Dessert, Easy, Sweet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy.

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

Preheat oven to 180˚C / 350°F

Lightly grease two 12 hole muffin tins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gently stir in the pecans

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

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

Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack

Eat as many as you feel you need in this moment

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Dessert, Easy, Sweet

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

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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Breakfast, Easy, Savoury

Some Kind of Autumn / Apple & Nut Soda Bread

Autumn’s stealing in and bringing with it my favourite time of year. If spring and summer are cotton – joyful, light and simple, then autumn and winter are cashmere – cosy, elegant and complex. The trees banish their leaves to the soil beneath, food for next year’s growth. The darkness slips in a little earlier each day, a thief seeking to heist the light.

Now that I live in Australia, reality’s different to my childhood autumns. Reds, browns and the weeping bark of silvery eucalyptus trees dominate this land’s skyline, with temperatures never dropping low enough to need the comfort from layers of added warmth. It took me some time to forgive such mild offerings to my European blood. Now, a few years later, I’ve come to love the mostly dry, mild-weathered autumns that strengthen the roots my feet have gradually grown in the soil beneath. It’s a reminder of the things in life that really matter and a nudge to take the time to burrow deep.

There’s a natural settling down of my energies during this time, like the hibernation of evolutionary ancestors long gone still reverberate through my cells. I subconsciously allow my world to quieten. Meditations are easier to find, pauses in moments of agitation or doubt more natural. Stillness and silence feel like an organic honouring of the time. I ask less perfection of myself and hold onto fewer expectations. It’s like my soul has settled down next to a fire and spends its time revelling in the logs gradually melting to embers and ash.

Fruit is exceptional during Australia’s autumn. Cumquats, figs, persimmons, quinces, pears and apples are all dropping from the Australian trees and into our waiting mouths. Being predominately a baker I feel especially blessed in this season, a time of year seemingly created just so we can crank up the oven and pour out doughy offerings of baked goodness.

I bought some beautiful organic apples from my Green Mumma supplier last week (her of the incredible pears in my Pear & Hazelnut Cake) and have finally found and bought a buttermilk in Victoria worth raving about, thanks to the Myrtleford Butter Factory. It seemed entirely appropriate to honour these two ingredients with a bread that sings of both.

This loaf, that I’ve adapted from the fabulous The River Cottage Bread Handbook, is simplicity itself. No kneading, no proving, no fancy bread flours. It’s an ideal weekend breakfast, taking about 40 minutes from sleepily pulling out the ingredients to tugging on hunks of warm, fresh from the oven, bread. The apples and treacle add a rounded sweetness of texture and taste. Meanwhile a good quality buttermilk adds a hinted undertone of creamy sourness that makes this a truly worthy addition to any kitchen.

Enjoy.

  • 500g wholemeal plain flour
  • 10g salt
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 200g nuts, roughly chopped (today I’ve used almonds, pecans and hazelnuts, but only because I didn’t have any macadamias, which are divinely delicious in this bread)
  • 325ml buttermilk (if you can’t get good buttermilk, thin unflavoured yoghurt is a better option than the horrible, fake buttermilk from supermarkets)
  • 1 heaped tbl sp of treacle / molasses
  • 200g apples, peeled, core removed and cut into fingertip size pieces
  • A sprinkling of rye flour (optional)

Pre heat over to 200˚C / 400˚F

In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt and baking powder

Add the apples and nuts and mix well

Make a well in the centre

Combine the buttermilk and treacle together and pour into the well of the dry ingredients

Knead as briefly as possible, the less you knead the lighter this will be – you really want the mixture to be only just combined, should take no longer than a minute

Divide into two and shape into rough rounds

Pat to flatten until about 5cm high

If you like, and have any to hand, flour the loaves with a little rye flour and place on a baking tray

Cut a cross on the top of each loaf, almost through to the bottom and lightly stab all over

