#Domoreofwhatmakesyouhappy

One of my friends bought me this journal two years ago.  Turns out that the title has more significance for me, than I initially expected.

I thought there was an abrupt sea change in my blog, because I jumped from telling you about my hot season funk to the delightfully delicious best hot cross buns I’d baked in Phnom Penh and then offered a poem about love rejected.  Perhaps you thought that was for the best.  But it has been grating on me because it reads like I suddenly got all better again, when that is far from the truth.  Of course there was the year long gap of blank nothing…

So, this blog post is about how I’ve been putting one foot in front of the other, in restoring my mental well-being.  Quite literally in fact, because running is one of the things that I took up again to make myself happy.

First, I recorded in my journal my hot season depression and the thoughts I had begun to believe about myself or had resurfaced, so that one day when I was better I could go back to it and unpick what I’d thought into truth and lies.

Secondly, I was reminded of a verse in the Bible which says, ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’¹.  In light of this, I made up my mind to go back to doing the things that make me happy.   Read cookery books, bake, cook up new recipes, exercise, write, sit out on my balcony, look out for faces in places, have a facial…

But believe me, when it’s 44°C (or even 36°C) and you’re a 10kg heavier than what you’d like to be, it’s hard to do any of those things.

Who wants to put the oven on and make the room even hotter than it is?

Anyone want to go swimming when the water is warm enough to bathe in?

Nobody wants to go outside and run, specially in a culture where running outdoors in not the norm.

It’s so easy, isn’t it, to slump back into the same negative thought patterns, to think that change and recovery will never come about.  Refusing to believe I was stuck in the rut of depression in those first few months in July and August was such an effort.  I cut out as much refined sugar that I could live without.  No more khmer coffee with condensed milk for me.  I mean I’m a baker, so I wasn’t ever going to cut it out completely if I could help it.  But instead of baking sweet things, I baked and started selling my seeded wholemeal loaf.  I convinced myself to shell out a bit more on ingredients that I liked and cooking with and tried out a new recipe every week.  It took a wee while longer to get into a rhythm of exercising.  Eventually, I asked exercise buddy, Miri to help me by arranging to run or bike with her at certain days during the week.  It kept me accountable.  And I did something that I hadn’t done in over 15 years.  I got on the weighing scales every week to motivate myself to keep at it.

I also began to be deliberate about posting #domoreofwhatmakesyouhappy.  Willing myself to do all those things in the heat.  The more I did them, the more I realised that I needed to keep on doing things to keep me happy.  And changing my routine so that I could do them in relative cool of the morning to the scorching heat of the midday sun or the sticky mugginess in the evenings, just made sense.

As a young history student, specialising in the social and cultural history of the British Empire, I had researched the hill stations in India and judged those colonials for escaping to those cooler climes.²  Oh the joke was on me now.  Obviously I had never lived in a hot climate before!  My sympathy and empathy extended in historical retrospect.  Then I realised that I was also allowed to escape to cooler climes.  My nearest and dearest were not going to judge me for escaping the suffocating heat of hot season to the bracing, brisk breeze of the British Isle, to restore my well-being.  Consequently, in January, I made plans for a UK break and also to receive some professional help to sift through the fact and fiction.

It wasn’t until I lived through hot season again this year, I was able to see that I had done it.  I was okay.  In fact, more than okay.  As hot season approached, I realised that I was happy and thriving.  Yes, there was baggage still to unload. Back in the UK, I would have what felt like open-heart surgery to remove and heal what had caused so much pain and was affecting me.  But all that mental and physical discipline, putting one foot in front another, was paying off.  The Han-Na that went back to the UK, was excited about running a half-marathon in Phnom Penh and reflecting on the two things that she really liked about hot season and she was going to miss whilst back in the UK:

  • There is no distinction between khmers and foreigners in that we all feel that it is too HOT.
  • No mosquitoes.  It’s too hot, even for them!

¹Philippians 4:8 ESV translation
²Dane Kennedy’s, The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj provides an overview of the role of hill stations in the British Raj.

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I ran it! The Phnom Penh half marathon, 21km complete.

And for fun, I’ve included an instagram feed (if it works) of what people are posting about #domoreofwhatmakesyouhappy.

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Thursday, 3pm

Screenshot 2016-04-26 13.03.14Last year, the writing group that I’m part of asked for submissions for a Sputnik creative project, ‘What is it to be Human’.  I submitted this for inclusion into their anthology of short stories and poems and it was accepted.  You can buy the whole creative pack here or download the e-book for free, if you want.

