The Death of Hope, or Mary Berry’s Tarte Au Citron 

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I was talking to a colleague the other day and he said he hated the idea of hope. It was always harking to the future, he said. It drew attention away from what was happening in the present, and set you up for perpetual disappointment. “I hope it doesn’t rain today” – so what if it rains? Stay inside and eat malteasers on the sofa. Make the most of what you have, don’t wish your life away. 

He is a much more accepting person than me. I don’t like the idea of hope either, because it is so passive. Obviously, not even I think I can control the weather, but I can control a lot – or try to. I can create the conditions of success. Some things are down to dumb chance and those are the ones to use your hope on. But anything that requires some input from you – don’t waste the brain space. 

“I hope to get my novel published” is not as good as “this week, I queried three literary agents.” “I hope to have a happy marriage” means nothing. Of course you do. “Tonight, I will learn to make my husband’s favourite pudding” is a smaller statement – but much more real. 

All of this is a long way of saying that Mary Berry’s Tarte Au Citron recipe is really very good. 

I will not attempt to steal it and pass the recipe off as my own because I didn’t change anything and I rcommend you don’t either. It is crisp and rich and sharp and buttery and creamy and gorgeous. The pastry was baked just enough, the filling just set. It did not have a soggy bottom. I was extremely proud of it. 

The only problem is that it is an absolute bitch of a job to roll out the pastry. Mary suggests some sort of awful faff that involves drawing a circle on some grease proof paper, and then rolling the pastry directly onto the bottom of the tin until it meets that circle, and then you pick it up and it BLOODY SPLITS ANYWAY despite your grease proof paper care and then some of the filling leaks out… But whatever. Pastry is just difficult, isn’t it? Pastry is one of those things you have to have hands on experience of, not just have read a load of cookery blogs so you reckon you can wing it. But that’s okay. I will practice, and do perfect pastry one day. 

I will make Paul many lemon tarts over the years, I hope. 

Omnivore No More

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When I was nine years old, and going through what my atheist parents fondly called my “God bothering phase”, I decided to give up meat for lent. No more meat for me, I thought piously. I will be kind to all the little animals and stop eating them. God will like that. 

Three hours later I ate pork chops for dinner because I’d forgotten all about it. 

Five years ago, I was flicking through online dating profiles with my friend H, and I stopped at one. “Look, this one’s perfect!” I said to her. “He likes bluegrass and he’s vegetarian!” H looked at me. “Yes… You’re not, though.” I blinked back at her. I’d sort of… Forgotten that, somehow. A lot of my friends didn’t eat meat. I understood their reasons, and agreed with them all. But yet, I still ate it. I never got round to stopping. 

Last year a friend shared a video of some cows on facebook. They were cantering about, playing with each other and doing clever animal things like unlocking gates. They were acting like massive dogs – and not just any dog, but, like, a collie. Obviously intelligent, and displaying character. “Look at this!” She said. “How dare people pretend that cows are just useless dumb animals? Look how lovely they are!” 

I clicked “like” serenely and left a comment. “Absolutely!” I said. “I do eat meat but it’s so upsetting when people hide the fact it’s real animal. Those cows are lovely!” And I’m sure that all my steaks were comforted by the fact that I recognised that in life, as in death, they were lovely. 

Really, I’ve just never wanted to examine my thoughts around it too deeply. It’s always seemed like a nice idea, something I absolutely support in the abstract. Something that I take as a sign of moral fortitude, in fact, and an indicator of compassion and thoughtfulness. But just… Not something I did. I had this idea that, as long as I acknowledged that I maybe shouldn’t be eating meat, that somehow made it okay. Because at least I wasn’t an apologist. At least I knew. 

And then, I got Mary Lou. 


The problems with keeping a pet rabbit in Britain today are two fold. Firstly, people will want to do “banter” with you. “Hahaha lovely!” They will say. “Bet she’d be nice in a PIE! Lololol.” The second is that, due to the prevalence of back to the 50’s hipster Gastropub joints, if you go out in Oxford there really is a better than evens chance you will be offered rabbit pie. 

She’s a food animal, and she’s a food animal in my culture, right now. And also, she’s a family member. She’s sitting under my dining table as I write this. She head butts my food when she wants her ears stroked and if I’m ever visibly upset when she’s in the room, she hops over and sits next to me, all quiet and still. 

Last week I went to a petting zoo. I met a calf just like in the video. It flopped on the floor like a dog and let me pat it, and when I rubbed it behind the ears, it WAGGED ITS TAIL. 

So, I give up. I am not eating my fellow mammals or bird brethren any more, and I am unapologetic about my reasons. I only vaguely understand the environmental argument! I am still going to eat fish even though I understand they feel pain as well! I am merely avoiding cute food and I do not care what anyone thinks about it. Except these little goats, and I reckon they approve. 

I dont want to undermine the seriousness of this blog post, but – would you look at the balls on this goat!?!

Honey and Walnut Bread 

It’s bake off week 3 and its bread week. And. I mean. Bread? Really, what is bread but rubbish cake?

