Morning or Afternoon Tea, Super Easy, Sweet

Parenting in the Imperfect / Nutella Macaroons with White Chocolate Ganache

“Perhaps it takes courage to raise children.” John Steinbeck

My three-year old son spent most of today with at least one hand down the back of his nappy or up his nose. Although I can admire his tenacity, I felt the need to gently and persistently steer him away from this new activity. Partly because I can’t keep an eye on everything he touches after; and partly because the only other part of his body he’s currently obsessed with is the inside of his mouth. And he gives me lots of kisses, which can turn into licks. Just one of the many joys that come with parenting a toddler…

His other new activity’s opening his mouth as wide as possible and yelling a single note as loudly as he can. Mostly in response to something he doesn’t want to hear. Which, these days, could be just about anything. He has no compunction about doing this in the car, in a cafe, in the supermarket. I believe his preference is somewhere public and definitely where others are quiet.

I was laughing with a fellow mother the other day about our opinions on parenting before we had children. Before my son was born, I was judgemental towards parents who allowed their children to use electronics, once staring in horror at a family allowing their two-year old to use an iPad for an entire breakfast. My child was never going to have a dummy. My child was going to sleep through at 6 weeks thanks to letting him cry himself to sleep. My child was going to only eat organic, biodynamic produce, prepared entirely from scratch by me and was never, never going to have sugar, salt or preservatives in food. Before he was born I seriously considered cloth nappies and unpainted, Scandinavian wooden toys. I briefly played with the idea of changing all our cleaning products to white vinegar and baking soda, with the occasional whiff of diluted eucalyptus oil. He’d never have a temper tantrum because I’d read all the right books. I’d never bribe him to behave. I would exude patience, love and tolerance at all times.

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Three years on, as he’s eating chocolate covered sultanas (totally a fruit in there), watching his second hour of television (Dora’s educational, right?), wearing clothes probably made in terrible sweat shops in a third world country (Kmart have trolleys with child seats – my new essential for a shop), with an ugly plastic toy xylophone that keeps him happily entertained for the 20 minutes it takes for me to have a shower; I’m so very grateful that I’ve learned to be happy about being an imperfect parent. And beyond grateful for the parents who snort with laughter when I tell them about this, before responding with tales of their children sharing bites of food with dogs, of co-sleeping, of owning 14 types of dummy, of fish finger dinners and of having watched every episode of Peppa Pig… twice…

As part of my softening to all parenting ideas that involve parenting as happily as possible, my boy and I share a love for these macaroons. Hazelnut and chocolate is a completely delicious combination, as the Italians discovered many years ago by creating Nutella. As a side note; there are macaroons and macarons, two completely different nibbles. Macarons are the slightly fussy, often poorly made meringue biscuit sandwiched with something creamy. Macaroons are a very easy-to-make, robust meringue biscuit; super-light in texture, packed with flavour and last happily for several weeks in an airtight container  — perfect for toddlers (and adults) who need to be bribed out of a brewing temper tantrum (yup, I do that too) or for afternoons when your friends drop by and the only other food in the house is a honey sandwich…

Enjoy.

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Nutella Macaroons

  • 250g (9oz) hazelnut meal
  • 125g (4.5oz) icing (powdered) sugar
  • 50g (2oz) cocoa powder
  • A pinch of sea (kosher) salt
  • 150g (5.5oz) egg whites (about 4 egg whites)
  • 25g (1oz) caster (superfine) sugar

Preheat the oven to 200˚C and line two baking trays with baking paper

Place the hazelnut meal and salt in a bowl

Sift in the icing sugar and cocoa powder and stir to combine

Place the egg whites and caster sugar in a separate bowl and whisk together until soft peaks form

Gently fold in the hazelnut mix

Spoon into a piping bag and pipe walnut-sized balls onto the trays, about 5cm apart (if you don’t have a piping bag, you can shape using two teaspoons. The only warning I have with this is that when I tried it this way they looked like… and I don’t know another way to say this… cow pats. Yes, they still taste amazing but they will look slightly dung-like. My son thinks this is hilarious and now won’t let me pipe them. You have been warned.)

