Things I actually do now I live on my own

 

white coffee mug on brown surface
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

Way back when I first put the offer in on this house, before life proper blew up around me, I wrote about what I’d do when I lived on my own. So I thought I’d go back and see if I realised any of that particular fantasy.

  1. Put the lights on in the morning when I wake up – No. But, when I wrote that originally, I expected still to be working and therefore getting up in the dark by now. At some point, I will set an alarm to make me get up before it’s light, but not quite yet.
  2. Get a really good reading lamp in the bedroom – No, but I curse my current lamp every evening. I haven’t bought a new one because I don’t have any money but it’s inching its way up the priority list.
  3. Go back to bed on weekend mornings with a novel and a pot of coffee – Yes! And not only weekends. For a while, it was most mornings, now I’ve managed to shift myself downstairs earlier. It is one of the small but great pleasures of my new life that because I’m not dashing off anywhere in the morning, I get to make a pot of coffee and sit around to drink two cups while reading, or listening to the radio. In fact, it is one of the incentives to make my own business work, so that I have the flexibility to continue to do that.
  4. Or, get all the cleaning done by 9am so I can sit down with coffee and a novel – this varies. I do tend to get the cleaning out of the way as early as possible. It helps that this house is small and easy to clean – 45 minutes tops.
  5. I will buy a beautiful, colourful rug – No, again because by the time I moved I didn’t have any money. But I will when I get some, the impetus hasn’t gone away.
  6. Music throughout the house – Yes! I bought a Sonos speaker months in advance, so that covers downstairs. I’d like another one for upstairs as well, so that whatever I’m listening to can follow me around the house.
  7. Buy more pictures and not have a TV – Yes! I bought pictures from a couple of artists  I visited as part of Oxford Art Weeks. Plus I have a ton of images that I got from my art nude shoot. But, lack of finance is getting in the way again, so nothing new has been framed. In fact, I still have to hang all my old pictures and there is less wall space than I remembered. Definitely no TV though. I did wonder if I would notice this, as during the summer I got quite used to Neflix on a big screen. But I’ve defaulted happily back to my old ways and watch Strictly on the laptop without noticing the difference.
  8. Scent things in the airing cupboard with lavender and rosemary – Not yet, but good idea, Earlier Me! I shall put that on my list. I have rosemary in the garden so I could dry some of that as a start.

But the main difference I’m seeing is not the living on my own, it’s the unexpected change of not working and therefore having so much more time. My dears, it is glorious. I can’t remember the last time I felt this relaxed and it may well be never, given that I’ve been working full time since 1994. It makes the fact that I’ll never be able to retire even more poignant, now that I’ve had a taste of what life could be like.

Of course, I am putting in a good few hours on my own business, but that is currently very flexible. At the moment, I prefer to start later, as a counterpoint to all those early mornings of the last few years. But I spend my time reading or baking or getting other chores done. I also find that I don’t mind working in the evening. I take a break from about 4pm – 7pm, so that I can go for a run, cook dinner, feed the cats and watch Strictly It Takes Two (yes, I am organising my life around Strictly. Because I can.) But then I don’t mind fitting in another couple of hours, particularly if it’s writing work.

Unfortunately, with all that extra time comes less money. But even that has an upside: necessity means that I’m cooking so much more and fortunately, I love a veggie casserole at this time of year. I’m baking my own bread or cakes too, so my grocery bill has plummeted. Over all, I’d say I’m eating less (the workday boredom doesn’t kick in and drive me to snack), but more healthily and for cheaper. I am driven not to waste the fresh ingredients I do have, and that pushes me to be more creative in what I’m cooking. It’s a matter of ‘What can I do with what I’ve got that needs using?’, but I enjoy that, and the knowledge that I’m being less wasteful.

And finally, it’s an absolute joy to spend so much time with the cats. In the seven years I’ve had them, I’ve always been away most of the time. They are older and calmer these days, and spend most of their days sleeping. But they come and find me several times a day, and Belle in particular likes to be nearby. Previously, it seemed that just when they wanted attention, I had to head out the door. Now, I can always stop and make time for them, so I do.