I deliberately left it a year before posting this poem.  When honesty shakes up a friendship, some things are better left carefully tucked away to rest so that the friendship can recover and forge forward in a new way.  And then, at some point, when it’s healthy, I think these moments can be shared.

I remember that I found writing this therapeutic and surprisingly making myself write it in iambic pentameter was helpful: the discipline required in da DUM da DUM da DUM, forced me to take the time to work through each painful moment for what it was.  Normally I lack the patience to do that, but I convinced myself that this was an one-off – much like the conversation below!  As one of my friends remarked after the event, “It’s not like you’re planning to have these kinds of conversations on a daily basis!”

Indeed not!

But how necessary, it was.  And how my heart soared free, thereafter.

THURSDAY, 3PM.

They say that the heart is purely muscle
Beating, pumping, pushing blood through highways
of capillaries and veins. Coursing life
into every member of the body.
It has four chambers. The two small ones are
called atria and the larger ones are
ventricles. The aortic valve is
what controls the flow of blood out of the
left ventricle to the aorta
(the body’s main artery). I learned all
of this in biology. So, how then –
as I’m sitting opposite you, waiting
for my drink to arrive. “Carrot shake, please” –
Does it know to pump doubly hard, rush blood
upwards to my face. Cause my palms to sweat,
hands tremble so I have to sit on them.

Somehow, it has guessed it’s impending fate.
Ah, here’s the drink. “Thank you.” Sip. Swallow.
Breath. Out. In. Steady. I need slow, sure words.
This is a delicate operation.
It will require all my skill to cut
out my heart, in one piece, adeptly
manoeuvre it from the ribbed darkroom where
feelings develop. Reveal my heart to
you so that you understand. And I don’t
have to repeat this ordeal again.
Ever! “I like you, a lot.” Words spill out,
clattering across the table like
loose change, stunning you. Eyes widen. Dumbstruck,
Your swift ripostes rendered suddenly mute.
My eyes hold yours steady and assure you,
I’m serious. Your lips make to move, but
you stop and try to work and rework out
what to say and how. I know your answer
already. I want to tell you that. And
as you laugh in nervousness. I join in.

Paul Hollywood’s Hot Cross Buns

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The best hot cross buns in Phnom Penh!

If my previous post was months in the making, this has been years.

This time 3 years ago, my friend Rachel posted a beautiful photo of her freshly  baked hot cross buns, complete with twinkly fairy lights in the background.  What got me was that she commented on how incredibly delicious they were, much more than any shop bought variety.  She’d used Paul Hollywood’s Hot Cross Buns recipe from BBC Good Food, which she said was overly long (two rises).  Regardless, I  promptly tried it out and the resulting buns were life changing to say the least.

I will never buy another hot cross bun again.

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The life changing hot cross buns!

These home made hot cross buns had bags more flavour and were so moist compared to any Best, Finest or Taste the Difference version.  That year (the only year I made two batches of hot cross buns), I must have raved about the experience so much, that I talked another friend, Sarah into baking hot cross buns for the first time.  We tried out Paul’s slightly simplified (one rise) version on BBC Food.  Boom!  What a taste sensation.

Sarah piping crosses onto hot cross buns
Year 1: Initiating Sarah into baking hot cross buns

Then of course I moved out to Cambodia where you can’t buy hot cross buns anyway and baking is a bit of an adventure.  My first year, Sarah and Joe sent me mixed peel because it wasn’t available in Phnom Penh then but the yeast had died so the buns were lumpy fruit rock cakes.  The second year, they tasted good but they looked anaemic: I hadn’t figured out how my oven worked.  This year, post-long bike ride, unaware that it was Good Friday (which is easy to do in Cambodia), I baked my best batch of hot cross buns, since moving out to Cambodia.  It wasn’t until my housemate (another) Sarah was sinking her teeth into a hot freshly baked bun and said, “It’s definitely Good Friday.  It’s definitely Easter”, that I remembered again why we eat hot CROSS buns on Good Friday.  Duh – seriously, where has my brain wandered off to?

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“It’s definitely Good Friday! It’s definitely Easter!” – Sarah

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But seriously, I don’t know why I don’t bake hot cross buns more often.  Oh, yeah, I remember.  It’s an Easter thingy.  And it’s in the weird time of Lent where all my friends have decided to fast from sugar and all that, so by the time I get round to baking them, I only manage to bake the one batch.  Well, this year, I’ve decided that I’m going to try out a tropical version with mangoes, ginger and lime during Khmer New Year.

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One way to keep the ants off your food in a hot country – create an island!