Decrease the oven temperature to 160˚C and place the trays in the oven, baking for 25-30 minutes or until the macaroons are lightly coloured and dry to the touch

Cool on the trays for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely

White Chocolate Ganache Frosting

  • 440g (15.5oz) white chocolate (choose real chocolate, check on the ingredients that it contains cocoa butter)
  • 150ml (5.5oz) double cream (at least 35% fat)
  • Small pinch salt
  • 5ml (½ tsp) vanilla essence

Heat up your cream until it almost starts to boil and then pour over the chocolate

Let it sit for 30 seconds and then stir

If there are still lumps of white chocolate you can microwave it for 10 seconds and stir it again until it’s smooth

Leave it to cool

Using a palette knife (really any blunt knife will do), smear the ganache onto the macaroons in quantities and patterns that make you happy

Use for all your most important bribes.

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Morning or Afternoon Tea, Super Easy, Sweet

Leaning into Home / Banana, Coconut & Chocolate Loaf Cake

“And suddenly you know: It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.” Meister Eckhart

I’m sitting in my new coffee shop just around the corner from my new house, watching my new neighbours pass by. It’s noisier and busier than my old area, the barista doesn’t know how I like my coffee, there are fewer trees, and I haven’t seen a child shoot past the window yet — and a crooning voice says this is a mistake, that I should go running back to my old life, that I can’t possibly risk all of this.

I know this voice so well, it’s the sprawling bad neighbourhood in the city of my mind, and have learned over time to gently and kindly ignore its sentiments until another voice wraps itself around my fears and murmurs comfort, finding courage in just doing this one small step at a time. That I don’t need all the answers all at once. That not knowing what my world looks like beyond today is just fine. That my only job is to making a beginning and keep trying.

And then the universe lovingly joins in to console by sending a little boy, about the same age as mine, racing past the cafe so that he can beat his heavily pregnant mother to the crossing and press the button for the pedestrian light.  An old lady is leaning on her walking stick, also waiting to cross, and the three of them share a big smile before the green man appears to propel them across the road.

In watching their ease with each other and in deliberately moving to the peaceful parts of my head, I know in this moment that we’re going to be just fine here. We’re going to find new spaces to be happy and to live fully. My son will do what he does everywhere we go and make friends with everyone on the street, even people who don’t warm to me will be swept up in the joy he exudes with every heartbeat.

I’ll learn where I can join in and where I can be still, I’ll learn to do it standing on my own two feet, I’ll learn to smile in a new house and in a new car and in a new neighbourhood. I’ll learn to take photos in the new light. I’ll learn to bake in the new oven. I’ll learn where my joy has travelled with me, where old joys can be let go, and where new joys can be found.

Grief and fear are still present, but in this moment they are stilled by the possibility of truly living a full and authentic life. I deliberately started walking down this path to make sure I lived that way, and with each seemingly trivial step, I’m living bigger than I’ve ever lived before.

So welcome back to The Imperfect Kitchen everyone. I’ve no idea what the road ahead looks like, but the road today’s looking pretty good.

All starting with this banana, coconut and chocolate chip loaf cake. I wanted something that was easily transportable while we moved house, something low in sugar so my son could eat some without becoming manic, and something that I could make with ease in an oven I didn’t know much about. Philip’s fabulous Home Baking recipe book gave me the base for this recipe. The great thing about this cake, other than the gorgeous flavours and that it lasts for days in a cake tin, is that it’s quite hard to mess up; something that my distracted mind needs at the moment!

Enjoy.

  • 200g (7 oz) unflavoured Greek yoghurt
  • 110g (4 oz) shredded coconut
  • A pinch of salt
  • 3 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 150g (5 ½ oz) raw sugar
  • 150g (5 ½ oz) wholemeal self-raising flour
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 100g (3 ½ oz) dark chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 180˚C

Grease and line a loaf tin with greaseproof baking paper (my loaf tin is 22cm x 12cm, 8.5 inches x 4.5 inches)

Thoroughly mix the yoghurt, coconut, salt, banana and sugar in a mixing bowl before covering and placing in the fridge for about ½ hour (if you’re in a hurry don’t worry too much, it’s just slightly tastier to let the coconut soak and soften before baking)

Stir the chocolate chips into the banana mix before folding in the flour and cinnamon to create a smooth batter. Spoon the mixture into your tin to bake for about 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. I find that the top is brown enough after about 45 minutes but the middle takes another 15 minutes, so I place some tin foil over the cake to finish baking. Just keep an eye on it and do the same if you need

Remove the cake from the oven and rest for a few minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool

Eat in great big slabs. On its own or with butter if you prefer

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Lunch or Dinner, Savoury, Super Easy

A Faint Hum / Roast Pumpkin & Goats Cheese Pasta

Sickness and exhaustion from my toddler’s nighttime antics have descended and taken over everything. My brain emits nothing more than a faint hum, reminiscent of the white noise that used to be produced by television sets before they commenced on their eternal entertainment existence.

