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, 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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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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