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Reminiscences with oranges

The smell of oranges (in all its guises) is guaranteed to awaken a swirling mass of memories within me….. which is ironic because my feelings towards actually eating them are decidedly ambivalent.  But I love the smell.  And their zest.  And orange blossom.  And of course, their colour.  Eating segments of orange liberally sprinkled with salt reminds me of long, hot summers in Bahrain.  Oranges are in season and we used to buy them from the box load in the market.  At home they would be used to top up the ever-present jug of orange juice, its sides beaded with condensation due to the gently clinking ice cubes.

My father used to come home for lunch every day.  This was easy because his work was only a two minute drive away.  He would enter the patio door five days a week at exactly 12pm where his lunch would be waiting for him on the dinner table.  Always soup or a sandwich lovingly made by my mother.  And to follow during those sticky summer days, a plate full of cold orange segments dusted with salt.  And he always left one for me, knowing I was peeping at him from the back of the door, just waiting for him to get up from the table so I could hoover up his leftovers.

I never remembered thinking that eating salted oranges was unusual until we were served orange segments for dessert at boarding school.  To the horrors of the other girls at my table I calmly let fly with the salt cellar until even the housemistress asked what on earth I was doing.  I then took great pleasure in the looks of consternation that arose every time we had oranges for pudding.  When we moved to Mexico a colleague handed me a slice of orange covered in salt and chilli flakes.  No wonder I loved Mexico – these guys knew how to eat an orange.

My adventures in orange continued into my first year of university.  The tales I could weave of those years require multiple blog posts but lets just say I was lucky enough to have my student flat situated next to two incredible people, one of whom is now considered family.  As our days mostly consisted of smoking cheap cigarettes, drinking tea and watching Ready Steady Cook (lovingly abbreivated to RSC), we decided one day to emulate the frenetic creativity of Ainsley Herriot.  Or rather, KK (my sister from another mister) decided that it was time to elevate our usual dinner of crisps and takeaway pakoras to a proper home cooked meal.

“What’s that smell KK?”

“Orange rice.”

“What?  Sounds rank.”

“It can’t be – it was on RSC.  Red Tomatoes made it.  They won.”

“How do you make it?”

“Pour rice in a baking dish and cover it in orange juice.  Then oven it”.

“It’s raw.  And tastes of orange squash.  You made orange squash rice.  Is it supposed to be a pudding?”

“No.  It’s supposed to be eaten with curry.  It’s Indian apparently.”

Imagine burnt, raw rice soaked in Tesco Value orange juice and a chicken stock cube.  If this dish won then Green Peppers were robbed.  Also, it was about as Indian as this.

“KK.  The only way this is going to be happen is if we get drunk.”

“I’ll go get the cider.”

Orange blossom is equally nostalgic for me.  Before YM and I decided to move to Mexico together we decided (showing unusual foresight for us) that it would be smart to see if we could spend more than a weekend in each other’s company.  A cheap holiday to the south of Portugal was booked for the Easter holiday.  We would stay in an apartment in Albufeira and rent a motorcycle to explore the countryside.  Luckily, the holiday turned out to be a success.  It was my first time on the back of a motorbike (and not being in charge!).  The feeling of freedom was amplified by  constantly teetering on the edge of what seemed like certain death as we wound up mountains and down to sun-baked beaches.  The countryside was adrift in white orange blossom and the scent pervaded every inch of our senses.

It was a wonderful holiday.  Especially when we we stopped for coffee in a tiny mountain village one particularly glorious day.  Treating ourselves to espressos and a custard tart in the pretty little cobbled square, we lazily people-watched as the sun warmed our faces.  I then noticed a small white marquee set up in the corner.  After paying for our coffees we decided to wander over and poke our noses in.  To our amazement the marquee was refrigerated and contained what must have surely been the most impressive Passion of the Christ scene carved entirely from butter!  Butter Mary!  Butter Jesus!  Buttering hell – we’d never seen such an array of biblical figures, almost life size, their anguish portrayed through the medium of dairy.  Fantastic.

So to celebrate all things orange I decided to amp up Nigella’s clementine cake with my own little twist…

You will need:

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  • approx. 375 grams clementines (I don’t really know the difference between all these small sweet, peelable oranges.  I don’t know if I used a mandarin, a satsuma or a clementine.  It tasted fine so I guess – go with whatever you have lying around!)
  • 6 large eggs
  • 225 grams white sugar
  • 250 grams ground almonds
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 75g dark chocolate chips

20161120_175606Put the clementines in a pan and cover with some cold water. Bring them to the boil and then cook until they are really soft and look like they have collapsed (about an hour and a half for me).  Do keep checking on them as you will have to keep topping up the water.

20161120_175940While this is happening, blitz your almonds to form a fine meal.  Try not to blow up food processor.  Preheat the oven to gas mark 5/190ºC/375ºF. Butter and line a 21cm / 8 inch Springform tin.

20161120_194258Drain and, when cool, cut each clementine in half and remove the pips. Dump the clementines – skins, pith, fruit and all – and give a quick blitz in a food processor (or by hand, of course).   Try not to blow up food processor again (harder then it sounds).

20161120_195159Beat the eggs by hand in a separate bowl

20161120_195409Gently beat in the sugar.

20161120_195513Fold in the  almonds and baking powder, mixing well.

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Stir in the pulped little oranges

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Finally, throw in your chocolate chips.Pour the cake mixture into the prepared tin and bake for an hour, when a skewer will come out clean; you’ll probably have to cover with foil or greaseproof after about 40 minutes to stop the top burning.

Remove from the oven and leave to cool, on a rack, but in the tin. When the cake’s cold, you can take it out of the tin. This cake definitely needs maturing so control yourself until the next day.  Trust me.  The dense, moist texture is beautifully complemented by the rich chocolate and bitter orange.  But only if you wait…

 

 

 

 

Blueberries with my BFF

I remember the first time I tasted blueberry jam.  I was thirteen years old and had been in boarding school for less than a year.  How did I get from my sunny little island to the cold, grey, rainy town of St Andrews over 4000 miles away?  My first few months at boarding school has passed in a haze.  Games, mufti, trucs, jabot; it wasn’t just a whole new vocabulary but a whole new culture.  Bahrain was essentially a sleepy, old fashioned backwater during the time I lived there.  My life was simple and consisted mainly of swimming and riding.  Unfortunately, riding wasn’t really an option at school.  After galloping in a wide open desert on my zippy Arab tackling oil pipes as jumps, plodding around a muddy school in ten layers of clothing on a furry pony held little appeal.

So my first few months in school were spent swimming.  It was the only thing I knew how to do better than the other girls.  They were so confident, willowy and athletic it was intimidating to have to spend day and night with these creatures.  The language of lacrosse, Latin and exeats was as alien to me as the cold grey days with only an icy drizzle or a howling wind to distinguish between them.  I was horrendously homesick although I would never admit.  Used to being the smartest one in the room, I was now distinctly mediocre.  I wasn’t artistic, athletic or a size 8.  My parents didn’t own a dilapidated country pile or a Hong Kong condo.  I don’t even like tea that much.

