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Life lessons

So, Charlie-with-the-broken-leg is now out of his cage and under house arrest. It’s been a week so far and I can see him getting stronger every day: he’s gone from limping a little and being uncertain about some jumps, to bounding wherever he feels like. He got out one night by going through an open window and down a sheer, 8 foot wall. A couple of hours later, at the sound of the snack packet, he came racing across the lawn to me.

He’s got another 10 days in the house before he’ll be back at the vets to have the pin removed from his leg. Then normal life will resume. I’m looking forward to that, as he’ll be so much happier being allowed outside; but he’s taken to following me around and I’ll miss my little shadow.

Meanwhile, my other cat barely comes in the house because she no longer recognises Charlie. When I do lure her in, usually with food, she’ll tolerate him for as long as it takes her to eat, then resume growling before making for the nearest exit. I’m hoping the trade off for seeing less of Charlie will be that Belle feels comfortable in the house again.

With all this cat care going on, I’ve been at home a lot more. I haven’t done any overnight stays away and I’ve been working from home as much as I can. I’m at my laptop by 8am latest, but as everyone who gets to skip their commute knows, you get to sleep in, do a fuller day’s work and still have more of an evening. So for me, despite working longer days, it’s felt like something of a holiday simply because I only recharge by being at home.

I hadn’t realised the extent to which I had gotten into the habit of looking at the various locations ahead of me during my week and thinking ‘Just got to get through it.’ Or the extent to which a constant low level of tiredness and stress was delimiting my ability to relax in what felt like very limited time in my house. The balance was off and although I knew some of the negative effects, I hadn’t appreciated all of them. There’s a pretty long list:

  1. Not getting time for lunch at work, so 3pm lunches of popcorn and granola bars, plus too tired to cook proper evening meals.
  2. Not drinking enough water
  3. Drinking too much tea, I think, and therefore over-caffeinated and twitchy
  4. Plus tired and unable to concentrate properly, so too much time on my phone
  5. Therefore internet shopping and then wondering where my money goes
  6. Not enough exercise
  7. A bit of not-exercising guilt
  8. General sense of should be doing something but failing to tackle any of the above because tired and lazy

And the big one, not feeling as though I had any time. Which is different to not actually having time: if I had any time at all to read Popsugar then I certainly had time to make decent food or practice yoga. It just didn’t feel that way because I had trapped myself in an apathetic circle of lethargy.

Now, I am definitely busier when I’m commuting, and I had been spending a couple of nights away a week. So it wasn’t all perception. But the situation wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, either. It’s just taken a bit of critical distance for me to be able to reassess the situation. I’ll have to get back to a more normal working pattern, but there are still steps I can take to keep some balance:

  1. More driving, fewer hotel stays. Not that more miles on the road is ideal, ideal but it’s the necessary swap for me to be at home where I can relax.
  2. Less time on my phone. I don’t think it’s a smartphone addiction, I think it’s a lazy habit (I can stop any time). Right now, I’m not sure where my phone is, but it’s definitely not within arm’s reach.
  3. Yoga. I’ve found a great yoga studio about half an hour away, and I’ve been trying to go to at least one class a week. I’m going to try to start a home practice, which is something I’ve never been successful with before.
  4. Water. I don’t understand why I struggle with this one so much. I spent Monday with a self-induced dehydration headache and it’s still hovering in the background, waiting to come back if I’m not careful. I can drink tea by the bucket but even with a water bottle on my desk, I can fail to take a single sip. I know all the benefits, I know from experience that I feel better if I’m hydrated (no shit, Sherlock) so why am I punishing myself? Argh.

So that’s kind of my promise to myself. Nothing huge there and yet, in small ways, life changing.

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Middle aged fantasies

Picture the scene. Early evening, mid way through a hectic week. A cute Sainsbury’s delivery driver arrives, all twinkly eyes and carefully tousled hair. Your eyes meet as he hands you the cucumber. ‘Is there… anything else?’ he asks. Your heart speeds up a bit. You bite your lip. You shouldn’t. You really shouldn’t. What will the neighbours think if the van stays parked outside? You know better than this, but the temptation is just too much…

Ten minutes later, you’re snuggled on the sofa, clutching a hot cup of tea and catching up on Monday’s Broadchurch while cute Sainsbury’s guy does the vacuuming.

For the sad reality is that by Wednesday evening, Tom Hiddleston could rock up at my front door in a dinner jacket, carrying a bottle of Taittinger and a gift bag from Tiffany; but unless he’s going to put a load of laundry on, empty the dishwasher and clean out the fridge, he can rock off again.