These halcyon days can’t last, because I must earn some money. I am gathering all the rosebuds I can right now.

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The Nigella key

Written for A, who was complaining that I don’t make late night brownies in my nightie, unlike la Lawson. It’s like he hasn’t met me. Anyway.  This is the first short story I’ve written in forever and it’s obviously nonsense, but I did like the idea of the Nigella key.  I say it’s a cautionary tale, he says it’s an incentive to put a spare key under the doormat.

The Nigella Key

Sara woke up with a start. She lay for a few moments, wondering what had woken her, automatically reaching out to check the time on her phone. A little after 1am, and as she put the phone down, she heard a cupboard door in the kitchen squeak open. That bloody door! But she relaxed. It would be Matt, unable to sleep and unequally unable to resist a guilty, late night sugar hit.

Except that the warmth in the bed and the sound of breathing told her Matt was still in bed, next to her. So, what the fuck? She must still be half-asleep, mixing dreams up with reality. She listened.

She heard a drawer slide open, then gently rattle shut. Something that sounded like a cork coming out of a bottle. Seriously, what the fuck?

‘Matt’. She nudged him. ‘Matt! I think there’s someone in the kitchen. You need to go down and check.’

She could tell he was awake but he pretended not to be. He hated being disturbed, it made him grumpy all the next day if he didn’t get his eight hours.

‘Matt!’

He gave up pretending. ‘I can’t hear anything’.

‘Just listen’.

He buried his face in the pillow, but they both heard the next noise.

‘It sounds like… someone humming’, Sara whispered.

‘What sort of bloody burglar starts humming, for God’s sake?’

‘I told you, you’ll need to go and check!’

Sara switched on the torch on her phone as Matt swung his feet off the bed and reached blearily for his dressing gown. He glared at her as he left the room, muttering something under his breath. She heard his steps going down the stairs and treading towards the kitchen. There was a pause, then she could have sworn she heard him say ‘Nigella!’

Yeah, because that was likely. Sara looked at her phone again. 1.07am. Now she could hear low voices coming from the kitchen, and laughter. Definitely laughter. After a moment’s hesitation, she scrambled out of bed and edged her way to the landing. Soft light was leaking out of the kitchen doorway into the hall below, followed by familiar domestic noises. The fridge door opened and closed, the oven beeped into life. Ok, this was weird, but, Sarah judged, not dangerous. It must be one of their friends, although she couldn’t immediately think of anyone who had a key. Anyway, no reason not to go downstairs.

Matt was laughing again as she walked into the kitchen.

‘That’d be amazing!’ he said.

To Nigella bloody Lawson, who was standing there in Sara’s kitchen, large as life and twice as voluptuous. She was unmistakable, partly because, well, she was Nigella, and partly because she had an array of baking equipment on the work surface in front of her and appeared to be making a start on weighing out the sugar. She was wearing a nightdress. The words ‘lawn cotton’ popped into Sara’s head, not that she knew exactly what they meant.

‘Oh, hi Sara’, Matt said, as though it was the most natural thing in the world to find Nigella in your kitchen at 1.13 on Tuesday morning. ‘Isn’t it great? Nigella’s just making some chocolate brownies’.

Nigella looked up from her weighing. ‘Lovely to meet you, Sara’, she breathed. ‘Honestly, it won’t be long. Don’t mind me’.

Sara stared. She walked out of the kitchen, looked at her phone. Back into the kitchen. Yes, Nigella was still there, but now she was asking where they kept the chocolate. She’d poured herself a glass of wine, Sara noticed. Nigella saw her looking.

‘Gosh, so sorry, hope you don’t mind? I always like a glass of wine when I’m cooking late at night. Have some?’ She held out the bottle towards Sara, but it was Matt who leapt up enthusiastically and got himself a wine glass from the shelf. He raised an eyebrow at Sara, who shook her head, so he just poured one for himself and sat back down.

‘Sorry’, said Sara. ‘Sorry. Can I just check something? You are Nigella Lawson, and you’re in my kitchen at stupid o’clock in the morning, making brownies?’