Break times and lunch times were spent in the school library which was luckily big enough for me to curl up in a corner and escape notice.  I turned to my classics for comfort. Enid Blyton, Walter Farley and Susan Cooper allowed me to escape back to a reality I understood whose characters and storylines gave me the familiarity I sorely missed.  The dreaded pre-dinner hour was more difficult.  Those girls less athletically or musically inclined tended to congregate in the chilly common room; a bunch of misfits thrown together to discuss sourly how it should have been them striding across the games field or playing first violin.

Within my second week I discovered the school swimming pool.  Tucked away at the bottom of the grounds it was a gloomy, aged building that was permenently bathed in a mist of damp and chlorine.  It was also the last place any sane minded teenage girl would choose to spend their free time.  So I swam.  Up and down and up and down, remembering all my training from Bahrain where I swam in a club 3 times a week.  I freestyled, backstroked and butterflied my way to oblivion under the mildly curious gaze of the games mistress, thinking if I pushed myself hard enough I could transport myself back to those easier times.  Thus, my isolated existence continued in this vein.  A couple of times some of the nicer girls did mention that I would never begin to adjust until I started to actually choose to spend time with them but honestly, I wasn’t ready to let go of home.

The day  I was placed next to another girl in Science seemed routine at first.  I had no idea that this day was going to be different.  This girl looked like the others at first glance.  Tall, slender with a plummy accent and glowing porcelain skin.  When I was placed next to her, my heart sank.  Would I spend the next 50 minutes being ignored or having to listen to intelligible words that made no sense to me which further highlighted my uncouthness?  To make things worse, I quite liked Science as it was one of the few subjects that seemed to be to be taught in a universal method (I mean, an atom won’t change it’s structure depending on which country you are in and your digestive system will always have an oesophagus, stomach and intestine connected one after each other).

“Hi.”

“Hallo”

“I’m new.”

“So am I.”

“Really?  Where are you from?”

“From a village nearby – I’m only here during the day.  I don’t board.”

Suddenly I realised something.  This girl was as much of an oddity as me!  Being a day girl was unusual.  Unless you were particularly keen day girls slipped in after breakfast, went to lessons and then slipped away before that dreaded hour of free time before dinner.  They had no more than a desk to their names in the various boarding houses and unless they were super gung-ho about games and music, tended to drift about quietly like wraiths.  Fantastic.  I could get on board with this.

“Do you like Science.”

“No.”

Oh dear.  To be fair, as an opening gambit it was particularly lame but they say in enlightened circles (actually Cosmopolitan – between the fashion pages and the article that tells you how to be more slutty for your partner) that in order to form a connection with someone, you need to find a common interest within the first five minutes of meeting.  I had to try again.

“Do you like hockey?”

“No. I don’t do running. ”

SUCCESS!  I had found the only norm in the herd of braying, hearty games fanatics.

“I hate games.  Why do we have to wear bright red tracksuit trousers under a netball skirt.  Will we forget we are girls if we don’t put the skirt on?  Can’t we just wear the trousers (true story)?”

“It discriminates against the poorly coordinated.   Like me.”

I was falling in love.  From the outside she looked like one of them.  But inside…it was a totally different story.  She was a double agent!  It is worth saying that at no point were we told to be quiet by our science teacher.  Our wraith-like presence also extended to the staff.

“What do you like doing?”

“I have a pony.  I love horses.  And cheese.”

That’s it.  Game over.  I was officially in love.  I met my soul mate, my partner in crime, the yin to my yang.  And so it began.  I had finally found a friend.  Which is how I found myself for the first time in a year with somewhere to go on an exeat (leave out weekend).  In the past I had stayed at school and had to pretend that the achingly pathetic jaunts organised for us by the housemistress on duty (Multiplicity at the cinema followed by Bella Pasta anyone?) were fine.  But it really wasn’t fine.  It was excruciating and even worse when it was followed by looks of sympathy masquerading as pity.  But now I was with my friend!  In a proper house!  And I didn’t have to watch a Michael Keaton film (my housemistress’ slightly disturbing obsession).

One of the more unusual traditions I had been exposed to at school was the constant consumption of toast.  I understood how it was an important component of breakfast but I never considered it as a snack and therefore totally acceptable to wolf down multiple pieces between meals.  However, the unaccustomed cold which seeped into the marrow of my bones and the long active days were soon assuaged by swathes of hot buttered toast.  The bread was always white and a value brand called Sunblest (I have never seen this type of bread outside school) that disintegrated if handled too strongly.  The butter was another unknown that tasted more like margarine that had maybe had a dalliance with butter at some point in its past.  Still, who doesn’t like toast?

However, the toast I was handed by My Friend (MF) on this blessed exeat day was completely different.  A thick, springy white baguette that crackled comfortably as it was sliced dripping in proper butter and glistening indigo jam.  I had never tasted blueberry jam before and it was a revelation.  Sweetly tart jam and salty richness from the butter had me asking for more while my mouth was still full.  And even better, as the sign of a true friend, there was zero judgement!  My future forays with Sunblest where never going to compare with this Marks and Spencer baguette, Bonne Mamman jam and proper butter.

Needless to say, MF and I are still going strong.  There are many more stories and food memories I have to share but this particular memory jumped into my mind.  I was perusing the shelves in my local supermarket last week and my eyes fell onto a single, lonely jar of Bonne Mamman Wild Blueberry Conserve, all the way from France.  Immediately I was transported into that warm, homely kitchen eating jam on toast whilst discussing boys, exams and of course, horses.

I had had a lovely Skype chat with MF the night before, marvelling how after more than twenty years (EEP!), just hearing her voice makes me feel calmed, centred and most importantly, loved.  When you find that friend, falling into conversation and chatting for hours like you have never been apart is truly a sign that your relationship is indeed special.  So when I saw that jar of jam I knew I had to recognise her in some way and being my BFF, the thing she would appreciate the most would be food.

For over twenty years MF has been next to me for every milestone of my life.  From my first boyfriend to my (first – ha, joking!) wedding she has always supported me in a generous, thoughtful and non-judgemental way.  She has put up with my hedonistic behaviour, moving to the other side of the world, swept up after heartbreak and celebrated every success with no ego or envy.  She is hysterically funny, amazingly easygoing (you have to be to put up with me) and incredibly intelligent.  There are not enough superlatives for MF and I just wish I could tell her so every single day.

So MF, I hope when I’m next home I get to make these Blueberry BFF bars for you because…well, I just don’t have the words.  But until then, here’s the recipe to tide you over until I do…

Thanks to Suelle of Mainly Baking who’s recipe I have bastardised for you today..

You will need:

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  • 300g white chocolate with 50g chopped into chip-sized pieces
  • 150g butter (urghgh Turkish butter…)
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 eggs at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or just use 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract)
  • 130g all purpose flour
  • 150g blueberry jam

Pre-heat the oven to 180C and line a 20cm square tin with baking parchment.  I used a glass pyrex dish which worked fine.  Melt the butter and 250g of the white chocolate together in a large bowl, over a pan of simmering water.  Don’t use a plastic IKEA mixing bowl.  They just melt.  Trust me.

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While this is happening, chop your chocolate.

