind became quieter. At the same time I began the work of challenging all the thoughts it’d been crowing at me, while actively focussing on the good in my world. When given a choice I would look for joy, peace and love. Even today it feels silly and naive at times, like I’m not being realistic trusting the light of the stars when the night sky is so dark. But I’d firmly decided on that first day that I’d rather be stupid than broken. And for the most part today, I’m neither.

But this week, my visitor smuggled the dark back into my mind. And today, my two year old son wore some of its hatred. He woke up in a challenging mood and we’d been at loggerheads all morning, I was unable to see anything past the Crow again and, frustrated with him and filled with self, I yelled primal fury into his little face. He immediately crawled under the table, weeping, and repeating over and over, “I’m so sorry Mummy, I’m so sorry.”

Is there anything more devastating than terrifying your child into tears? If there is I haven’t found it yet. The guilt, remorse and self-hatred were immediate and soul-crippling. The Crow won that round and so had more powerful material for future monologues.

I paused, as I’ve been taught to do, and pushed my self-absorbed self-loathing to one side, before creeping under the table next to my son and whispering “I’m sorry. Mummy’s having a bad day and that’s clashed with your bad day. It was very wrong that Mummy scared you and it’s never okay to shout like that. I’m so sorry I scared you.”

TIK - Triple Chocolate Cupcake tower

He immediately crawled onto my lap and we were friends again. Moments later he’s pelting me with ping-pong balls and laughing uproariously. His forgiveness is fast and complete. I’ll take longer to forgive myself for the monster breaking free around my son.

But if I don’t forgive myself the Crow wins, and I’ve made a silent commitment to all those who come into any contact with me that the Crow isn’t going to win any more. I’m starting the only way I know how and walking by starlight again. Because today I know that although the world is full of pain and tears and terrifying cruelty, it is also full of wonder and inspiration and heroes. And at the end of it all, I know which side I want to fall on.

Bloody hell… I need glitter, laughter and jazzy hands coming from my oven after this week. It’s a no brainer in this mood, it’s got to be the most frivolous of all bakes, cupcakes. I’ve a fabulous and super-easy chocolate cake recipe from Nigella Lawson that I’ve adapted for these cupcakes; dark, heavy and a good representation of my crow. I’ve then lightened and lifted the darkness with a liberal addition of a sweet, creamy and sharp coconut and lime frosting. I’ve topped everything off with sparkly bits to cheer myself up, feel free to ignore that addition if you’re already sparkly enough.

Enjoy.

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Click here to print this recipe

For the cake

  • 200g plain flour
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 50g cocoa powder + extra to dredge the cupcake tins
  • 275g caster sugar
  • 175g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 tbl sp vanilla extract
  • 80ml sour cream
  • 125ml boiling water
  • 175g dark chocolate chips

For the syrup

  • 1 tsp cocoa powder
  • 125ml water
  • 100g caster sugar

For the frosting

  • 1 can of coconut milk (about 400ml)
  • 225g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 315g icing (powdered) sugar
  • Zest from 2-4 limes
  • 1-3 tsp coconut extract
  • Optional topping of your choice (sprinkles? Lime zest and coconut shavings? Shavings of dark chocolate?)

Preheat the oven to 170°C / 325ºF

Thoroughly grease two 12 hole cupcake tins and completely cover each one with about a teaspoon of cocoa powder (I put a the cocoa in the bottom of each hole and shake the tin around until each hole is entirely covered). Once finished, tip the tin upside-down and tap lightly on a surface to get rid of the excess cocoa

Put the flour, bicarb, cocoa, sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla and sour cream into the processor and blitz till a smooth, satiny brown batter. Scrape down with a rubber spatula and process again while pouring the boiling water down the funnel. Switch it off then remove the lid and the well-scraped double-bladed knife and, still using your rubber spatula, stir in the chocolate chips

Fill each cupcake hole about half way up before sliding into the oven, cooking for 20 to 25 minutes. When it’s ready, the cupcakes will be risen and a cake-tester, or a fine skewer, will pretty well come out clean. But this is a damp cake so don’t be alarmed at a bit of stickiness in evidence