I’ve adapted Paul Hollywood’s recipes a wee bit to add a bit more spice and replace the apricot jam glaze with an orange syrup one.  No reason really, except this last time, I was too lazy to buy apricot jam didn’t want another jam jar cluttering up my fridge.  I reckon it works pretty well.

And I swear that at one time, I watched a Bake Off Masterclass, in which Paul Hollywood baked these and recommended mixing the fruit into the dough inside the mixing bowl.  It’s much more efficient and you don’t have any bits of fruit trying to escape.  It’s not very explicit in his instructions so I’ve changed that too.

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Paul Hollywood’s Hot Cross Buns, adapted from his recipes on BBC Food and BBC Good Food

Ingredients for Hot Cross Buns

For the buns

  • 300ml/10fl oz whole milk
  • 500g/1lb 2oz strong white flour
  • 75g/2½oz caster sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 7g fast-action yeast
  • 50g/1¾oz butter
  • 1 free range egg
  • 150g/5oz sultanas
  • 80g/30z mixed peel
  • 1 apple, cored and chopped
  • 2 oranges, zest only
  • 2tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1tsp mixed spice or 1/2 tsp ground ginger, 1/8 tsp ground cloves, 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg, 1/8 tsp ground coriander, 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
  • sunflower/vegetable oil for greasing

For the cross

  • 75g/2½oz plain flour
  • about 5 tbsp of water

For the orange syrup glaze

  • 1 tbsp sugar – caster or granulated
  • juice of half an orange.

Method

1. Bring the milk to the boil and then leave to cool until it’s hand hot (i.e 37°C) .  Heating the milk creates a softer dough.

2. In a bowl, measure out the sultanas, mixed peel, cinnamon, mixed spice, orange zest and chopped apple, and then mix them together.

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3. In a large bowl, mix the flour, yeast, sugar and salt.  Then rub in the butter to the flour, like you’re making short-crust pastry.  Then add the egg and slowly add the milk until you form a sticky dough.

4. Knead the dough for about 10-20 minutes (by hand always takes longer) until it becomes smooth and elastic.

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5. Now mix in the fruit.  Add the fruit into the large bowl and then spread the dough on top of the fruit so that the fruit is fully covered by the dough.  Then gently try and wrap the dough all around the fruit so that the fruit is fully enclosed.  Don’t worry if you can’t entirely.  Then gently massage the fruit into the dough so that the two are thoroughly combined.  Empty it out onto the side.

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6.  Grease the large mixing bowl using a tablespoon of sunflower/vegetable oil, add the dough back in the bowl and cover it with cling film.  Rest the dough for about 1-2 hours until it has doubled in size.

7. Line a baking tray with baking paper.  Once the dough has risen, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and strengthen it.  Bring one side into the middle and press firmly with the palm of your hand, do the same with the other side, then both sides together and press firmly.  Roll out a bit to so that it’s easier to divide.  Divide into 3 equal parts and into 5 again, so that you have 15 pieces altogether.  Lightly flour the surface in order to roll each piece a smooth ball.  Arrange the buns on a baking tray lined with baking paper, leaving just enough space so that buns touch when they expand.  Lightly cover with oiled clingfilm or a damp tea towel.  Leave to rise for an hour.

Top tip: to roll the balls, turn the sides into the middle, then turn over so that the seam side is on the bottom.  Make your hand into a claw shape and roll the ball inside your claw and move your hands quickly in circles – et voilà, smooth balls!

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8.  Pre-heat the oven to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7.

9. Meanwhile, prepare the mixture of the crosses.  Measure out the flour.  Add in the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it forms a smooth, thick paste.  It needs to be pipe-able, not too thin so that it disappears when it bakes and not too thick that it’s impossible to pipe.  Put the paste into a piping bag.

10.  Once the buns have risen, pipe crosses onto the buns, by piping a line along each row of buns and then repeat in the other direction.  The crosses want to hug the sides of the buns.

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11. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown.

12.  Measure out the sugar and orange juice into a small saucepan and melt the sugar over a gentle heat.  Brush the orange syrup over the warm buns and leave them to cool.

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13.  Gently break the buns apart and enjoy.

Verdict?  They were the best hot cross buns in Phnom Penh!

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The perfect easter breakfast – coffee and hot cross buns!

Hello, remember me?

I disappeared from food blogger cyberspace again, didn’t I.

I’m sorry.

A few years ago I did the same thing  and wrote about when I went missing in action.  However, that was only for a few months.  This time, it’s been over a year.   I’ve been drafting and redrafting this post ever since I listened to  Adele’s comeback single, Hello, it’s me back in December, and was inspired to get back into blogging again.  And therefore, if this post creaks a bit and the flow isn’t quite there, please understand and allow me a bit of time to adjust back into writing.