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I’m in no doubt how closely linked my mind, body and essence (soul? Spirit?) are. Rolling in negative thoughts quickly slows my mood, practising good principles of living (kindness, patience, love, self care) creates a lightness I feel from the very centre of my body. And physical exhaustion and sickness dull my senses, both physical and emotional, until I feel that everything’s under deep, dark water — heavy, weighed down and isolated.

The solution’s as immutable as the problem. Each day needs to be created from scratch: self care, refusing any nonessential activities, accepting any and all offers of help (a particularly difficult one for me), meditating both in company and alone, being useful to others to help distract myself, remembering that my thinking is compromised when exhausted, and the most important rule to follow is not to take myself so damn seriously… And repeat… And repeat…

TIK - Chilli

It passes. It always passes. Sickness will fade and my son will sleep. And even in these days there are long moments of laughter and light — always as a result of time spent with others; particularly with those I’m coming to cherish as I risk opening my heart to the world.

Meals like this are perfect for these days. Pan roasted pumpkin with chilli and garlic is offset by a gentle, creamy goats cheese and tossed through pasta. It’s incredibly simple, while offering flavours that both comfort and dance. I sometimes squeeze sausages out of their skins into little balls and add to the pumpkin for the last few minutes of cooking. In other seasons, I exchange the pumpkin for zucchini and cook for half the time. Use the recipe as suits you best. I know I do.

TIK - Pumpkin

Enjoy.

  • 800g pumpkin
  • 30g unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1 – 2 cloves of garlic finely chopped, to taste
  • ½ – 1 chilli finely chopped, to taste
  • 400g spaghetti
  • 4 tbl sp soft goat’s cheese (I use Meredith Dairy’s goat cheese infused in olive oil, but any soft goat cheese will do)

Chop the pumpkin into bite sized pieces, (very) roughly 1.5cm squared

Melt the butter and olive oil in a frying pan

Add the pumpkin, garlic and chilli and cook, covered, over a medium low heat for 10 minutes

Turn the pumpkin and cook for another 10 minutes, until golden and tender when poked with a fork

In the meantime, cook your pasta according to the packet instructions

Place a tablespoon of goats cheese per person into the bottom of each bowl

Drain the pasta and mix into the goats cheese

Add the cooked pumpkin to each bowl and serve

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Morning or Afternoon Tea, Super Easy, Sweet

Weighing Worth / Coconut, Strawberry & Balsamic Cookies {dairy free, gluten free}

“To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.”
Simone de Beauvoir

I’ve always had a rather unhealthy view of weight, I suspect I’m not alone. I grew up in central London, surrounded by skinny. I went to private schools where statistics at the time showed that one out of every seven girls had eating disorders. I remember being thrilled when people told me I was too thin, believing that was the only acceptable size to be.

After a whole life of being naturally slim, with minimal effort on my part, I fell pregnant. And put on 30kg (nearly 5 stone, or 66 pounds). I wept with my sister one day towards the end of my pregnancy because she was trying to convince me to buy some clothes – I’d refused to go shopping for months. I also hadn’t had a hair cut, wasn’t wearing makeup and had stopped looking in the mirror. On one level I was happier than ever because we were finally having a child, on another level (that I was ashamed to admit to myself) I was filled with self-loathing for my physical appearance. I would look at pregnant women who had a delicate bump jutting from a still-perfect form and felt, in a place that I wasn’t admitting to anyone, that I was failing at being pregnant.

I was comforted that once I gave birth and started breastfeeding the weight would fall off. I’d join the ranks of yummy mummies and my success as a hybrid mother/attractive woman would be assured.

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Except it didn’t happen. I lost 8kg during birth, but no more. As I’ve written many times on this blog, my son’s been a poor sleeper for most of his life and so my body craved high-calorie food as a replacement for sleep. I’d also been diagnosed (utterly unsurprisingly given the lack of sleep) with mild post natal depression, a classic vehicle for a slower metabolism.

I felt ashamed that I was ashamed of my weight. As a right-on women’s lib modern thinker I make a point not to judge others for which hole their belt fills. But it became apparent that I was near-incapable of practising even a basic level of self care while I was overweight. Granted, I wasn’t helped by some in my community, but the truth is that in all the emotional growth and shifts I’ve had over the years, one thing I never challenged was my belief about thin being best.