Consider this less a recipe post and more a hugely heartfelt book recommendation – if you are interested at all in learning to make your own bread, buy this book – 

 

Written by Bake-Off alum James Morton, Brilliant Bread is an accessible, readable treasure of a cookery book. He explains how to do magical things with flour and yeast, clearly and simply, and he works on the assumption that you’re a person with a normal life and things to be getting on with, and adjusts his recipes accordingly. Real care has been taken to build from simple up to complex, so you don’t get intimidated and give up, and the voice is warm and a pleasure to read. 

And the recipes are good. Too. Look at this bread! 

 

This lovely honey and walnut loaf was rich, complex and robust. It took a lot of proving and the dough was sticky and unpleasantly nubbly with the walnuts, but a) this need not concern you if you have a stand mixer and b) it was, on balance, worth it. It was so good we sacked off the “butternut squash and quinoa bowl” we had planned for dinner and eat this slathered in goats cheese instead. 

This week, no recipe, partly because I didn’t change it AT ALL and I don’t really understand why it worked, so I have nothing to add. Also, don’t start with this one – it’s an intermediate kind of Brad. Start with the lovely crusty breakfast rolls – They only take a couple of hours and come out perfectly even for total beginners. Look at this, my first ever attempt at us try rolls, made excitedly on Boxing Day three years ago –

 

If you’re even a bit curious about baking bread, I really can’t recommend this book enough. It’s taken me from suspiciously slapping about uprisen lumps of yeast to consistently turning out better-than-bakery loaves. Thanks James! Please give up medicine and come and live with me and my husband and be our live in baker/bff. Thanks, bye. 

Then and Now

Summer 2007. I am 21. I am waiting to start an MA in Creative Writing, which I still can’t believe I got on to.

In the meantime, I have gone to the Edinburgh festival to work as a venue tech. Mum said I should get out of the house – I was just moping about in Beverley. She was right. I love it here – the buzz and the sense that anything can happen, and I can help.

My boyfriend just got his first job, and we’re doing long distance – between Coventry, where I live in term time, and his place near Oxford.

I’m just about to move in with very good friends. I have lots of great people in my life, though I don’t see them all as often as I’d like. I love them.

Everything is spread out in front of me.  I’m terrified I’m going to fuck it up.

Summer 2016. I am 30. I have just finished my first novel and I think I might be able to actually sell it. I work part time and write with the rest.

For the first year since I turned 19, I have not been to the Edinburgh festival this year – I was saving up my money and leave for my honeymoon. But I’ve already written next year’s show. I love being on stage, even though it scares me.

I’ve been married 6 months. We still live in Oxford. It turns out, I love it here.

All those friends from the house share came to my hen do. I have lots of great people in my life, though I don’t see them all as often as I’d like. I love them.

I have carved out a good life for myself; a place in the world. I’m terrified I’m going to fuck it up.

The weight thing is a very small part of the story. But for the record –

I honestly don’t know how much I weigh in the first picture, because I never got on scales back then. Maybe 17 stone? I did Atkins earlier in the year, and the feeling of glee I got from the weight falling off me was so strong it frightened me. I gave it up after I finished my finals and felt a bit more in control. I eat the same foods, again and again, because they feel  safe. Pasta and pesto on a good day, cheese toasties on a day I feel like I need a bit of extra help. I drink all the time and think nothing of it because I’m a student.  This is probably my biggest ever.

In the second picture I weigh 12 stone 12 pounds, and I know this because I get on the scales every Monday night, and then talk about what I’ve eaten, how I feel. I am still a stone away from having a “healthy BMI”. I think about my weight and my food a lot, but I don’t worry about it any more. I look directly at it. I am happy. I was then, as well.

 

Back-to-Work Butter Biscuits

Summer is over, the world is grey, I am back from holiday and have to go to work tomorrow. BUT At least it is biscuit week on bake off! We will always have sugary treats. In fact, now all major news outlets have stopped quacking on about how to get a “perfect beach body” we may even be able to enjoy them undisturbed. For the ten minutes we have until the “Christmas party perfect booty makeover”. But I digress. 

  
I am trying to make the best of a bad job and embrace the “joys of fall” with this bake. What I mean by this is, I put loads of cinnamon in them. Cinnamon is one of the few consolations of the ten months of the year it is impossible to dry your clothes outside, or cycle to work without risking hypothermia. 

Like last week’s Lazy Pirate Cake, this recipe is easy. Chuck everything in a mixer and GO. The only difficult but is the cutting and rand ferrying of the biscuits. I got cross with this and have included a suggestion for what to do if you do too. Life is too short to take shit from bakery items. 

You will need – 

125g butter or nice margarine

100g soft light brown sugar (plus extra for sprinkling)

1 egg

200g plain flour

1tsp vanilla essence 

1/4 tsp baking powder

A dash of salt

A good shake of any spices that you like! Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg…? I used all these, plus some allspice. We’re going for a pumpkin spice latte kind of vibe. 

For the icing –

A big blob of butter (100g?)

A fair dash if icing sugar (100g again???)