Five minutes before you take the cupcakes from the oven, put the syrup ingredients of cocoa, water and sugar into a small saucepan and boil for 5 minutes. You may find it needs a little longer: what you want is a reduced liquid, that’s to say a syrup, though I often take it a little further, so that the sugar caramelises and the syrup has a really dark, smokey chocolate intensity

Take the cupcakes out of the oven and sit them on a cooling rack and, still in the tin, pierce each a few times with a cake tester. Then run a small knife around the outside of each cupcake to make sure they can come away easily before pouring a teaspoon or so of syrup over the surface of each cupcake

Let the cupcakes cool and then slip them out of the tin ready for frosting

To make the frosting, bring the coconut milk to boil in large deep saucepan over a medium-high heat (coconut milk will boil up high in pan). Reduce heat to medium-low and boil, stirring occasionally, for 25 to 30 minutes until reduced by about two thirds. Remove from the heat and cool completely. Transfer to small bowl. Cover and chill. (This can be made 2 days ahead and kept in the fridge)

Using an electric whisk, beat the butter in large bowl until smooth. Add the sugar, zest from 2 limes, 1 teaspoon of coconut extract and 80ml of the reduced coconut milk and beat until light and fluffy. Once fully fluffed, check the coconut and lime flavours are speaking your language loudly enough, if they’re not, keeping adding in each little by little until you have the flavour exactly as you want.

Using pastry bag fitted with large star tip, pipe frosting onto the cupcakes

Eat these at dawn, at dusk and amongst the stars

And, quickly, a big thank you to Michelle at King of States and the rest of the group at Blogging 201 this week. Anyone who thinks blogging isn’t a community effort hasn’t spent time surfing the loving halls of WordPress.

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Easy, Morning or Afternoon Tea, Sweet

Warring with Desire / Dark Chocolate, Whipped Peanut & Caramel Cookies

“There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.” Mark Twain

I moan gently in the back of my throat, half heartedly protesting at the frisson of excitement running through my body. I’m determined not to cave this time. I’ve made so many promises to myself over these months, so many times determined not to give in to the desire again, and so many times crumbled into frantic ripping and devouring.

Damn you Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

I’m not normally a fan of American chocolate, preferring the creaminess of the British, but once these little devils snuck into my chocolate repertoire it’s been nearly impossible to resist their salty, caramel deliciousness for any proper length of time. Like a week.

And they come in pairs. Could life get any more unfair?

Apparently so, because then my local food market started selling them. The one place I rely on for whole foods untainted by the stain of my nasty chocolate crushes and they fail me utterly by supplying Reece’s by the boxful. Cunningly placed next to the organic, 80% cocoa chocolates and raw peanut balls as if to say, “Who? Me? Oh, I’m just hanging out here for a while. Watching the scenery. Don’t mind my gorgeous chemical-laden calorific presence on the shelves. Go and buy some carrots. Bad girl.”

Caramel & Part Nibbled Dark Chocolate Biscuit

I went through a stage of slipping a pack under the rest of my shopping; like all the organic, raw produce sitting on top would somehow transmogrify the terrible temptation into a tamed beast. No such luck. Now, like the hard bitten addict I’ve become, I jut out my chin and slap one into my basket, daring the artisan chocolates to question my life choices.

When I had my son, two and a half years ago, the side of me that houses my passions, desires and a penchant for the naughty just shut off. I felt numbed to anything more than motherhood and existed in the dubious freedom that comes with muted, untangled emotions. The price to pay was a level of depression, at times the exhaustion left me so bleak I couldn’t fathom ever feeling human again. But there was also a cleanness to my emptiness, a relief in living a half life for a while.

Over the past few months I’ve begun to feel everything again and, as with all change, there are plusses and minuses, with Reece’s sitting firmly in the terribly naughty but so very good category. And it’s not just that temptation, it seems that my tastebuds have burst into permanent activity, offering up all the flavours I’d forgotten and threatening to turn the rest of my eating life into that scene from When Harry Met Sally…

Unfortunately, another gift from my son is a slowed metabolism. Where I used to be one of those people who could eat anything and stay slim, I now need to be far more conscious of what I put into my body and how much dreaded exercise is going to be needed to shift it. With that in mind, I’ve been trying to recreate the naughtiness of Reece’s without so much of the wide-eyed horror when I step on the scales.