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the base

Allow to cool for a few minutes on a wire rack and, if you can, eat while still warm either dipped in delicious foods or with lashings of top quality butter

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Easy, Morning or Afternoon Tea, Sweet

Sleeping with the US Marine Corps / Blueberry Pastries with Lemon Glaze

I spoke with one of my wisest friends this week about how I stumble into dazed wakefulness every morning and genuinely question whether this is the day I lose my sanity. And that I lie in bed each night, in combat-ready mode, waiting for my son to start crying. Or get to bed at 4am, after failing another night of sleep techniques, only to feel my eyes prickle with hopeless tears because the dreaded wailing has restarted before I can even close my eyes.

And that I constantly feel guilty for being so tired and grumpy. That it’s my fault my son doesn’t sleep even though we’ve tried everything under the sun. That I should be able to pull myself together, even though I’ve been without sleep for so long, and get on with a full life.

My friend listened calmly and then suggested that I read up on long term effects of severe sleep deprivation to find out whether genuine craziness was actually possible…

I thought this sounded like a fine idea (surely already affirmation of insanity?), so went home and Dr. Googled everything I could think about parental sleep deprivation – but everything I found either referred to the child, or suggested the same old ways for parents with newborns to get more sleep. I quickly moved on.

Next, I searched more generically on sleep deprivation and its effects on the body and mind. I hit on some interesting articles about sleep that all said basically the same thing.

physical side effects of sleep deprivation

Mental Effects

Most annoying of all, the solution in every single article was

finger-wag

And as a very tired, occasionally irritable mother, my response to this is

sherlock

I was beginning to feel pretty disheartened.

But I continued searching. Hour upon hour of reading the same stuff, other than that, nothing. Nothing in scientific journals, nothing on medical sites, nothing on meditation or alternative health pages.

And then, just as I was preparing to give up, I stumbled across a quote from an ex-Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, in which he describes being tortured by the KGB using sleep deprivation

“In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep… Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.

“I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them.

“He did not promise them their liberty; he did not promise them food to sate themselves. He promised them – if they signed – uninterrupted sleep! And, having signed, there was nothing in the world that could move them to risk again such nights and such days.”

And I thought, “That’s it! Finally I’m not alone! I am clearly a victim of toddler torture!”

So, naively, I started googling the use of sleep deprivation as a form of torture.

What I discovered was a heart-breaking deluge of humanity’s darkest forms – the techniques used for centuries to break another human’s will and heart. Still very much in use in every corner of the globe (a brief history of sleep deprivation as torture can be found at this link, if you feel like depressing yourself) and considered a rather acceptable form of torture (never thought I’d write that as a sentence). It makes for sobering reading and adds an item to my daily gratitude list that I wouldn’t have previously considered.

And I realised quite quickly (unsurprisingly) that I’m not a torture victim. No amount of sleep deprivation from my child could come close to the cruelty inflicted daily in the clinging shadows of our societies.

I had discovered the other end of the spectrum. On one side were the medical and magazine articles on sleep-dep-lite. On the other, a macabre horror that makes me wonder dejectedly about the colour of the human race’s soul.

Finally, after some more heavy-duty googling, I found a fascinating document from the US Marine Corps, simply titled “Combat Stress”. Sixteen pages of the report is focussed on sleep deprivation and the consequences when in combat zones. Also, because they’re the army (and say what you will about them but they’re utterly practical when it comes to being good at what they do), they give workable, sensible solutions. I think it’s the best piece of writing I found on the affects of long term, severe sleep deprivation.

It starts, depressingly enough, with the same old solution,

“People accumulate a “sleep debt” (cumulative loss of sleep over time) when they perform under limited sleep conditions. The only corrective measure for satisfying this sleep debt is sleep itself.”

But it’s also full of insightful, I-couldn’t-find-the-information-anywhere-else, information. Like these gems

“The muscles can continue to function adequately without sleep, but the brain cannot. Increasing sleep debt leads to subtle, but potentially critical, performance failures.”