I started work on self acceptance, on seeing myself as the same person I was before the added weight. But I couldn’t break through the feeling I’d lost my femininity and the shame that I couldn’t fit into jeans. And the truth, that I wish wasn’t the truth, is that I didn’t want to accept myself. My whole life has been geared towards being slim and I still struggle with the belief that self acceptance is the right and healthy way to think.

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Six months ago my son’s sleep improved. It took a couple of months to find my feet from two years of chronic sleep deprivation and then I started to change my eating habits and up my exercise. Four month’s on and I’ve only a few kilos left before I’m a weight I feel comfortable sitting in (although I could always go thinner, I need to be careful to follow my doctor’s guidance instead of basing my ideal weight on exiguous girls in magazines). I tried on a pair of jeans today that I couldn’t have gotten over my knees a few months ago and they fit — I was so excited that I wore them out for the day, even though I probably need to lose a bit more weight to do them justice. The goodies you get on this blog are almost entirely given away to friends and family these days (and my invitations have risen accordingly!). I test my recipes extensively before posting and taste constantly through that process, but other than that I’m pretty healthy.

Well, I say healthy, but is it? Really, my aim is to be thin. All other health benefits are secondary to my weight. Can I claim health-consciousness if it’s just a bi-product of my vanity? Logically I know that slim should be a side effect of health, not the other way around, and the feminist part of me snarls at my shallowness, but I just can’t seem to marry up my logic with my feelings.

I know I usually have a resolution at the end of my posts, and intellectually it’s clear what I need to be feeling, but I haven’t managed to walk the journey from my head to my heart on this one. Not yet.

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What I do have are these amazing cookies. They’re not a health food, I think we can all safely agree that’s not going to happen on this blog — and why should it? But they’re a small bite of incredible flavour. Sweet strawberry, creamy coconut and tangy balsamic vinegar all cased in a super light cookie made from egg whites and sugar. The Cheergerm & The Silly Yak reminded me last week that I’d been meaning to make some old school macaroons since I made the curd for my Lavender, Honey & Lemon Curd Madeleines. Being a sweet-toothed sort, I enjoy traditional macaroons (and if that’s what you’re looking for, I suggest you head straight over to Cheergerm’s page because her recipe’s spot on) but I’ve designed this version to lengthen the flavours across your palate; turning this childhood classic into a rather special grown up treat. Enjoy.

Save and print this recipe by clicking here

Makes 24

  • 2 egg whites
  • Pinch of sea (kosher) salt
  • 100g caster (superfine) sugar
  • 100g fine desiccated coconut
  • 1 tbl sp freeze dried strawberry powder (either buy, or make your own at this link)
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • About 1 tbl sp balsamic vinegar glaze to finish (either buy, or recipe below)

Preheat the oven to 150˚C / 300˚F and line two baking trays with baking paper

Whisk the egg whites and salt in a medium sized bowl until stiff peaks form

Gradually beat in the sugar and strawberry powder

Gently fold in the coconut and balsamic

Using 2 teaspoons, shape heaped teaspoons of the mixture into balls and place on the trays, about 5cm apart

Bake for about 20 minutes, rotating halfway through

When the macaroons are dry and cooked, cool on wire racks before drizzling with the balsamic glaze

Store in an airtight container

Balsamic Glaze

  • 500ml balsamic vinegar

Pour vinegar into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer

Turn the heat to low and reduce the vinegar for between 30 and 40 minutes, or until it has become thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. You should end up with about 125ml

Remove from heat and allow to cool

If sealed in an airtight container and kept in the fridge, a balsamic glaze should keep quite happily for a year or more

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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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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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Morning or Afternoon Tea, Not So Easy, Sweet

Letting It Go To Disco / Chocolate & Peanut Brittle Truffles

How often do you sing out loud? I was listening to my son belting out a classic last weekend, Old MacDonald Had a Farm, and found myself hollering along. My son thinks Mr MacDonald farms a fair number of dinosaurs and trucks, so we experimented with gusto.

By the time we finished we were both grinning all the way through the house and I realised I couldn’t remember when I’d stopped playing the kind of music that inspired singing along loudly, but it was probably time I started up again.

Consequently, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, Queen, the Pitch Perfect soundtrack and all the cheesy music my lungs can handle have been cranked all the way up to 11 this week. And it feels great. I now also know all the words to the Frozen theme song, Let It Go. The proper way to learn those words is to sing the song 16 times in a row — just so you know the level of dedication you’re going to need to achieve the same Disney singing skills I now exhibit.