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Remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the sugar and salt.

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Mix in the eggs, one at a time, then mix in both the vanilla extract and bean paste.


Gently fold in the flour, followed by the chopped chocolate, and put the batter into the baking tin.

 

Dollop the blueberry jam onto the batter in 5 or 6 equal portions, and swirl into the batter using a knife and a figure of 8 movement.


Bake for around 25 minutes, until a tester comes out clean.
Cool on a wire rack, then cut into 12 bars when completely cold.

These bars turned out amazingly!  They were moist, fudgey and the balance of flavours was excellent.  I think they would also work really well if you substituted the vanilla flavour for lemon zest and lemon flavouring.  Or you could use any type of jam or fruit curd you fancied – it really is a very versatile recipe.  However, most importantly, it has turned out to be a fitting tribute for MF.

 

 

 

 

Trick or treat – I made something good to eat..

I love autumn.  I love the changing leaves, my legs look markedly better when wrestled into submission by 80 denier full support black tights and the excuse to eat rich ‘warming’ foods.  I decided to celebrate this entry into autumn by treating myself to a new fluffy blanket for binge-watching my favourite TV programmes in, which of course, have all started again.

I have been watching Grey’s Anatomy, Supernatural and Law & Order S.V.U. for so long that it feels like catching up with friends on the first day back at school.  What has everyone been up to over the summer? Happily, with my crew, it always seems to be the same things.  In fact, it’s mostly slaying demons, solving crimes and rocking a full face of makeup whilst performing groundbreaking surgery.  All of which is absolutely fine because the familiarity is comforting.

In Bahrain and Mexico autumn was marked by the temperature falling from above 40 C to a decidedly balmy 25C.  This negated any excitement that heralded a clearcut change in season.  In fact, it simply meant that white t-shirts  could potentially be worn again as underarm onion rings were less likely. In Istanbul, a  very hot and sweaty summer has been followed by a chilly, grey 11C.  Jumpers have been pulled out of hibernation and finally I can wear boots again.  No need to shave legs or get a pedicure until April now!  Hurrah for seasons!  All four of them!   Those primary school charts finally make sense!

The end of October also heralds the beginning of holiday season.  Even more celebration for my sentimental self!  More excuses to eat delicious food, wear glittering eyeshadow and vampy lipstick everyday and drink my bodyweight in hot chocolate.  First holiday on the list is a classic. Halloween.  I first remember getting dressed up for Halloween when I was still in primary school.  At that time, the local football club used to run a Halloween evening for youngsters full of wholesome activities like apple bobbing and lobbing bean bags at coconuts.  Of course, fancy dress was mandatory.  Our very first Halloween was a bigger deal for my mum and dad than for myself and my brother.  To be honest, we were too young to appreciate what was going on.  My folks however, went all out.  There was no way their kids would pale into insignificance at their first Halloween party!

Remember, this is Bahrain in the late 1980s.  It was still a small, laid back and sleepy little island.  Definitely not the consumerist behemoth it has evolved into today.  Somehow, I’m not sure how, my parents managed to find a shop that sold face paints.  Proper, theatre grease paint.  My maw actually sewed two black cloaks for us and my dad managed to track down vampire fangs for my brother and a witch’s hat for me.  We were dutifully stuffed into black welly boots, black trousers and black t-shirts.

My brother managed to get away with some red blood drawn on his face and dripping onto his neck.  I, on the other hand, got the full brunt of my dad’s excitement in owning bright green grease paint.  Any visible flesh on my body was duly anointed.  Face, neck, hands, everything was painted bright green.  Dad then realised that by painting me completely green all my features had disappeared.  No matter.  Black greasepaint was used to highlight my nose, eyebrows and outline my worried eyes.  My lips were painted bright red, exaggerated to mimc the mouth of a clown.  To top off the whole ensemble, fake fingernails were slipped on.  Yes, I was truly scary.  In fact, the whole effect was horrifying.

We arrived at the football club to find the small clubhouse and even smaller patio overrun with our school friends shrieking at the cold water in the apple bobbing tubs, exclaiming at each others costumes and dangling upside down from the monkey bars.  Fed up parents were knocking back beers whilst surreptitiously comparing their kids’ costumes.  It was overwhelmingly chaotic.  Holding my mum’s hand I remember looking around and feeling excited to be part of the sensory overload.  Then, as my brain gradually started to make sense of what my eyes were taking in, my heart began to sink.

All the girls from school were dressed up in a style identical to each other but very different to my own.    Let’s just say, it was cute, girly and pink glitter abounded.  A particularly vile girl (okay – my nemesis) bounded up to me, gave me the mean girl once-over (you all know what that is) and then started laughing.   She then realised that my humiliation wouldn’t be complete without an audience and summoned over her pack of cronies.  My mum at this point had drifted off to compare notes (compare costume efforts) with the other mums.  I was left vulnerable and open to attack.

“Where’s your costume?”

“Did you forget to dress up?”

“Did you look in the mirror and realise you didn’t need a costume?”

The comments flew thick and fast.  Their spiteful jeering faces blurred in front of me.  It was so unfair.  I didn’t realise Halloween was a beauty contest.  I genuinely thought you had to look scary and obviously my folks did too.  I didn’t realise that even at the tender age of 8, Halloween was an excuse to parade your assets if you were female.  Woe betide anyone that didn’t.  Suddenly my hurt coalesced into rage.  My mum had worked so hard to sew our costumes.  My dad looked so proud when he turned me bright green.  How dare this coterie of skinny, blonde, glittery pink witches belittle the work they had done.  Without thinking, I opened my mouth,

“Why don’t you look scary?  Do you not understand Halloween?  We all know you can’t spell it..”

Now, the queen witch was blessed with long blond hair, a dazzling athletic ability and unfortunately, not much else.  She was just clever enough to realise how genuinely stupid she was.  I guess everyone has their weak point no matter how long or shiny your hair is.  However, the backlash of screeching and crying was worth it.  Especially when she ran off to get her mum who then approached my mum.  When pushed to recount the conversation word for word it was clear that the best thing to do was for myself and the coven to go our separate ways. Moral of the story.  Intelligence beats pink glitter wings.  Every time.

From that moment onwards, I made an oath to myself that Halloween was going to an opportunity to exercise my creativity and nothing more.  My costumes up until now have been (what I’d like to think!) vaguely original, completely tongue-in-cheek and invariably unflattering.  Ranging from Dr Robotnik (remember the baddie from Sonic the Hedgehog?) to a cheese grater (complete with colander helmet), jellyfish (helloooo bubble wrap) to one of the 118 runners (fully moustached of course).  I’ve held haunted house parties in which everyone had to dress as a song title with silly games set up in every room to carving a pumpkin with YM every year.  I love Halloween because  I’ve made it my own – and I urge you all to do the same!

So, in the spirit of Halloween I’ve come up with a wee recipe that helps you celebrate autumn, the start of the holidays, and of course, uses up that extra pumpkin left over from your carving frenzy.