“After 5 to 7 days of partial sleep deprivation, alertness and performance decline to the same low levels as those following 2 days of total sleep deprivation. After 48 to 72 hours without sleep, personnel become militarily ineffective.”

Which, coupled with this one

“even healthy young Service members who eat and drink properly experience a 25 percent loss in mental performance for each successive 24-hour period without sleep.”

Means that after two years of sleep deprivation I have the mental performance of a rock. Sitting underneath an amoeba. Being poked with sticks.

And for someone who dislikes the low moods associated with sleep deprivation more than any other aspect, I’m drawn by their assertion that

“high motivation will only increase risk, due to impaired performance.”

It makes sense, and I never thought of lowered mood being a survival mechanism for the sleepless.

So, what to do? Amazingly, the document seems to offer an army version of what I would expect to read in more new age writings – that mindfulness and self care are the order of the day.

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The part I love best is where the Marine Corps authors write

“Taking naps is not a sign of low fighting spirit or weakness; it is a sign of foresight.”

None of this is going to get me the full 8 hours sleep a night I need to restore me to sleep sanity. But it’s the beginning of a long road to sleep recovery, and if some of the hardest people on the planet are doing it, a big softy like me should probably be paying pretty close attention.

I still struggle to practise the level of self-care required for someone in my position. Even though I feel like I’m missing out on life by going to sleep early and not being as engaged with life as possible, I need to start practising some heavy-duty boundaries around putting my resting needs before catching up with friends, reading a new book, or watching my favourite comedians on You Tube.

I need to train myself to see self care as a survival technique, not as an indulgence. I want to be alive and healthy when my son is a grown up. I don’t want the fact that I haven’t put my sleep first to be the cause of cancer, or a stroke, or to cripple me with diabetes.

So if you’re in my life and I don’t make plans with you, or cancel prior engagements, or just plain forget to call; it’s not because I care any less for you. I’m working on saving my life.

I know what you’re thinking at the end of that, what the hell is she going to make today?! Pretty sure there’s not a recipe alive that covers this post… Well, that’s where you’d be wrong. Because blueberry puffs with lemon glaze suit this week perfectly. Partly because they’re super easy and, in case you missed the gist of the above writing, I’m pretty tired. Partly because blueberries are about to launch themselves out of season round these parts, and my sleepless son is truly obsessed with the mighty blue balls. Partly because even though lemons can be quite sour (that would be me), they pair beautifully with blueberries and dial down the potentially overpowering berri-ness of these bites. And finally because this pastry is so completely soothing – offering a little flaky sigh in every bite.

Enjoy.

  • 250g strong plain flour
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 250g butter, at room temperature, but not soft
  • about 150ml cold water
  • 375g blueberries
  • 1/4 cup caster sugar
  • 2 tbl sp cold water
  • 2 tsp cornflour
  • Juice from 2 lemons, strained through a wire mesh
  • 1 ½ cups pure icing sugar

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

This recipe makes about 750g and you only need 350g for this recipe, so keep the rest in the freezer for other pastry adventures!

Once the pastry is ready, put the blueberries, sugar and 1 tbl sp of cold water in a saucepan over a low heat and cover

Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5-7 minutes, or until the blueberries have broken down into a pulp

Meanwhile, stir the cornflour with the remaining water until dissolved

Remove the blueberries from the stove and add the cornflour, stirring until well combined

Leave to cool

Roll out 350g of puff pastry, if you’re using the homemade stuff, to about 48cm square

Cut the pastry into squares measuring 8cm on each side (there will be 36 squares). I use a ruler for this bit because I am a control freak. No need to be the same, but no shame in it when it comes to baking.