‘That’s right!’ Nigella laughed.

‘But – how did you get in?’

Nigella and Matt exchanged a conspiratorial glance.

‘Do you want to tell her, or shall I?’ Nigella winked coquettishly at Matt. He blushed. He bloody blushed!

‘She used the Nigella key’, he said, avoiding Sara’s gaze. The scent of melted chocolate started to fill the kitchen.

‘The Nigella…?’

‘It was under the doormat’, added Nigella. ‘It usually is.’

‘Under the doormat’, Sara repeated, blankly. ‘Right. Matt, can we have a word?’ She walked out of the kitchen, flicked the sitting room lamp on. More low voices, then Matt followed her into the room.

‘Are you all right?’. He was concerned. ‘Look, I can keep Nigella company, why don’t you go back to bed?’

Sara stared at him. ‘Matt, what is this? I wake up in the middle of the night and it turns out there’s a TV chef in the kitchen and you act as though it’s just normal? And she had a key? What the… I mean, I don’t get it.’

‘Well, I’ll admit I was a bit surprised she was actually here, I never in a million years thought she’d use the key. It’s just, you never know, do you? It’s a guy thing.’

‘It’s a guy thing to leave a key for Nigella Lawson in case she decides to pop round unexpectedly, in her nightie, and bake cookies?’

‘Brownies’

‘What-the-fuck-ever!’

‘Well.’ Pause. ‘Yes.’

In the kitchen, Nigella listened and smiled her cat-got-the-cream smile. She hummed to herself and poured another generous glass of wine. This was how it always went. The wives, or girlfriends, or partners, or whatever they called themselves, never understood. They never stayed for a brownie. The men did, though. And then, Nigella took them with her when she left.

And she didn’t even do the washing up.

In which there is a missing cat, a cat chase and a hopeful outcome

On Friday night, I called Charlie in from the garden and he came sprinting across the lawn to me, neatly avoiding Belle as she launched at him from the side. Later, there were odd scuffling noises in the night, which turned out to be Charlie scratching at the laundry basket as he nested amongst the pegs. So far, so normal.

I saw him in the basket in the morning, petted his head, and trotted happily off to London. Some few hours later I had three missed voicemails and a text: ‘You need to call me. Charlie has hurt his leg and I can’t get to him’. It turned out that Charlie was holding up one of his hind legs in a way that boded no good, but was so resistant to further examination that he’d run away to hide in an old outbuilding in the field next to the house. Outbuilding 1 is on the boundary line between our garden, the field and the neighbour’s garden. It doesn’t seem to have a door because it’s not in use, but it does have a cat sized hole in the rusted corrugated iron. And there Charlie stayed, just visible through the hole.

By the time I got home, he couldn’t be seen, so had either removed further into the outbuilding or moved on somewhere else. Either way, he wasn’t giving us any signs of his presence and there wasn’t much to be done but hope that he’d come in overnight.

He did not come in overnight. I’m all for the cats having some independence and some time to walk by themselves but I’m also in favour of them eating. We went to look for him and finally found him in Outbuilding 2, which did have a door. He had curled himself up on an old cement bag, and was looking very unhappy indeed. He ate a few bits of Whiskas, leveraged himself up and walked unsteadily away for some privacy and a bathroom break. I had the basket ready to put him in… and as soon as he saw it, he adopted a surprising turn of speed and bolted straight back into Outbuilding 1.

So we took the side of it down. This still left some fairly solid corrugated iron at the bottom but there was enough of a gap to get in, slide down some rubble and hope that either Charlie would run back out of the hole (and into the waiting cat carrier) or realise there was no escape and sit mildly. There was another hole at the far side of the outbuilding, but up a slope of rubble and surely a three legged cat couldn’t…?

Oh, but he could, and went to ground in the neighbour’s garden. They were out. I fumed inwardly at the English obsession with gardens, privacy and trespassing and we went home to wait for the neighbours’ return.

The neighbours came home and we trooped round, with the cat carrier, a large towel, and a pair of gardening gloves in lieu of gauntlets. Charlie had ensconced himself behind their large pile of grass cuttings and beneath a web of sticks and branches. I carefully moved the wood away, stroked him a bit to calm him down. And he legged it through the wire fence behind him and into yet another garden.