It began with singing but didn’t stop there. The next step started with some arm flinging, Elsa-style, during my Let It Go marathon, but rapidly crescendoed (or diminuendoed, depending on your attitude towards these things) into pretty fabulous boogying. Not dancing, you understand, nothing as simple and tame as mere dancing. In my mind I was a So You Think You Can Dance finalist — as long as the mirror was well hidden. No need to be reminded that I really look more like a mid-sized orangutan suffering from epilepsy.

By the time I went to a chocolate masterclass later in the week, I was in a fine mood — and had been for a few days. I can’t believe that I’d forgotten the simple joy of being silly, and I was loving rediscovering gasps of laughter during faux-serious dance routines.

It later came to me that we live in a world filled to the brim with potential worries. Work, family, politics, religion, science, climate, self help, war; the fabric of modern life threatens to be lonely and frightening. Existence seems lopsided at times, imperfect and overwhelming. The choices we need to make grow as our world gets smaller. We’re no longer guaranteed jobs for life, or marriages for life, or even that we get to live in one town, state or country. Education is increasingly a luxury, certainly in Australia this week as the government announced a budget that left everyone who doesn’t own a coal mine reeling.

And in this midst of overwhelming choices and underwhelming options, it feels more important than ever before to hold onto the ability to be a little foolish, to clown for no other reason than it makes you smile. And then to carry that smile with you, deep in your stomach and at the base of your throat, so that you can pass it on for the next person to discover. A reminder that we really are all together on this small, spinning ball; so we may as well have a good laugh about it.

I carried my smiles to a small group of passionate chocoholics and one fabulous pastry chef. Chloë Thomas, head pastry chef at a top Melbourne restaurant, The Stokehouse, showed us chocolate techniques and recipes for hours, during which her humour and talent filled the room with laughter and the best kind of greed. This truffle recipe was one of my favourites and when I remade it at home, it turned out just as beautifully as hers. It turns out that good company + truffles + singing + dancing is really the best recipe of all.

Enjoy.

Chocolate & Peanut Brittle Truffle

Peanut Praline

  • 300g raw peanuts
  • 300g sugar
  • 100g water

Preheat oven to 160˚C/320˚F

Line a baking tray with baking paper and roast the peanuts until they’re golden brown and you can smell that lovely peanutty aroma

Set aside to cool slightly

Meanwhile, heat the sugar and water over a medium heat until the sugar starts to colour

Swish the sugar around the pan (don’t use a spoon, it will crystallise the sugar and make your caramel grainy)

Continue heating and swirling until the sugar is dissolved and the mix is a dark amber colour

It’s super hot now, so be very careful as you add the peanuts and stir gently with a wooden spoon

Once the nuts are coated, pour back onto the tray covered with baking paper and set aside to cool

Once cool, break into small chunks and blitz in a food processor until the mix resembles large breadcrumbs

Truffles

  • 20g glucose
  • A pinch of salt
  • 300g double cream (heavy cream) make sure it’s just cream without any thickeners or other additives
  • 200g good quality milk chocolate, roughly chopped (I used Valrhona 40%. Just use the best you can afford)
  • 50g good quality dark chocolate, roughly chopped (I used Valrhona 66%. Again, use the best you can afford)
  • 100g crunchy peanut butter
  • 25g unsalted butter, softened
  • 150g peanut praline (from the recipe above)

Heat glucose, salt and cream in a small pot until it reaches a rolling boil (meaning the bubbles don’t disappear when you stir the mix)

Meanwhile, mix 150g of the milk chocolate with the dark chocolate, peanut butter and butter in a medium mixing bowl

Pour half the hot cream mix over the chocolates and whisk

Pour the remainder of the cream mix over the chocolate and whisk until all the chocolate and butter is melted

Stir in 100g of the peanut praline, pour into a container about 5cm deep and place in the fridge overnight

Once it’s reached rolling consistency (overnight will be long enough); prepare a tray with baking paper before using a tablespoon to spoon out balls and roll between your hands into truffles

Place each truffle on the baking paper and return to the fridge to set, about an hour

Melt the remaining 50g of milk chocolate and place in a bowl

Place the remaining 50g of peanut praline in a separate bowl

Roll each truffle in the melted milk chocolate followed by the praline crumbs and place back in the fridge until you’ve devoured them all.

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