Place a teaspoon full of the blueberry mix into the centre of each square of pastry

Fold each pastry square in half to form a triangle, press the sides together and then press and turn over the edges (this is called crimping)

Whisk the egg in a cup and brush onto each pastry

Place the pastries onto a piece of greaseproof paper on a  baking tray and cook for about 20 minutes, until the pastry is risen

Sit on a rack until cool

Once cool, sift the icing sugar into a mixing bowl

Slowly add the lemon juice, stirring constantly until you get a slightly runny consistency

Put the glaze into a piping bag with a small nozzle and drizzle over the blueberry pastries in patterns and amounts that make you happy

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Morning or Afternoon Tea, Not So Easy, Sweet

Fighting Back / Lemon Marshmallow Fluff filled Chocolate Gingerbread Muffins

There are times, like this morning, when I wake up thinking, “Is this it? Really? This is the life I’ve got? This is what I wake up for?”

This morning I followed that feeling with reading about people online, and ferociously judging my insides by their outsides. The actors, musicians, writers, comedians and entrepreneurs, whose heavily airbrushed bodies, words and lives seem so perfect, so interesting and brilliant.

And I, by comparison, am currently having a really hard time sleep-training my son. Oh, and I write, but I don’t know if I’m any good because there’s no PR agency airbrushing me to awesomeness – humph.

And then I really started seeing the bleakness of my life…

I ended up in a spiral of restless discontentedness where the only solution seems to be crawling back into bed, pulling the covers over my head, and staying there for the day.

On other days I might furiously try to achieve everything I think will make me worthwhile in a single day. Leading to further misery when it’s not possible.

Down and down and down.

When I started actively seeking a better life about ten years ago, it was partly as a result of a spectacularly bad patch of this kind of thinking. It had become so ingrained it was burnt into my subconscious and prevented me from ever starting anything because I’d already failed in my mind.

The great lie I can still believe is that I need to think about this stuff. That somehow if I think about it for long enough I’m going to fix it. Or if I act on it in a flurry of desperation I can stop the inevitable from happening.

I often jokingly liken it to sitting on a chair with a paper bag over my head, miserably thinking about how awful it is to have a paper bag over my head, and forgetting that I have arms. Or running around in a dark, claustrophobic world, wondering why I’m crashing into everything.

I am the bruised, armless lady with a paper bag over her head…

I’ve found that what I really need to do in these times is pause, breathe, and take stock of the reality of my day. Ultimately, what I need to work on is trusting that I’m not important enough to the universe to be the worst, the most horrible, or the emptiest. A strangely freeing reality.

It helps me be more gentle with myself on the bad days, when my son hasn’t slept for the 10th (or is that the 100th?) night in a row. It helps me to chuckle at the melodramatically terrible future I catastrophise about.

My other reality, one I fought for years, is that a healthy diet and lifestyle are essential for the chemical balance of my brain and body. Too much sugar, caffeine and chemically enhanced foods might help in the short-term, but they’re damming to my mental and physical health in the long-term. Again, I look at people who can lead lifestyles that seem so free of restriction and think

“Why me?”

but the question that might be better to ask is,

“Why not me?”

These days I am someone who, by necessity, lives life in moderation. Although I have, on occasion, been known to bastardise the lyrics of ‘Something Stupid’ to sing,

“And then I go and spoil it all, by eating lots of muffins cos I loooove them…”

I can’t eat too much, sleep too much, exercise too much, work too much or party too much (and I can’t do any of those too little either). It can rub me the wrong way sometimes, as I always had a soft spot for the wild life, the heady life, the fully lived life. I can feel hemmed in and unsatisfied in a life without excess. And yet, I’ve learned I need to live simply in order to live contentedly. And I’m incredibly lucky to have that option.

I try to placate my inner rebel by finding raucous laughter. And rioting with words on a blank page. I occasionally find an empty space to scream at all the gods we’ve managed to come up with. On especially bad days I put on my running shoes and try to outrun my mind, or crawl into television for a few hours of blankness.

In essence, I allow myself to be human, when what I want is nauseatingly airbrushed perfection.