You would not think a three legged cat could be so agile. It’s amazing what fear and adrenaline will do. On to the next garden, by which time Charlie had managed to jump up a few feet back into our garden, where we finally trapped him without anyone losing a limb in the process. Though all this, Belle was nearby, keeping a watchful eye on proceedings as though making sure no more harm came to her brother.

Now he’s spending his second night at the vets, after being diagnosed with a broken femur and biting a nurse’s finger in gratitude. We have no idea how the break happened, but he has no other injuries so it’s unlikely he was hit by a car. This morning, he had his leg pinned and plated, and tomorrow he’ll be home. The vets have all been great. Charlie is actually doing well but they’re keeping him in to monitor his pain management. He’ll spend three weeks in a crate (which we’re renting from the vets) and then, hopefully, he’ll be out wreaking havoc on the local wildlife again.

What’s been cooking?

Lots of different cooking activity lately, from which I have learned that you can do what you like with granola but you need decent sized flakes of desiccated coconut to make successful coconut macaroons. Seriously. I made extremely sweet coconut soup and even when I decided that treating it like cake mix and baking it in cases might work, it was still a bit wrong. Don’t go there.

Becky’s granola by way of Nigella who got it from Andy in Connecticut

I’ve started making my own granola, based on a Nigella recipe but with reduced sugary elements because just the thought of fruit compote + syrup + honey + sugar makes my teeth itch. But it’s kind of fun to mess around with the ingredients, and it means I get to skip the raisins (I have never understood the dependency of breakfast foods on raisins) and use what I prefer instead.

Today’s recipe was:

  • 225g oats
  • 60g white sesame seeds
  • 60g sunflower seeds
  • 60g light brown sugar
  • 125g whole almonds (I’d have preferred pecans with the maple syrup but didn’t have any)
  • 3 tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp runny honey
  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1/2 tsp Maldon sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • optional apple sauce or compote of choice
  • 125g dried apricots or dried fruit of your choice. I mean, I suppose you could use raisins. Freak.

Mix it all up, bang it in the oven on a couple of baking trays and leave it for about 20 mins or until golden brown. I will say that because I don’t put so much liquid in, the granola doesn’t clump as much as you might prefer. I don’t care, so I don’t worry about it, but if you do then throw in some apple sauce or similar.

Once it’s out of the oven and cool, add in the fruit. Don’t do what I did first time and bake the fruit with the rest of the mix, because then you end up with fruit that is caramelized if you’re lucky and plain old burnt if you’re not 🙂

Store in airtight jars and you’ve got a couple of weeks’ worth of breakfast. At least you get to start every day with a sense of achievement/smugness, before everyday working life beats it out of you.

Gluten free lemon meringue cake

I made lemon meringue cake to take into the office and it destroyed productivity for the entire morning. The whole cake was gone by 10am and my colleagues were on a sugar rush like kids at a party. This cake has now become the benchmark by which other baking is measured, although probs best if we don’t tell senior management about it.

So far, so good but it’s my friend S’s birthday in a couple of weeks and she is gluten intolerant. So, today I’m practicing a gluten free version, which means I’ve basically made up the ingredients for the sponge layer based on limited knowledge and guesswork. I even looked up the point of bicarbonate of soda so I knew whether I needed to keep it or not.

Lemon meringue cake is basically a fancy sandwich cake. The biggest problem I had with it was maintaining the structural integrity of the top layer of sponge + meringue while maneuvering it into position. I don’t particularly like the texture you get with gluten free flour and I don’t think it’ll be stable enough to hold together during that process, so I’m going with almond flour.

For the full on gluten version, it’s off to Nigella again.

Here’s what I’m trying as the alternative ingredients list, we’ll see what happens.

  • 125g butter
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 150g almond flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
  • 1 lemon
  • 4tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp milk
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  • good quality lemon curd
  • 150ml double cream for whipping

Lemon curd

Just in case this post isn’t hitting enough middle class keywords, I made my own lemon curd yesterday, specifically for use in the lemon meringue cake. It it is ridiculously easy, to the point that I’m kind of embarrassed I haven’t done it before.