Back in the day, I longed to be told I was beautiful, desirable, irresistible. And I’m not saying it wouldn’t still be nice to hear. But it doesn’t stack up against ‘I’ll do the washing up’ or ‘You have a lie-in and let me know when you want tea and toast’. What would really make me melt these days is someone saying ‘I’ve mopped the floors’.

The reality, of course, is that the Sainsbury’s delivery turns up while I’m in my old sweatpants and carrying a duster in one hand and a bag of rubbish in the other. Eyes do not meet, and anyway I’m so fed up of clearing soggy cucumber out of the fridge that I’ve put a ban on buying it.

Oh, sod the vacuuming. Where’s the remote?

In which I hit the re-set button

Mostly, by taking a week off and having a few days camping and hiking in Wales. The rest of the week I’ve been at home, balancing my time between pre-move fixes and chores around the house, and doing nothing. It’s simultaneously obvious and easily forgotten, how important it is to have time just to be.

The campsite was ideal. Yes, hot water; no, electricity. The downside was it rained and I had wet hair for two days (I shoved it under a hat). The upside was I mostly forgot about my phone. It wasn’t enough time away (is there such a thing as enough time away?), but it was a good start. Successful camping is all about getting the basics right, and they were.

And I hiked/scrambled/slogged up Snowdon, about which I’d been somewhat trepidatious. Much as I like walking, I don’t like going up. Snowdon was about going up in rain, into cloud. As neither of us is feeling at the peak of physical fitness, the deal was that if either of us wanted to stop, for any reason, we would. In the end, it wasn’t as tough physically as I thought it would be, so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t get to the top. I did wonder ‘But why am I bothering?’ and the answer came ‘Because there’s tea up there.’

I learned a few things along the way. The views are amazing, but I don’t like scrambling for them. I can make it up a small mountain, but mountains are not my achievement. Tea is a great incentive. There is a place for fleece in my wardrobe, bought one morning when it was clear I didn’t have enough layers. Cheapshit waterproofs do not hack it in Snowdonia. It was good to move, to push it a bit, to have fresh air strongly laced with rain whipping my head clear. I need to make time for more of that.

Back at home, I’ve been trying not to lose my days to things I must do, because the working week is full of briars enough. Holiday is about what you want to do but I also needed to feel that it was strongly differentiated from work time. Days full of email and meetings rarely give you anything to show at the end of them. So I decided to enjoy the chores that had to be done. A couple of hours in the garden and it’s tidy again. A morning washing down exterior woodwork, in the sun, listening to the radio. I’ve replaced a shower hose – who knew it was that easy? Small tasks, small satisfactions but at the end of the day I can look around and see ‘I did that’. Good.

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.

You don’t have to say you love me

Just buy a pint of milk on your way over.

Well, seriously. Color me old and cynical, but these days I’ll trade the words ‘I’ll make dinner’ for any number of compliments and flowery phrases.

I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately: Leicester, Rotherham, Leeds, Staines, Windsor, Newcastle, Edinburgh. The roll call of glamorous locations just doesn’t start, but the miles still add up. I’ve spent far too many nights in indistinguishable crappy business hotels, eating shitty, on-the-road food. When I get home, the cupboards are bare, the fridge is half full of decaying vegetables and sour milk, and my relationship with the cats is reduced to filling food bowls for mysterious creatures I never see.

Over the last several weeks, domestic routines have gone completely to pot. I’ve not been here long enough to get things properly back on track by, I don’t know, cleaning the bathroom or buying real food. And also, I’m knackered.

So right now, anyone who was making my life more difficult would be getting pretty short shrift. Anyone who had ridiculous expectations, such as that I might not shuffle round in pyjamas, or that I might actually talk to them, would be SOL.

Fortunately, instead, a miracle happens. Food appears, and is sometimes cooked. Movie tickets are just booked. The newspaper turns up, so I can do The Times crossword on Saturday morning. People – there are Jaffa Cakes. Someone is picking up the slack, and it isn’t me.

I’m drinking tea made with milk that I did not buy. That is romance.

In which I am preparing for Christmas

I know, I know, it’s unlikely. But bear with me.

As the launch of the John Lewis Christmas ad signals that the full horror of the festive season is about to be unleashed on us again, I’ve been thinking about a few preparations of my own. ‘What does Christmas really mean to me?’, I thought. ‘What is this season of joy and good cheer likely to bring?’ and ‘What was it I wished I’d done last year?’

Casting my mind back to Christmases of yesteryears, I realized that basically what it means is 10 days of incapacity due to a vile illness from which I’ll only recover in time to go back to work in the new year. What it’s most likely to bring is a debilitating cold, a multi-day blinding headache and 3 weeks of a hacking cough. Or, just good, old fashioned tonsillitis.