So today, when the fizzing of frustration has filled my torso and the clench of my jaw hurts my head, I’m writing and writing (it soothes the riot). And I’ll go for a long run or swim (it clears my mind and internal claustrophobia). And I’ll meditate with near-constant guidance from someone else (it steadies my thoughts and feelings). And I’ll phone someone who also knows a mind that ultimately seeks only destruction (it draws me back into the fold of a loving humanity). And I’ll force myself to have an early night, no matter who’s on ITAS (so I have a chance of living easier tomorrow).

Any short-term loss in this lifestyle harbours many long-term gains. A life that’s gentle and simple. Whole and mostly joyful. And a discovery of peace by treading gently on the ground I seek.

And, above all, I continually remind myself that it’s just for today. That tomorrow is new and fresh. That it doesn’t mean I’m lost, or finished, or failed. That it’s just today. Just today.

Posh muffins today, and not just because I thought, “Mmmmmmm, muffins…” when I wrote the line about singing my greed. I’ve been making Nigella Lawson’s chocolate gingerbread cake since the day I bought her ‘Feast’ book – it’s a winner every time. I had wanted to adapt the recipe into muffins for a while – and my modifications to a marshmallow fluff recipe from The Bright Eyed Baker gave me just the excuse I needed. I’m also looking for ways to focus on others rather than myself and when my husband told me that some of his work colleagues had mentioned they hadn’t yet been fed by my blog, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to be thoughtful – and if I had to try one, just to make sure it was of good enough quality to share with you and them? Well. That’s just a bonus of altruism…

Enjoy.

Chocolate Gingerbread Muffins (adapted from Nigella Lawson’s ‘Feast’)

  • 85g unsalted butter
  • 65g dark muscovado sugar
  • 1 tbl sp caster sugar
  • 100g golden syrup
  • 100g black treacle or molasses
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 3/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tbl sp warm water
  • 1 egg
  • 125ml milk
  • 150g plain flour
  • 20g cocoa

Pre heat oven to 180˚C

Grease a 24 cup mini muffin tin, or use mini muffin paper cases

In a saucepan, melt the butter along with the sugars, golden syrup, treacle, cloves, cinnamon and ground ginger

In a cup dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in the water

Take the saucepan off the heat and beat in the egg, milk and bicarb

Stir in the flour and cocoa and beat with a wooden spoon to mix

Pour to the rim of the cups of the muffin tin and bake for about 15 minutes, or until risen and firm

Remove to a wire rack and let cool in the tin

Lemon Marshmallow Fluff (adapted from www.brighteyedbaker.com)

  • 3 egg whites
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 150g granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup golden syrup
  • Finely grated rind from 2 lemons
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon

Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the cream of tartar on top

Beat, increasing the speed to medium-high, until the eggs start to get light, airy, and frothy

With the mixer running, slowly pour in 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar

Continue to beat until firm (but not stiff) peaks form. Set aside

Fit a small saucepan with a candy thermometer, or have a reliable digital thermometer ready nearby

Combine water, sugar, and golden syrup in the saucepan and stir together

Bring to a boil over medium heat and then, using a heat-safe spatula, stir very frequently as you cook the syrup mixture to 115˚C / 240°F, maintaining a consistent boil

Once at 115˚C / 240°F remove from the heat immediately

Start the mixer on a slower speed and slowly pour the syrup in as it mixes, until all of the syrup has been added

Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl if needed, then increase speed to medium-high and beat for another 4 minutes

The mixture should have expanded and you should now have a butterscotch coloured creme that’s able to hold some shape

Add the lemon zest and juice, wipe down the bowl and beater, and beat for about 30 more seconds, until the lemon has all been incorporated

Any extra keeps in the fridge for up to a month

For the Finished Muffin

Using a small, sharp knife, split the cooled muffin tops from their bottoms

Spoon a heaped teaspoon of the marshmallow fluff onto the bottom part of the muffin

Gently rest the top of the muffin on top of the fluff

Eat in dainty bites, or follow my family and fit a whole mini muffin in your mouth in one go!