Spiced pumpkin muffins – makes 10

You will need:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sour cream or plain yogurt (full fat all the way!)
  • 1 and a 1/2 cups pumpkin purée
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar (there is no light or dark in Istanbul – only brown)
  • 1/4 cup white sugar (if you prefer a sweeter muffin – add half a cup.  Or you could add 1/4 cup of maple syrup as well as the sugar for the ultimate autumn taste sensation)
  • 115g butter, melted
  • 2 and a 1/4 cups wholemeal flour (you can use plain flour too)
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 3 tsp. ground ginger
  • Pinch of ground cloves (I forgot to add these)
  • Pinch of white pepper

Optional

  • 3/4 cup dried cranberries (I had this brainwave as I was pulling them out of the oven)

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To make pumpkin puree simply pop all your pumpkin flesh into a pan and add 1/4 cup of water.  Pop a lid on and boil until it’s soft.  Then blend.  Done.

Start off by setting your oven to 190C and getting your muffin tray ready.  I have some snazzy silicone muffin cups which are ace but unfortunately I only have 8.  So I have a mix of muffins and little cupcakes to get all my batter used up!

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In a mixing bowl add the eggs, yogurt, pumpkin purée, brown sugar, and white sugar.

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Then realise you forgot to melt and cool your butter so quickly do that.  I don’t have a microwave any more (and strangely – don’t really miss it.  So I melt my butter in the old-fashioned way.  In a frying pan.

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When your butter is cooled (i.e. if you can stick a finger in it and it feels pleasant), pour it into the mixing bowl with everything else and give it a good stir.

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In a separate bowl,sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and pepper (check out Grey’s in the background – not sure my work computer should be doubling up as kitchen TV).

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Now – this truly is the secret to moist, delicious muffins.  Pay attention…

Add the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients.

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And very slowly and gently, fold the mixture a few times.  If you want to add cranberries – this is when to thrown them in.

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Really, it should only be a maximum of 8 times.  There should still be lumps.  Look at my batter, there’s still lumps and bits of unmixed flour.  Trust me – that’s a good thing!

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Now spoon into your waiting cases and pop into the oven.  These take about 15-20 min depending on how good your oven is.  They’re ready when a toothpick is inserted and then comes out clean.  They should also be springy to touch.

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So there you have it. My spiced pumpkin muffins.  Now grab your fluffy blanket, a warm muffin, some good hot chocolate and settle down for an evening with Dr Grey and the gang.  Best feeling ever!

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Almost five years later….My biriyani opus is back..

I know.  I can’t believe it.  It’s been so long.  What started off as a real labour of love quickly got lost in the minutiae of daily life.  In the last few years the following has happened:

  1. We left Mexico and moved to Istanbul
  2. We got married
  3. I achieved my MEd whilst working full-time
  4. I published three text books
  5. I lost my father after a year-long battle with cancer

So, due to the myriad demands on my time, the blog lost.  It got pushed to the back and left to hibernate whilst I rushed between Scotland, Istanbul and Mexico.  Finally, after two years and a really rough transition I am starting to finally feel the calm that comes when you start to feel that life is under your control again.

The move from Mexico to Istanbul was difficult (hah – understatement).  I knew it had to be done.  Professionally, I was too comfortable.  I needed to challenge myself, push myself out of my comfort zone and really consider what teaching looked like in the 21st century.  This all sounds very highbrow and worthwhile but the decision wasn’t taken lightly.  We were happy in Mexico.  We had a very safe and easy life, amazing friends and I genuinely loved my school and my work colleagues.  So why was I leaving something that I knew was working?  The tell-tale signs of a restless soul I guess.

When I become too comfortable I panic.  I feel like I am following a path that leads to stagnation of the spirit and the claustrophobia of a check-box life.  The idea of being  normal terrifies me because for some bizarre reason I equate it with a life half-lived.  I’m not going to try to defend my feelings because they are just that, MY feelings (even though I have enough objectivity to recognise that they are slightly mental).

After we made the decision to move the rat race of updating CVs, applying for jobs, Skype interviews and job fairs started.  As a fairly experienced teacher and head of department I thought I had the pick of jobs.  How wrong I was.  The lovely sheltered existence in my little school was rudely blown apart as I tentatively re-entered the world of international teaching.  Procuring my first job was easier as I was young, inexperienced, single so for an international school, remarkably cheap.  Now I was experienced and had a YM in tow.  This, coupled with the fact that YM wanted to be closer to Europe meant looking for a school that was less than six hours flight from Edinburgh but also gave us the taste of the exotic we so craved (and the international teacher benefits we needed!).

Istanbul seemed to fit the bill.  A beautiful, chaotic, ancient city.  A true culture clash with the bureaucracy and the wealth of the West slamming headfirst into the more lackadaisical,  romantic East.  Where mosques rubbed shoulders with churches, internet banking was a thing (the fact you can pay bills online is truly a luxury) and most shopping is still done at the local market.  It seemed to tick all the boxes.

The school itself was a technological marvel, a Google school, a 1-2-1 Mac school, a school pioneering self-directed learning and a child based curriculum.  So many acronyms, plaudits and publicity.  How could I fail to improve?  My experience of living in the Middle East made me feel that I could easily handle anything that Turkey had to throw at me.  I shrugged off the words of warning from my wise ex-Head that these big top-tier schools are not all they are cracked up to be.  Istanbul here we come.

Due to the nature of YMs’ work, he had to stay behind in Mexico to finish his contracts and shut down his business.  Therefore I would move over halfway through July and get myself settled.  He would come and join me at the end of October.  Summer 2014 consisted of being proposed to on our favourite beach in Mexico (hurrah!), long and tearful goodbyes with my amazing friends and one of the hottest summers on record in Scotland. Eventually, with three suitcases and a bike box I landed on a sweaty, sultry evening in Istanbul.  As soon as my feet hit the tarmac at the airport I was transported to the country of my youth, Bahrain.  The same smells of unwashed armpit and cloying heavy perfume, the thick layer of moisture coating everything and everyone in the humid summer night, the frantic sounds of thousands of passengers shouting in French, Turkish, English German, Arabic, ki-Swahili.  I had truly arrived at the centre of the world.

The first few weeks passed in a haze of heat, loneliness and information overload.  Although on the surface Istanbul seems modern and organised, at its heart it is still a seething mass of humanity not reporting to rhyme nor reason.  The pace of life was set on fast forward and the sheer density of people made one feel simultaneously isolated but also suffocated.  It was definitely not the friendly, laid back, green and spacious city DF was.  In fact, it was entirely the opposite.  A rude, frenetic, cramped concrete jungle with people stuffed into every possible nook and cranny.

The narrow streets and steep cobbled hills meant that taking my bike out was a chore instead of a pleasure.  Cycling was my exercise, my stress relief, my reflection time, my opportunity to process my world and my life.  Not being able to cycle as freely or abundantly as I did in Mexico started to impact on my mental well-being.  As did the inability to swim.  I joined a gym with a swimming pool but the gym was half an hour in the wrong direction and the pool was small and cold.  I had gone from swimming three times a week in a 50m 10 lane outdoor heated pool with a friendly and sociable swim team to a few lengths up and down what was essentially a bath tub, my teeth usually chittering with cold.