I’m preparing accordingly:

  1. Bulk buying of Kleenex with balsam. Last year saw me driving round Bicester at 10pm on a freezing night, desperately trying to find somewhere, anywhere that would sell tissues. Those I eventually found were like thin cardboard. In my preternaturally weakened condition, this experience very nearly reduced me to tears.
  2. Soup. Screw the mince pies, the stollen and all the other rich but pointless stuff. I’m going to fill my freezer with delicious soup that I can easily heat up when I need it.
  3. Box sets. If I’m not mistaken, the latest season of Castle and the latest season of Penny Dreadful will both be out shortly. Last year, I was dependent on what the BBC had to offer. I watched Kung Fu Panda, for fuck’s sake. What’ll it be this year, Frozen? I can’t risk it.
  4. Pyjamas. As I’ll basically be living in them for the best part of 2 weeks, I should get some more. At least it’s the right time of year to be acquiring brushed cotton.
  5. Day Nurse and Night Nurse. Within limits, though. Unfortunately, last year I OD’d on decongestants and had to go cold turkey for a week before the next batch would start working. This was not a happy time.
  6. Firewood. I need something I can sit in front of while shivering uncontrollably, and a real fire will be very festive. And warm.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll get a tree, I’ll make a Christmas cake. In fact, my sister has already asked me if I’ll lick the cake I make for her so she can get my germs and, in turn, escape the family Christmas she’s got to endure. There’ll be presents, some of them even for other people. The cats will play with baubles, I’ll start drinking snowballs and ‘Now that’s what I call Christmas’ will resound through the house. It’s just that all of that jollity has to be fitted into the two days between finishing work and collapsing.

Baking round up

My poor, neglected blog. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about it, it’s just that thought has not translated into action. I did consider calling time completely; but not for very long, which means instead I have to pull my finger out and post something for the three remaining readers (You guys! I love you guys!)

So here’s a baking roundup, just to get started again. I’ve been doing a fair bit of baking. It started as something to keep me busy during The Archers omnibus on Sunday mornings. Then I made a couple of things for the office, and now I’ve got a list of requests and am more valued for my baking than my professional skills. Oh well.

Mini Bakewells

My recollection of making a Bakewell tart was that it was a  right hassle, so I wasn’t loving this request. But, they actually turned out to be easy and delicious. I discovered that my mince tart pan is better than the muffin pan, and also that the recipe was a bit stingy with the jam. I get through the best part of a jar with a batch of these.  GetAttachment-1.aspx

(Rustic) Chocolate eclairs

Yes. Well. The choux pastry actually turned out fine but it would not pipe through my icing set and I didn’t have an eclair mould. Turns out that you fill a pastry shell with sweetened cream and drizzle chocolate on the top, and no one really complains. But I need to try these again, this time with an eclair mould.

Chocolate eclairs

Lemon drizzle cake

Of which I do not have a picture because the darn cake sank in the middle. I thought I might have used the wrong sized loaf tin, but nope, I don’t have that excuse. I just messed it up. I regularly knock half the baking time off recipes because my oven is a furnace, so it might be the old opening-the-oven-door-too-soon problem. Regardless, I took the sad, sunken cake round to my sister’s studio, because her attitude is ‘It’s cake, innit?’ Apparently it tasted fine, but why did it sink? Why? I’m going to have to make the damn thing again and get it right.

Spiced apple cake

This has turned into a bit of a favourite of mine. It’s dead simples for a start, but it’s also lush and you can eat it warm as dessert. Custard would work well. Oddly, this one does require full baking time, which in my oven means putting a foil hood on it halfway through so the top doesn’t burn. On a more recent version, I drizzled agave syrup across the top and sprinkled it with brown sugar.

Spiced apple cake

Coffee and walnut cake with Kahlua icing

This was your basic coffee sandwich cake, slathered in icing that simply wafted booze. I say Kahlua, it was a Tesco’s knock off I bought on the grounds that it was only for icing and I’m never going to drink the stuff. Still, it went down well with its intended recipients. I didn’t try it because I don’t like coffee flavored cake, so what do I know.

GetAttachment.aspxVictoria Sandwich cake

A good Viccy Sandwich is pretty much my favourite type of cake, and I cannot make one that I think is up to scratch. The last one was fine and garnered favourable comments but still. In some unidentifiable way, it wasn’t quite right. I think that the cake cooks on the top and round the edges too quickly, which means that by the time the centre is cooked, the edges are getting a bit dry for my liking What do I do about that? Will reducing the oven temperature help? Or position in the oven?

Victoria Sandwich