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Lunch or Dinner, Savoury, Super Easy

In the Comfort of Lemon & Rosemary Roast Chicken

I’ve felt the slow fog of exhausted depression steadily envelop my mind the last few days. My son’s sleeplessness, already legendary amongst family and friends, has taken a large turn for the worse the past couple of weeks and I’ve finally reached the point of barely functioning. I spent all day in bed yesterday, the impending shame of no dinner on the table being the only thing that got me groggily moving during late afternoon. I feel almost totally numb, like a heavy blanket has been gently tucked around my brain.

Depression and I fought monumental battles during my teens and early twenties. A quote on my phone at that time from the great wartime British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, read

“Never, never, never give up”

One of my great fears is to be pulled back into that half-lit existence, with an insurmountable glass wall rising up between me and the rest of the world. Where I can see people but can’t connect in any meaningful way, and the loneliness cripples my soul.

Logic tells me it’s currently exhaustion not depression but, like an alcoholic’s home in the bottle, my mind’s misguided safe place is the grey zone I can’t will or intellectualise my way out of. A deeply frustrating and scary position for a wilful semi-intellectual like me.

I’m doing what I can, based on my experience of actions that work. Calling appropriate people who can listen and advise without judgement or meaningless platitude. Going for walks and gentle swims. Allowing myself to rest, with permission not to feel guilty. Meditating. Actively not comparing myself to the rest of the world who currently seem so functional and obviously more competent than me in every way. Finding laughter wherever and whenever I can. Watching beautiful videos like this one, based on a poem by Shane Koyczan

I’m assured that all I need is enough rest and self-care and, unlike depression, it will pass rather quickly.

And in the spirit of self-care and comfort, I chose to make a roast chicken recipe that I‘ve been gradually honing for over 15 years. Roast is unbelievably easy to make, because even at the best of times I’m all about getting the most bang for my buck. It’s one of my ultimate comfort foods; juicy, delicate, crisp skinned and comforting. Here, where it’s currently warm, it’s delicious with salads and a fresh baguette. In the colder climates (hi guys!) throw some peeled root vegetables in the pan for the last hour or so of cooking. Save the chicken carcass and any root vegetable peelings in a bag in the freezer to make delicious homemade stock (recipe on the Imperfect Kitchen’s Facebook page if you need one). Nothing could be easier, tastier or, for me at this time, more comforting.

Enjoy.

  • 1 tbl sp vegetable oil
  • 1.8kg chicken, the best quality you can afford
  • 125g unsalted butter, softened
  • 6 sprigs rosemary
  • 1 lemon
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled
  • a large pinch of coarsely ground pepper
  • a large pinch of sea salt

Preheat oven to 190˚C

Pour the sunflower oil into a large baking dish and place it in the oven while it warms

Finely chop the leaves from 3 sprigs of rosemary

Squeeze the juice from the lemon but keep the lemon carcass

Finely chop 3 cloves of garlic

Mix the butter with the finely chopped rosemary, lemon juice, finely chopped garlic and pepper

Rinse the chicken with cold water, inside and out, and pat dry

Carefully push your fingers between the chicken skin and meat, opening a space while making sure not the break the skin

Push the butter mix into the chicken underneath the skin, trying to keep the coverage even

Rub your greasy hands all over the outside of the chicken, making sure to get into all the little crevices

Sprinkle the salt on the chicken skin and gently rub all over

Store the lemon carcass, 3 whole cloves of garlic and 3 sprigs of rosemary inside the chicken

Remove the pan from the oven and put the chicken in the pan

Return the pan to the oven and cook the chicken for 80 minutes (20 minutes per 450g). Baste every 20 to 30 minutes

Once the chicken has cooked this long, turn up the heat to 220˚C and cook for a further 15 minutes

Leave to rest, covered loosely in tin foil for 10-15 minutes before serving

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