For the first time in my life, I felt truly out of my depth. Incredible. I thought I was the girl who was unfazed by anything.  Up until now, life was always a big adventure which I jumped into feet first into at any opportunity.  No problem was unsolveable and somehow,  I had always come out on top.  Now, for the first time in my life, I was completely overwhelmed.  I thought I was experienced and professionally capable but the educational model that the school used was so different to anything I had ever done before.  I was a rank outsider in my everyday environment and it felt like I was a probationer again.  This new school was a behemoth in my eyes with over 100 mostly North American faculty, a far cry of the small, friendly and informal British schools I was used to working in.

My slipping confidence coupled with a bullying head teacher  and an under-resourced and disorganised department lead to frustration, tears and self-pity.  At this new school, I sound different, I think differently, I even look different.  Instead of celebrating my uniqueness, I punished myself for it.  I just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being accepted as a professional,  as an asset, as a person.  Of course, I was wallowing in my drama to some extent, but the atmosphere was so alien to me I had no idea had to understand it never mind flourish in it.

My days fell into a pattern.  Early rising, over an hour on a bus, stumbling my way through classes, working after school on preparing resources, another hour and a half in a bus and then, if I had any energy left, the gym.  I was normally getting home about half past eight at night.  Just enough time to order a takeaway and either work on my Masters assignments, continue proofreading or editing the textbooks I was writing or getting stuck into wedding planning.

Wedding planning was something I had been looking forward to. Trying to plan a wedding in a country that’s not your own (we were getting married in Yorkshire the following summer) from another country (Turkey) whilst your fiancée is sitting in a third (Mexico) leaves a lot to be desired.  Who cares if you have a band or a DJ?  I couldn’t even go dress shopping.  I had nowhere to go and no friends to do it with.  In short, I found myself withdrawing.  Withdrawing from work, withdrawing from life and withdrawing into myself.

I was desperately unhappy.  Of course, I was doing too much.  One of the many things I was trying to juggle, moving country, starting a new job, planning a wedding, or doing a Masters , would have been stressful enough.  I was trying to do all.  And be successful. And then berating myself up for failing to do it well.  Eventually YM moved over which made things a little better but not enough to make a difference.

Year one went on into year two.  We did end up having a beautiful wedding (you can read about it here) and a fantastic honeymoon.  My books were published and I completed my first solo cycle tour in Turkey.  Then, just to show that life hadn’t finished messing with me, to ensure I didn’t get too cocky thinking there may be light at the end of the tunnel, my father was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

This last year was like riding on top of a bullet train, holding on tight with my fingertips, knowing if I relaxed for even a second, I would go flying off and be unable to get back on top again.  Every holiday and long weekend was used to fly home.  Over the course of thirteen months I saw my father shrivel from a strong, intelligent and proud man to a wizened, scared and helpless body.  The summer was spent in a chair watching over him whilst writing my dissertation.  When I left to go back to school, I knew it was the last time I would see him.  Three weeks later, a week before I was due to go home for Eid, he died.  A week later, I found out I passed my MEd and was now allowed to call myself a Master of Education.  He would have been very proud.

So my third year in Istanbul has started somewhat shakily but for the first time in two years, I am starting to feel more like the girl I left behind in Mexico.  Although I can’t cycle and swim and haven’t quite achieved a social life, I feel more centred and confident about my place in this city.  The landscape at work has changed dramatically, most notably due to the bullying head leaving and a rather dramatic breakdown in my end of year appraisal giving me a chance to air my grievances.

As a result, I have started a new school year with a new HoD, most of my classes in the same room, new colleagues and a timetable that mirrors last year (which cuts down dramatically on the time I need to spend on resourcing courses).  Instead of waking up in a cold sweat and spending the morning commute anticipating what new fresh hell would be unleashed upon me, I am now planning on how to enrich my classes and how to make more of an impact on the school community through my participation in after school activities.

As for my non-work life, I can now officially pronounce it a work-in-progress.  Although I can’t cycle around as easily anymore I have now taken to planning large summer tours which keep me (and my bank balance!) happy.  As a substitute, we’ve started taking advantage of the incredibly affordable domestic flights to discover the Turkey outside Istanbul and I’m happy to say that so far, it’s awesome.  I’ve found a new gym on the way home from work with a decent sized swimming pool and I feel more motivated to bring fitness back into my life.  I’ve even spent weekends working at a refugee centre which has allowed me to meet people outside work and rediscover my personality a little at a time (so apparently I used to have a sense of humour – who knew).

Finally, food.  Yes, my passion for cooking and exploring restaurants is beginning to seep its way back.  I have to partially thank YM for this.  As I have retreated from the kitchen he has bustled forward to fill my culinary shoes.  A couple of weeks ago he decided he was going to make his own kimchi.  He bought the ingredients, Googled the recipes and then…he did it.  The end result was three kilos of gently fermenting kimchi residing in ALL of our Tupperware.  I think this was the stimulus I needed to get back into cooking and eating.  Googling new recipes? Trying them?  That has been MY job for the last seven years!  I definitely felt territorial which spurred me onto picking up my knife and thinking about food again.

So there you have it.  An unnecessarily long and unexpectedly personal explanation for my absence for the last few years.  Strangely, charting this journey has been cathartic in its own way.  I feel refreshed and ready to face what the next couple of years in Turkey have left for me.  Obstacles that would have overwhelmed now seem achievable and every day I wake up feeling a little more positive about the world and my place in it.  This all leads to the resurrection of My Biriyani Opus (MBO).  Yes, I will be trying and tasting recipes again.  Using food as a way to reflect on my past helps me to recognise and celebrate my strengths and learn from the challenges that will inevitably shape my future.  However, MBO v.II  will also be a platform to highlight some of the other things I enjoy in life.  Travel, cycling, adventuring or sometimes, just writing.   So yes, I’m back.  Same site, different goals.

Enough blethering.   Let’s get cooking.

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This is Mexico……..

We live for our long weekends. This is because under the labour laws in Mexico, YM only gets 6 days holiday a year. Luckily, due to Mexico’s penchant for coups, riots and general battling, there are plenty of long weekends in the year (viva la revolucion!)   The long weekends give us an opportunity to explore parts of the country that are really too far away to manage on a normal weekend. It also gives me an opportunity to stick a drawing pin into a huge map of Mexico I bought for a fiver whilst stopped at a roundabout.

For this ‘Puente’ we decided to head down the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, specifically to Bahías de Huatulco. Imagine a 10km stretch of coastline with 9 bays backed by steep rugged mountains and 32 different white sand beaches, some only accessible by boat. Heaven after a grey gloomy Christmas in the UK and cold, rainy weather back in Mexico City (when I say cold – I mean I’ve had to wear a jumper with a T-shirt underneath – scandalous!)

Preparations for the Puente began the Saturday before we left. In a rush of organization we managed to find an overnight bus that would leave Mexico City on the Friday night and arrive early Saturday morning. Our plan was to fly back on Monday afternoon thereby getting the financial savings of using the bus and the speed of using a flight. Canny or what?