And here it is…

A soft nuzzle of caramel and thoroughly whipped peanut butter are gently sandwiched between two dark chocolate cookies in this definitely-still-rather-unhealthy-but-so-very-good cookie recipe…

Enjoy.

Preheat oven to 160°C. Line a baking tray with baking paper

On a high speed, whisk the butter, half the peanut butter, caster sugar and 1 teaspoon of the vanilla until pale and creamy

Sift half the flour and cocoa powder over the butter mixture. Stir by hand until just combined. Add the remaining flour and cocoa powder and stir until the dough begins to clump together

Gather the dough into a ball and turn onto a large sheet of cling film, fold over the film and, using your hands, gently roll and shape the dough into a rough tube shape. Then wrap again with a tea towel and roll into a log about 6cm in diameter from tip to tip. Remove the tea towel and wrap in a sheet of card. Secure with elastic bands and put in the freezer overnight

(At this point you can keep the dough in the freezer and chop off slices as your cravings hit)

Cut an even number of 5mm slices from the log and place on the baking tray

Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes. Set aside on the tray to cool

Meanwhile, add the cold cream, peanut butter and remaining vanilla into a bowl and whisk until it’s combined and no clumps remain. Sift in the icing sugar and whisk until stiff and completely combined

Spread half the biscuits with a teaspoonful of the caramel spread

Spread the other half of the biscuits with a tablespoon full of the peanut whip

Gently sandwich together and serve to groans of achingly naughty delight

Chocolate, Peanut & Caramel Cookie finished

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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, Not So Easy, Sweet

Unfulfilled by Unicorn Rides and Jazzy Hands / Caramel Chocolate Ganache Tart

I wrote last week about finding a reconnection with helpless laughter by singing and dancing to cheesy music. This week, I’ve been thinking a lot, after reading a thought provoking post from Kelly over at This Mom Gig, about the change that’s come over me in the last ten years that I was able to unselfconsciously sing and dance terribly, let alone write openly about it.

I then saw that Jon Richardson (a wonderful, occasionally vulnerable British comedian) is going to start filming a show where he travels around England to find how to grow into a ‘happy adult’. I ended up reading a little further and it looks like he’s not mindlessly jumping on the happy bandwagon, but for a moment I felt an insensible rage at this insistence of constant happiness, like a drug that’s only owned by a lucky few and we all have to scrabble for the best dealer we can possibly find.

I spent so many years knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that something was wrong with me. That I had already failed as a human because I didn’t have a cloak of happiness always swept around me. That those who appeared in magazines, on television, in self help books and on the posters that adorned my walls had cracked the secret to eternal happiness and that, if I could just watch and follow them closely enough, then the constant fear and occasional emptiness and therefore obvious failure of my existence would be swept up into a sparkly mass of unicorn rides and jazzy hands.

What seems to have been at the base of my happiness misunderstanding was a belief that negative feelings were unacceptable and something to be feared. I’d spent years pushing down my feelings of depression, rage, ineptitude and failure to the point that I didn’t even know where to start being happy, other than hide everything I felt was the real me and only ever leave the house with an emotional mask in the contorted shape of happiness.

Lots of gurus promise eternal happiness, but I cast-iron guarantee you that the only reason you believe them is because you don’t know them. You haven’t had the opportunity to see the darkness that always pairs with light. They’re as imperfect as you and me and just as prone to the emptiness that they promise you can beat if you just buy their books and sign up to their podcasts and do a month of healing at the low, introductory price of $99.

They’re lying, or they’re insensibly stupid. I suspect the former, as they’re smart enough to make a business out of happiness. They have to lie to make a living and I feel sorry for them that that’s their life. But they’re making our lives more miserable by insisting that we’re doing something wrong and for that I don’t like them very much at all.

The truth is that life is frequently hard for everyone, and often full of things like washing the dishes, sorting out whites from coloureds for the washing machine and eyeing the fly that’s currently close enough to you that you feel uncomfortable, but not quite close enough to swat away.

Challenges are mostly there to be lost, especially when we’re young. Exams and friendships are to be failed horribly. And relationships are to be screwed up so badly you don’t even want to walk in the same country as that person for the 5 years it takes to stop wanting to hide under the floor every time you think about that last, dramatically pathetic, begging conversation (totally happened to me. Twice). It’s what makes life and people interesting. It’s what makes us relatable. It’s what makes us funny as hell.