A scant half teaspoon almond extract

  1. Beat the sugar and eggs together, like you’re making a cake. This is not shortbread so you don’t have to worry about over working it, hurrah!
  2. Chuck in your egg and beat again
  3. Pop everything else in and mix until it’s a dough. Stick it in the fridge for at least 2 hours. 
  4. Preheat your oven to 160-180, depending on its aggressiveness. 
  5. Roll out the dough to the thickness of a pound coin on a floured surface. Cut out shapes and transfer to a baking sheet with silicone baking paper on it, or whatever you use to make your biscuits not glue themselves to the sheet. 
  6. Bake for 10 mins and check. They might need another couple of ticks if they don’t look done enough – you want them just to be STARTING to go brown. 
  7. Alternatively, if you can’t be arsed with this soft melty dough messing you about like this, just roll the dough straight out onto the silicone sheet and bake as a block, cutting out your shapes when they are straight from the oven. It is more wasteful of ingredients, but obviously you can privately eat the off cut bits in the kitchen as a reward for tidying up. 
  8. You can also add icing to these. Wizz up all your icing ingredients until you get a smooth liquidy paste. Spoon onto biscuits and maybe sprinkle a little cinnamon atop them. This will give you maximum Autumn points. 
  9. Eat with a big cup of tea, while looking forward to wearing scarves again. 

Anxiety and Me, Summer 2016

Warning Signs

Crying at your desk

Identifying with the word “hunted”

Repetitive thoughts, repetitive thoughts, repetitive thoughts

Catastrophizing

A sudden, searing conviction that someone you love hates you

Suddenly feeling either very hungry, or sick

Not being able to sleep without the radio on

Not being able to sleep

Being unreasonably upset when an inconsequential item breaks

Going back to check the front door, even though you were already on the main road

Writing lists to create the illusions of control

 

Helpful Suggestions

Swimming, every morning

Lots and lots of healthy food

Alcohol only on weekends

Fresh air at lunchtimes

Take action on the things that can be changed

Don’t keep it a secret

Lazy Pirate Cake

The Great British Bake Off is back tonight and I am EXCITED. Who will win? Will it be one of the contestants? Will it be because they are good at baking cakes? Probably!!! I jest, but in seriousness, I love GBBO and all it stands for. In tribute, I am baking along, creating a confection following the theme of each week and sharing it with you on this blog.

First up it’s CAKE WEEK. God… CAKE, right? When I was little, pretty much the best thing that could happen to me was being allowed to bake a cake. There is something so satisfying about the borderline wizardry of sticking a pan full of wet mush into an over and bringing out a Victoria sponge and I have always loved the sugary alchemy of it.

This week, I give you a booze-spiked banana bread, based heavily on the lovely Smitten Kitchen’s Jacked Up Banana Bread. It makes a lovely, rich, light, boozy loaf which will keep a fair few days, can be toasted if it’s gone a bit stale and feels more reasonable, somehow, than just making a massive Victoria Sponge when there’s only two of you and it’s a Tuesday and both of you were trying to cut down on saturated fat, really.

This is a very grown up cake, partly because it’s got booze in it and partly because it relies on you having a fair quantity of overripe bananas in the house, which is something that starts happening when you hit about 23. You buy bananas. Healthy and delicious! Do you eat the bananas? Maybe one, on the way home from the shop. The rest will sit on the counter, making you feel guilty for two weeks until they go mouldy and you’re allowed to throw them away.

I named it Lazy Pirate Cake because of the banana/rum associations and also because it is the chilliest cake ever. It’s pretty much just you and a wooden spoon aimlessly chucking things in a bowl, which is the most soothing type of baking. You do not have to sod about cleaning an electric whisk, which would put a crimp right in your baking zen.

  
3-4 very very ripe bananas

75g butter

150g soft brown sugar

1 egg

1tsp vanilla essence

1-2 shots rum

1 hearty tsp cinnamon

A dash of salt

A little bit of nutmeg and/or allspice if you have it

190g self raising flour

  1. First, Preheat your oven to 180C (or lower if your oven is especially hot, like mine. You know what, maybe even go for 160c whatever. I once made this cake in a gas oven which went out 20 minutes in and I didn’t notice for an HOUR. But I just turned it back on and it was honestly fine.)
  2. Mash up your banana with a fork. Zap the butter in the microwave while you are doing this until it is melted.
  3. Stir the butter in.
  4. Then the sugar.
  5. Then the egg.
  6. Then the flavourings. Adjust these as you like – the original recipe uses bourbon, which is nice. You could slosh in some Malibu for extra tropical vibes. Omit this if you don’t keep spirits in the house. Your banana bread will be more rubbery but some people like that. This is because booze interrupts the gluten chains, making the crumb shorter and more crumbly. Isn’t that interesting! Yes it is. Anyway…
  7. Dump in the flour and stir that in too. Don’t be too vigorous with this final stir – you shouldn’t have any lumps of flour left, but it is possible to over mix it.
  8. Pour into a 1lb loaf tin, which you have liberally sprayed with oil. Bang in the oven for about an hour (start checking from 45 mins). When a knife comes out clean, it’s done!

This is most especially nice the next day, toasted and spread with butter for the best breakfast ever. But I urge to make it after work, to eat tonight wiht your Bake Off viewing. On your marks. Get set…