After finding an appropriate flight back we decided to go to the bus station and book our tickets out. This journey meant we left the flat for approximately an hour. Imagine our surprise when we returned, smug in our productiveness, to find there were no flights left. Obviously all 23 million people in Mexico City tried to book return flights from Huatulco all within the same hour. Perfect. So we were left with 2 bus tickets for a 14 hour journey to Huatulco. And no way of returning.

Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. We could easily get the bus back. However, this meant that we would spend all Friday night on a bus and get there Saturday morning. We would have Saturday and half of Sunday before getting back on the overnight bus to return to Mexico City on Monday. So…30 hours on the bus for about 26 hours in Huatulco. Sounds awesome. Actually, we didn’t have a choice having just dished out MS$2000 for our tickets (100 quid) so that’s what we did. Back in the car, back to the bus station and back to negotiating with the rather bemused counter assistant. Bless her manners. She obviously wanted to ask why we waved away the idea of a return ticket when we were there half an hour ago. Hopefully she just though we were eccentric foreigners…

Anyway, Friday rolled around and I managed to make a hasty exit from school. This involved some intense cycling through heavy traffic and a fun fair that had been thoughtfully set up on the main road back to my flat (ever tried dodging travelling fair rides on a bike? – it should be a ride itself). Being home on time to pack everything in time for YM’s return was of paramount importance to making the bus on time.

Of course, it would also mean it was the same day that I managed to lock myself out of the flat. With no mobile either. This meant another adrenalin-fueled ride back to school and using Google Chat to instigate some kind of triangular communication between YM and our Mexican flatmate (MF). Luckily we tracked him down fairly close by (although that is a pretty relative statement in a city this size) and YM successfully managed to prise him away from whatever unfortunate girl he was wooing that day.

Packing complete, YM arrived and we marched to the bus station. Literally, because the traffic was still grid-locked (thanks  fun fair).   Not the easiest thing to do in pumps, in the dark, whilst carrying a boogie board and a suitcase.   Soon we reached the bus station and managed to get boarded and settled into our seats.   All was going well until about 3 hours into the trip when YM began to experience all the hallmarks of serious food poisoning.  Awful at any time but doubly horrendous when stuck on a bus (which was already running 3 hours behind schedule).   As the night progressed YM got paler and paler and by the time we reached Huatulco he was transparent.

We staggered off the bus, blinking in the unaccustomed daylight and taken by surprise by the burning sun and relentless humidity. One quick cab ride and we reached our hotel. The receptionist started giving out some line about the room not being ready but one look at my darkening face and YM’s see-through one she upgraded us to a lovely suite, no questions asked.   Sometimes, you just need to read the warning signs and take the path of least resistance!   A quick shower and change and we were in a taxi and on our way to a beach known for its tranquil black volcanic sands with easy surfable waves.

However, this innocent endeavour was also a total washout. YM managed to pull off a massive scab (the result of an argument between his bike and a car bumper) which left a raw bleeding wound like a small mouth on his leg.   No more surfing.   The day was saved with an exemplary dinner in the hotel restaurant (my steak literally melted in the mouth) and enough girlie cocktails to chase away any remnants of food poisoning.

The next (and last) day in Huatulco was full of promise.   Blue skies, shining sun and our own private lancha to explore some of the hidden bays and beaches. We snorkeled (YM got bitten by a fish), swam and lazed on the boat deck whilst watching the massive craggy cliffs meander by. This idyllic afternoon was quickly ruined when we stopped at Playa El Maguey for lunch.  The first restaurant only managed to bring out half our order in the hour we were sitting there.  The second restaurant tried to cheat us on our change and when challenge simply replied that they didn’t have the correct change to hand and hoped that we wouldn’t notice (we did!).

Anyway, these shenanigans managed to make us slightly late.  We persuaded our lancha captain to open the throttle and push on back to Santa Cruz.  He was a bit of a character and had spent the afternoon regaling us with stories of people he knew, including himself, that had sexual relations with open wounds on their legs.   Turns out all these people, including himself, ended up with very nasty infections – not sure what to make of this??!) Anyway, full speed ahead meant moving from walking pace to a bit faster than walking pace, akin to a horrendously obese granny jogging perhaps.

Eventually, we ended back up on the bus to Mexico City (that smelt rather dubiously of chemical toilet) and left the bus station only 20 min behind schedule. A Mexican miracle!  This miracle lasted all the way out the bus station and onto the main road.  Then the bus stopped in the middle of the main road and the bus driver and his mate jumped out whilst leaving the bus running. And we waited…5 min, 10 min, 15 min…after 20 min YM had enough and decided to go look for them. It was a full bus and we had a long way to go. Lo and behold he discovered both drivers polishing off a taco in the taqueria next to the bus. Obviously the idea of take away tacos would be an insult to the mighty taco – passengers and timetables be hanged!   The drivers knew where their priorities lay and no one could say anything different.

The next few hours passed without any drama. Most of us were asleep after being audibly assaulted by terrible PG-13 films dubbed into Spanish played on full volume (Marmaduke is a sh*t film and Adam Sandler is still an unfunny dick even in Spanish). However, this bus utopia all came to an end at 1am.  We received a rude awakening as the bus swerved rather excitingly onto the hard shoulder in the middle of nowhere.  It screeched to a stop and the driver put on all the lights. The bus had broken down (as a result of dodgy driving perhaps?) and we were stuck in a place that the driver assured us as only a little bit dangerous.

Of course this meant everyone had to get off the bus and mill around on the dark highway for an hour whilst the driver decided what to do. His idea was to wait until the bus that left after ours had caught up and then hitch a ride to the nearest town 3 hours away. However, our driver had neglected to realize that the other bus wouldn’t have enough spare seats for everyone from our bus. This meant two hours of standing in the aisle at 2am whilst being jolted side to side.  It took every ounce of energy and strength to stay upright as the New Driver blithely attacked every speed bump as if he was piloting a BMX instead of a giant bus.  As a result,  YM’s knee gave way, his wound started weeping and I still have a bruised, blue palm as a result of hanging onto the luggage racks.

Eventually we reached the San Marcos petrol station (our rendezvous for the new bus) and gratefully collapsed against a handy petrol pump. We then witnessed one of the most awesome sights I have ever had the priviledge to experience and humbly offer it up as the essence of Mexico in an hour….As our coach was parked up at the bus station, fellow bus drivers from the same coach company were zooming the other way towards Huatulco. After catching sight of our stricken bodies strewn around the gas station and our parked up bus they obviously felt there was a wonderful situation going on that was simply to good to miss

One thing that defines a Mexican is an overwhelming need for a community get-together. They are amazingly social people and love nothing better than a good chat and if you throw in a Drama, even better!!. So, other bus drivers, catching sight of a potential Drama and the opportunity to have a bit of a natter, started pulling up in the middle of the highway and jumping out to join the New Driver. Soon there were no less than six huge luxury coaches stopped in the middle of the highway at 4am in the morning.

The drivers were on seriously good form. A driver from a rival bus company stopped and tried to muscle in on the Drama (fool!) but he was hurriedly sent on his way. Even better, a little old lady popped out of nowhere with the ever-present plastic bucket of tacos sudados (sweaty tacos). These women are amazing. They have special radars that can sense a gathering of four or more people and naturally, you can’t have a social occasion in Mexico without catering. So, with bent back, and gnarled fingers she set up her little taco stall and as soon as everyone was fed, she melted quietly back into the darkness.