Because here’s the rub about perennially happy people — I really don’t like them, and I’ll bet you don’t either. They’re annoying; like a really needy puppy — it looks like something you want in your life on first smitten glance, but after a short amount of time you will want to give it back. And they’re hopelessly unrealistic and unsympathetic; there are a couple of people I know who, no matter what’s happened, breathily utter something like, “You’re so lucky that you have the opportunity to walk through this.” I want to slap them when it’s about a parking ticket, but I know that one of them once said it to a mutual friend whose partner had just committed suicide. They’re not better than other people for their Pollyanna approach to life, they’re just more irritating and boring.

Happiness is a momentary feeling, sometimes of a few days or weeks, but more often it’s a fleeting moment when you finally learn all the words to the Frozen theme song, or your child’s singing Old MacDonald Had a Farm on his own for the first time. The reason it doesn’t last for longer is because it’s not meant to. It’s just one feeling out of many, and we’re evolved and capable of feeling them all.

Now, please don’t take the above to read that I’m saying there’s something wrong with being happy. I love feeling happy. But it’s only by fully engaging with all my emotions that my happiness has become completely free from the hangups that come from pretending it’s the only worthwhile emotion. I’ve quoted this passage before on my blog, but it seems relevant to quote it again

“But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing floor.
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.”

He’s saying you’re going to be really boring if you only allow for the good bits. Don’t do it. There’s far too much life to be had in living a full, painful, messy, fun-filled life.

Speaking of full lives, I made a chocolate caramel ganache tart this week. The filling’s another one from the very talented head pastry chef, Chloë Thomas, at Stokehouse restaurant. I was going to save this one for later in the year, but I made these during the week and they were so delicious I just couldn’t resist.

Enjoy.

Puff Pastry

  • 250g strong plain flour
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 250g butter, at room temperature, but not soft
  • about 150ml cold water

Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Roughly break the butter in small chunks, add them to the bowl and rub them in loosely. You need to see bits of butter

Make a well in the bowl and pour in about two-thirds of the cold water, mixing until you have a firm rough dough adding extra water if needed. Cover with cling film and leave to rest for 20 mins in the fridge

Turn out onto a lightly floured board, knead gently and form into a smooth rectangle. Roll the dough in one direction only, until 3 times the width, about 20 x 50cm. Keep edges straight and even. Don’t overwork the butter streaks; you should have a marbled effect

Fold the top third down to the centre, then the bottom third up and over that. Give the dough a quarter turn (to the left or right) and roll out again to three times the length. Fold as before, cover with cling film and chill for at least 20 mins before rolling to use (you only need half for this recipe so save the rest for up to 3 months in the freezer for other recipes – like the delicious Imperfect Kitchen roasted garlic and pumpkin recipe!)

Lightly dust your rolling surface and roll out to about 3cm thickness

Spray olive oil on four 12cm tart tins with loose bottoms (or use melted butter)

Using a the tart cases as a guide, cut 4 rough circles, slightly bigger than the tins

Line each tart case with a pastry circle, ensuring you press into the edges along the bottom of the ring, before pricking the base of the pastry a couple of times with a fork

Freeze for at least 30 minutes

Preheat oven to 180˚C / 350˚F

Blind bake the pastry cases for 10-15 minutes until the cases are dry. Remove the baking beans (or rice, coins, or whatever you’re using) and continue to bake for another 10-15 minutes until the pastry is a satisfying golden brown

Remove from the oven and set aside to cool

Chocolate Caramel Filling

  • 500g single (pouring) cream
  • 600g dark chocolate
  • 400g milk chocolate
  • 400g caster sugar
  • 100g unsalted butter
  • ½ tsp salt

Heat the cream and salt in a small saucepan until it reaches the boil and then set aside to cool

Mix dark and milk chocolate in a mixing bowl

Heat a heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat

Once hot enough (you will know when this is reached as a small sprinkle of sugar will melt almost instantly) add handfuls of sugar at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon until melted and caramelised before adding the next handful

Once all the sugar has been completely melted and caramelised, add the butter and stir until melted

Slowly whisk in the hot cream

Pour the caramel mix over the chocolates and whisk until all chocolates are fully melted and everything is completely combined

Pour the chocolate caramel mix into the four tart cases and refrigerate for about 4 hours, until set

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