  • 4 unwaxed lemons, juice and zest
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 3 eggs + 1 egg yolk
  • 100g butter, cubed

Put the lemon juice and zest, sugar and butter and melt in a bowl over a pan of lightly simmering water. Usual caveats about bottom of bowl not touching water apply. Stir occasionally until all the butter has melted.

Meanwhile, lightly whisk the eggs. Once the butter has melted, slowly whisk the eggs into the lemon mixture, keeping it all over the heat. Leave to cook for 10-13 mins, stirring occasionally, until it’s thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Leave to cool, again stirring occasionally, then spoon into sterilized jars. Keep it in the fridge.

[I sterilised my jars by washing them in boiling, soapy water and then baking them at 170C for 20 minutes].

In favour of crap food

Crap food has its place. Not that you’d want to eat it all the time, but there are some circumstances where it’s (a) the only option or  (b) it’s actually what the situation requires, or (c) merely that usage has accustomed you to it and there’s a pleasing familiarity.

Wednesday morning, for example, found me looking at the room service breakfast I’d just had delivered. Before anyone gets jealous, let me explain: I was staying at a Hilton off a slip road to the access road to a motorway in Leicester. I trust that has dispelled any faint whiff of glamour? Right then, back to breakfast. The options had been pretty slim to start with, so I’d gone for fruit, yoghurt, toast and coffee. It was the toast in particular that fulfilled category (c) above, a generous pile of cheap, sliced wholemeal that had gone soggy during the stacking and transportation process.

I was oddly pleased to see it, though. I grew up on sliced white, and cheap wholemeal is basically sliced white with a spray tan. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘That’s what I expect from room service at the Hilton.’  I spread a lavish amount of jam from one of those tiny individual pots onto toast that wilted even further under the minor additional weight.

Hangovers. No one wants good, healthy, nutritious food when they have a hangover, do they? Celery can be so loud. There’s a greasy spoon in Oxford that only appears in my consciousness the morning after the night before. On a normal day, I stroll past that cafe and wonder ‘Who eats there?’ With a hangover, it’s omelette and chips and a large mug of tea for breakfast? Don’t mind if I do. Salt, grease and carbs, just keep it coming.

I’m off on holiday later this month, which means I get to enjoy… airplane food! Admittedly, ‘enjoy’ might not be the right word. Maybe I mean ‘eat’. We all know airplane food is poor, regardless of which celebrity chef had a hand in revamping the menus. And that’s fair enough; mass catering at thousands of feet, when the only cooking option is to blast the ingredients to melting point is a bit of a challenge. So, whatever gets dished up is both the only option and in line with low expectations, and that’s ok.

Except for the coffee. There’s no excuse for that.

 

In which I set new rules for Christmas

I’m reading a lot of crap about Christmas. It’s all so much: food, expense, hassle, travel, stress. Why are people doing this to themselves? As someone who veers from making some effort to none, I can tell you that there aren’t any rules. At no point do the Christmas Police come round and tell you off if you can’t be arsed to send cards this year and don’t bother with mince pies.

Also, if you don’t visit people, they get over it. If they don’t get over it, they aren’t the sort of people you should bother visiting, so really, it’s a win-win.

So here are my new rules, to help those who appear to be struggling:

  1. You don’t have to send Christmas cards. You don’t need an excuse, just don’t do it. Barely anyone will notice and they’ll promptly forget. You just saved yourself £20 on postage, get a couple of bottles of wine instead.
  2. You don’t have to make anything. If you can afford it and if it saves you time, buy it. Anyone who ‘really prefers the homemade version’ should either learn to make it themselves or shut the fuck up with their passive-aggressive neediness.
  3. You don’t have to go anywhere/see anyone/ do anything if you don’t want to. See above re ‘getting over it’.
  4. You don’t have to have a tree. Of course you don’t. Or, you can have a tree in every room. Whatever. No one counts. Except people with obsessive compulsive tendencies and if you don’t have trees, they’ll probably count something else, so it doesn’t matter.
  5. There is no compulsory Christmas food. None. Supermarkets and magazines want to make us think that a day can’t be special without tree-shaped nachos for dips and bowls of gold coated truffles on every flat surface. This is total bollocks. Think about your favourite food. Great! Is that what you’re eating on Christmas Day? If yes, awesome. If not, what the hell happened?
  6. What to wear for the Christmas party. Much like ‘how to get a bikini body – put a bikini on your body’, the answer to what you should wear for a party is whatever the hell you like. Ok, if the dress code is likely to be strictly enforced you’ll need to give it a passing nod. Or, skip the do entirely (this is something else that is perfectly acceptable). Otherwise, wear whatever will allow you to enjoy the evening without feeling underdressed, overdressed, too fat, too thin, or too uncomfortable on heels that are 2 inches higher than you usually wear. The shops are full of lace and faux fur and pleather and metallic mid length pleated skirts. Unless you genuinely like any of that stuff and expect to wear it on at least three more occasions, fuck it.

Am I being massively hypocritical and saying all this, while privately going full on Kirsty whatserface and knitting my own tree? Not really.

I have:

  • Ordered a 6ft tree
  • Baked a Christmas cake for my sister
  • Decided to bake cookies for colleagues instead of giving out Christmas cards
  • Written some of my cards (last year I didn’t do any)
  • Already made a trial batch of mince pies, with home made mincemeat. I’m not sure I can be arsed to make any more, though.
  • Dodged both office Christmas parties

I will be:

  • Spending Christmas Day on my own, having politely weaseled out of the family get together by saying ‘Are you fucking mad, I’m not doing that?’
  • Not bothering with Christmas lunch. I might make roast butternut squash soup, though. Or just a cheese, apple and crisp sandwich, with a good cup of tea, and a couple of Jaffa Cakes for dessert. That’s one of my favourite meals.
  • Going for a Boxing Day walk. Unless I’m hideously ill, as I usually am.

Because it’s all about balance. There’s a lot of Christmas. It is much. The way round that is you just choose the elements you want and sod the rest.

Christmas biscuits

These are actually molasses spice cookies, or in England, treacle spice biscuits, or as my team at work call them, Christmas biscuits. What’s in a name? Any biscuit with a similar blend of spices would smell as seasonal. These, though, also have a  delicious combination of textures, a little crunchy on the outside but meltingly smooth inside.

You’ll need all of this. It looks like a lot, and you can miss out the cloves or allspice if you don’t have them, or skimp on the ginger and cinnamon a bit. Or, as I’ve discovered while writing this out, you can just about get away with 1/3 cup of treacle rather than 1/2. Oops.  But the recipe really is better with everything thrown in.

  • 11 oz/ 2 1/4 cups of plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/2tsps ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 tsps ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 6 oz/1 1/2 sticks butter, softened
  • 2 oz/1/3 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 2 oz/ 1/3 granulated sugar + some more for rolling the biscuits in
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup treacle

Line a baking tray with baking parchment and heat the oven to 200C/375F.

Whisk the flour, spices, baking powder, pepper and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.

You’ll be adding the flour mix to the wet ingredients, so in a large bowl, beat the sugars with the butter until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolk and vanilla extract and beat again until it’s all combined. Add the treacle, and beat again until that’s all mixed in.

Gradually blend in the flour until it’s thoroughly mixed in.

Pour some granulated sugar onto a small plate, and get a small bowl of cold water ready. Dip your hands in the water, then use a tablespoon measure of biscuit dough and roll it into a ball. Roll the dough in the sugar (the water will make sure the sugar sticks) and pop it on the baking tray. Leave about 2in between each biscuit.

Bake until the biscuits are brown and cracked. This should take about 10-11 minutes but you’ll need to turn the tray halfway during the baking. If you aren’t sure if they’re ready, flip one over. It should be nicely brown on the bottom.

Leave the biscuits to cool for a few minutes on the tray, then move them to a cooling rack.

If you want to be fancy, you can mix up a bit of icing and drizzle that over them once cool.