After a good hour of taco eating, catching up and heated consultation about the Drama, the New Driver seemed to remember he had not one, but two bus-loads of passengers patiently waiting to get moving. He then remarked that the bus was further away than he thought so he had no choice but to rendezvous with it at another town an hour further along the road. Moaning pitifully at the idea of standing for another hour we shambled back onto the bus and assumed our positions.

Fortunately, the replacement bus only took 45 min to arrive after we got to the rendezvous. Unfortunately, it was not the luxury coach we had all paid for. It was a bus that had obviously been dragged kicking and screaming out of retirement. The seats were more broken spring than cushion, the suspension creaked, groaned and seemed to amplify every bump in the road and there was a pervasive smell of must, damp and eau de chemical toilet.

We limped into Mexico City, very late, very tired with broken bodies and broken spirits. But safe in the knowledge that should there ever be a future Drama, there will always be tacos nearby. And tacos make everything better.

As this is a food blog, I suppose I better stick in a recipe. As the only truly successful part of the Puente was my steak dinner, I shall pay tribute to it with my recipe for chimichurri sauce. The ultimate Argentinean condiment to all things meaty. I love it because you can
a) get away of eating loads of raw garlic
b) make anything taste better with it (Cheese toastie? Pasta? Pizza? Anything.)

To whip up some of this garlicky goodness you will need the following:

  • a BIG ASS bunch of parsley (flat leaf works best)
  • red wine vinegar
  • 1 litre of extra virgin olive oil (cheap stuff is fine)
  • pepper
  • salt
  • red chilli flakes
  • a lemon
  • loads of garlic
  • half an onion
De-stalk your parsley (whilst admiring your amazing ability to cover every inch of your kitchen in little green bits) and chuck into a blender

Roughly chop your onion and throw that in as well.

Squeeze about 4 cloves of garlic into your mixture

Follow with the juice of one lemon (check out my cool lemon squeezing thingy – it’s cool)

I threw in a tablespoon of dried oregano.  Mostly because it was the last spoonful in the jar and I wanted to use the jar for something else.

Follow with a teaspoon full of chilli flakes.

A teaspoon of salt and a good shake of pepper.

Finish off by pouring in about 150ml of red wine vinegar and all of your olive oil.

Now blend.  And taste.  And blend.  And taste.  This is your sauce so make it taste the way YOU want.  More garlic (I ended up adding about 8 cloves!!)  why not?  More vinegar – go ahead!  There aren’t any rules when it comes to making condiments because at the end of the day, you’re the one eating them.  So it make it taste of what you like!

Once everything is blended (but don’t over blend – you still want the parsley to be a bit chunky)  bottle it up into a sterilised jar.  And enjoy it.  On EVERYTHING!

 

 

A glittering start to the New Year….

I realize I have been awful at updating my blog over the last month and a half.  This is because:

 

a) school became mental – the combination of Christmas parties and a rush to get everything finished before the end of term

 

b) YM and I returned to the Motherland for the Christmas holidays after a year and a half in Mexico

 

I realize that Scotland has the internet now and that going home is not an excuse for not cooking.  However, my primary reason for returning home was to stuff myself with curry for three weeks and you should be pleased to know that I accomplished my mission with half-a-stone bells on!

 

Flying back to the UK was a bit of a culture shock after being in Mexico for so long.  It started off pretty poorly with BA messing us about (surprise!).  As a result, poor YM had to put up with my filthy mood on a long haul flight to Madrid on the vastly inferior Iberia airlines.  However, this was all turned around when we eventually reached Heathrow.  A couple of rather lovely Italians (whom also happen to be a couple – how meta!) picked us up and whizzed us back to their flat in Richmond.  They will now been known as the Lovely Italian Couple or LIC.

 

The LIC then proceeded to give us one of the most wonderful ways of recovering after a long haul flight.  Imagine a laid-back, relaxed Christmas lunch that stretches languidly into dinner consisting of all your friends you haven’t seen in ages.  Friends that cook up a weird and wonderful storm with much laughter and banter (cannelloni, followed by cheesecake…and then machboos??!!).  Wine and conversation flowed, bad films were watched and chocolates munched by the handful…..this is the only way to travel and I only hope the LIC realize that they have set the bar for every time we return home!!!

 

The next day we returned to YM’s ancestral home by way of King’s Cross, breaking into Spanish without realising to the confusion of the train conductor and me professing my horror at paying a pound to use the toilets – that’s more than 20 pesos!!!  I then spent a lovely few days eating, drinking and catching up on Come Dine With Me.  Special thanks to YM’s parents for putting up with my constant hogging of the stove.  I’m really sorry, but I’m a total wimp when it comes to the cold and I have a feeling that it’s just going to get worse…The last leg of the journey home was courtesy of my lovely brother and his snazzy black Audi – travelling in style!

 

Coming home for Christmas is always a slightly odd sensation.  Firstly, this was our first Christmas as a family in Scotland, usually we hotfoot it back to Bahrain to escape the dreary greyness that is Scotland in December.  The first few days with all four of us are always wonderful as we aren’t all used to being together.  However, the fact that we aren’t all used to being together starts to make itself known and by the end of the holiday the grating of nerves is audible.  I suppose when you are used to having your own space and your own routine, it is hard to fit into someone else’s and I’m sure this is a pretty universal feeling.  As always, it was awesome to catch up with friends, family and the Dr Who Christmas special but I am still amazed that no matter how old I get, my parents have the ability to reduce me to a whiny, sulking, spoilt little brat.  So, here is a public apology parents, I know I’m doing it – I just can’t stop myself!

 

Anyway, I’m back now and full of resolutions for 2012.  I have decided to give myself realistic goals for this year that I might have a hope of carrying on after the first flush of enthusiasm has waned (usually around the 2nd of January).  So here are my goals for 2012, set out in black and white so I can’t turn back…

 

1.  Try and update my blog at least once a month

2.  Take a proper cooking course to start building up my technical skills

3.  Turn the iron cage on the roof (formerly for hanging laundry) into a mini greenhouse for tomatoes and chilies.

 

So what do you reckon?  Potentially doable and this blog will be a great way of keeping tabs on myself and my progress.

 

I’ve decided to kick off this year with some delicious and decadent little chocolate cupcakes (mostly as an excuse for trying out my new pot of edible glitter).

 

You will need the following ingredients for the cupcakes:

 

  • 100g of plain flour
  • 20g of good quality cocoa powder
  • 140g caster sugar
  • 1 and a half teaspoons of baking powder
  • 40g butter
  • 120ml milk
  • 1 medium egg
  • Vanilla extract

 

Add the flour into a big mixing bowlNext add the cocoa powder and baking powder.

Follow with the sugar.

Finish off by adding the butter.  It will help you out a lot if your butter is at room temperature – unless you have an electric beater or arms of steel.  Once you have added the butter mix everything together until you have a bowl that looks like it is full of little brown grains of sand.

Now in another jug, whisk together your egg, milk and vanilla extract.

Now add half your milk mixture to the flour mixture and beat until just combined.  Slowly keep beating and adding the rest of the milk mixture, bit by bit.  Make sure you don’t overbeat – all the ingredients should be just combined.  The resulting mixture will be quite loose, don’t worry about this.

Pour the mixture into cupcake cases (fill up to about 2/3.

The cupcakes go into a preheated oven at 170C for at least half an hour.  Take them out when an inserted toothpick comes out clean.


After pulling your cupcakes out (and forgetting to use oven gloves, thereby burning yourself)  put them somewhere to cool and crack on with the frosting.

You will need

  • 150g icing sugar
  • 50g butter at room temperature
  • 20g cocoa powder
  • 20ml milk

Sift the icing sugar and cocoa powder into a bowl.

Follow with the butter.

Beat the butter into the flour mixture, again going for the chocolatey grains of sand appearance.

Add half the milk and keep beating until the mixture starts to come together.

Once you have a bog brown lump, add the rest of the milk and keep beating. The longer you beat it, the lighter and fluffier the frosting will become.

Spoon or pipe onto your cupcakes and finish off with edible glitter.

Hummingbird Bakery eat your heart out.  These little cupcakes are lighter than air with a rich ganache-like frosting that lifts them into pure chocolate decadence.  A pretty good start to my 2012 (and YM agrees too!)

Happy New Year everyone!

 

The Great Chilli Experiment…

I didn’t do anything for Bonfire Night.  This is because:

a) every freaking night in Mexico City is Bonfire Night

b) I was in Cancun for a week

One of the joys of working as a teacher is October half term.  It’s like a bonus holiday to make sure you make it to December without losing your mind.  For me, it’s a great opportunity to leave everything I know behind for a week and indulge myself.  The key word here is myself – no YM, no friends, nobody at all.  When you work in a profession that is all about talking the last thing you want to do on your holidays is talk.  Sounds weird?  Well, try speaking to 20 people an hour, every hour for 8 hours a day  5 days a week.  I bet this little experiment is enough to turn you mental.    So, the conclusion is I really need a break from being around people.  And I need to get out of this crazy city.

I do have a certain bit of guilt when I go off by myself.  Poor YM gets the mandatory 6 days a year and nothing more.  But I don’t feel guilty enough to wait around for him so I make sure that I appease my guilty conscience in other ways.  The fridge has been stocked with his favourite foods, the burrito takeout menu is close to hand and I always go during the week when he’s working.  This year I booked an all inclusive week in Cancun.  I got a good price and it’s not somewhere I would necessarily ever go with YM so he wouldn’t feel too left out.  Unfortunately I managed to time my holiday to coincide with the back-end of a hurricane.  The first couple of days of my Caribbean getaway were spent shivering in inappropriate beachwear whilst looking glumly at the pool through a curtain of torrential rain.

However, by the middle of the week the weather had settled down and my blissfully solitary routine  of eat a lot, sleep a lot and swim a lot was beginning to take effect on my stress levels.  In fact, I read 8 novels, had 3 course meals 3 times a day and watched wonderfully girlie movies sans the usual male whining every night!  How awesome (and totally boring to read about unless it’s about happens to you -hah!).   Cancun itself isn’t really my cup of tea.  Mexicans are outnumbered by Americans, all the prices are in US dollars (and if you earn in pesos – you can’t really afford anything anyway) and the Zona Hotelera is a sterile, soulless strip of high rise hotels and adverts for crappy nightclubs and  Vegas-type shows.  A great excuse to go no further than the beach!  Not that you need to – the beach is awesome and the colour of the ocean?  Well, I assure you  – it’s NOT photoshopped!

Coming back from holiday is always depressing.  Especially when you know that the return to work is imminent and you have to start being sociable again.  I wasn’t really ready for it and this resulted in a few harsh words to poor YM.  He just wanted someone to talk to after being left alone for a week so I decided to kill two birds with one stone.  I would show my affection for him by making him some chilli sauce and I would remind myself of the white sands and pina coladas by the pool I had just left behind by making it West Indian style.  This also meant that I got to spend Sunday afternoon in the kitchen….close enough to make affirmative noises and far enough away that I wasn’t inundated by the  mundane witterings of a man that has only had other techie folk and the burrito guy to talk to all week.

To say that YM has a chilli addiction would be an understatement.  A more accurate portrayal would be saying that YM and chillies have formed some unnatural symbiotic relationship and if he doesn’t consume a certain amount of chilli heat per day he will explode (or turn into a girl).  His ability to eat chillies is so impressive that even the chilli-loving Mexicans have expressed their astonishment.  As a result, he is  always goaded him into trying progressively hotter and hotter types of chill,  and he never fails to impress.  I like being associated with him when we go out for dinner.  It’s like being out with a rockstar.  A chilli-eating rockstar that everyone wants to get a picture with.

So YM, here is my tribute to your acceptance of my constant vacationing and memories of the Caribbean:

                                                       Roast Chilli Island Sauce (I made up the name –  I know it’s a bit rubbish)

You will need:

  • 400g of chillies (Scotch Bonnet chilies are the best – I just used whatever was mouldering at the bottom of the vegetable drawer)
  • 100g of brown sugar
  • 50g of salt
  • A bulb of garlic
  • A tablespoon of mustard powder
  • 2 teaspoons of mustard powder
  • 2 teaspoons of cumin powder
  • 500ml of white vinegar
Pre-heat your oven to 200 C.  De-stem your chillies and lay them out on some foil on a baking tray.  Remove the outer layers of your garlic bulb and pop that on the tray too.  Pour some olive oil into the spaces between the cloves on your garlic bulb (don’t pull it apart).

Pop the chilli tray into the oven and wait until the chillies turn black and the garlic goes soft and squishy.

Depending on how good your oven is this could take anywhere from 40min – 1 hour.  Don’t worry if the chillies look like paper and you can shatter them when you take them out – this is normal!

In a separate bowl, weigh out 100g of brown sugar.

Add 50g of salt and 2 teaspoons of cumin powder.  Follow with 2 teaspoons of mustard powder.

Add 2 teaspoons of ground turmeric.

Whack your chillies into a pan.  Make sure it’s not a non-stick pan.

Now, squeeze out the roasted garlic from the cloves and into the pan.  It’s like squeezing a tube of toothpaste and oddly satisfying (a bit like squeezing pus out of a spot).

Add your brown sugar mix to the pan.  Now, at this point, my camera died and I had no spare batteries in the flat to replace them.  So you will just have to try follow my written instructions!

Finally, add 500ml of vingear to the pan and give everything a really good stir.

Bring the mixture to the boil and boil vigorously for at least 10 min.

After boiling, transfer your mixture into a blender and give everything a really good whizzing until all the chillies are no longer visible and the mixture is totally smooth.

Pour into a sterilised bottle and refrigerate when cool.  This sauce will last unpoened for up to 3 months and its sweet smoky salty flavour really does mellow with age.

Use your Roast Chilli Island Sauce to bring some sunshine (and fire!) to your meals.

Eat whilst looking at this picture…