At the start of last year, one of my friends shared a picture of how this would be a year when I go deeper with God, richer like when you boil beef for a long time to make a rich broth that is delicious.

The beginning: beef rib bones to make a stock

I didn’t realise that this richness would come out of a (relatively) short season of depression, rejection, various relationship mishaps, misunderstandings, and self-loathing as I gained almost 10kg and couldn’t motivate myself to do anything.  This coincided with an extended hot season in Cambodia which exaggerated all the ugly parts of me.  Believe me, nobody tries harder than I do, to assassinate my own self-esteem and point out all my character deficiencies.  In that hot season, I felt like I was boiling in every sense.  Physically, emotionally, spiritually, and as a result, all the ucky scum of my nature was coming up to the surface.¹  You know like when you make a good stock.  *wink, wink*  It was an act of grace, someone chasing me up to hand in an essay that was long overdue, that helped snap me out of my funk.

It’s taken a few months of being honest, refusing to indulge in the negative thought patterns, eating well, exercising regularly and laughing A LOT to get my equilibrium back.  In the recovery, I’d choose to laugh and laugh SO hard that it felt restorative and that the joy would continue, past that evening and carry on into the next morning, and even the following week.

beef stock
The finished product: rich beef stock

So, I guess it makes sense that I tell you about a recipe that involves making a rich beef broth!  Except I won’t in this post.  Funnily enough, I made one recently with beef rib bones for Tteokguk, a.k.a Korean New Year Rice Cake Soup while I was in the middle of writing this post.  (The photos are from that time, which may give you an indication of how long this post has been lurking in the drafts folder.)  There was a lot of simmering, skimming of the scum and the resulting stock was indeed rich, but a bit too rich for me for tteokguk.  I’ll hone the tteokguk recipe a bit more before I write it up.  So, instead of a recipe, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from one of my favourite authors, Isobel Kuhn:

¹On the ship on the way to China, a veteran missionary was meeting with the new girls going over, and one day she said, “Girls, when you get to China, all the scum of your nature will rise to the top.” Isobel was shocked. Scum? Was that not a strong word? All of us were nice girls, were we not? Scum? A bit extravagant surely. And so I was totally unprepared for the revolt of the flesh which was waiting for me on China’s shores. The day was to come when on my knees in the Lord’s presence I had to say: ‘Lord, scum is the only word to describe me.’”  – Isobel Kuhn, In the Arena

Korean New Year Meal with friends
Enjoying Tteokguk with friends at Korean New Year 2016

An Evening Walk in Phsar Doeum Thkov

a view from the frangipani flowers on my street
a view from the frangipani flowers on my street

I’ve joined this writing group and the first assignment was to write a poem in iambic pentameter (penta, means 5.  iambs, that’s a unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, think daDUM.  So iambic pentameter is 5 sets of iambs).  They gave us some lines to start us off.  I found the exercise much trickier than I thought it would be.  In the end, I wrote something but it felt like it was fitting a square peg in a round hole.

So, I’ve unpegged it.  And let the lines run free.  I think they feel better for it.  I’ve tried to keep the ending in iambic pentameter.  A bit of discipline never went amiss.

It’s a bit dark… but it was sort of inspired by the upcoming 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge.

*Phsar Doeum Thkov is the neighbourhood where I live in Phnom Penh.

An evening walk in Phsar Doeum Thkov*

These streets have no name.  They’re just numbers on a map.

Street five hundred is mine.

 

I walk them as sun sets.

Five-0-two is next.

Dogs shake off hot sun,

stretch and yap at my feet.

I don’t like it.

 

5-0-4 is cheerfully lined with white, pink and yellow

frangipani trees. I’d linger but,

for the dogs. Besides, I’m meant to be doing exercise.

There, a huge white house stands behind

iron gates. Next door, a wooden shack.

Do the neighbours talk to one another?

 

These nameless streets hold innumerable,

unsaid, unspoken, memories. Walls, Stones,

dare I ask, what happened? Who fell? When? Who

cowered? Cried? Wept? Died? How? Bludgeoned? Shot? Who

survived? What? And can they grieve now? Or do

unspeakable acts of terror haunt them?

As sun sets? As the dark draws in. I wonder.

Oh so yummy, festive, orange, cranberry and chocolate bread

oh so yummy, festive orange, cranberry and chocolate bread

Merry (belated) Christmas everyone!

It’s funny the foods that you crave.  I keep surprising myself with what my tastebuds hanker after.  My latest three cravings are mature cheddar cheese and milk chocolate digestives.  Those two cravings kicked in a year after I moved and as I didn’t buy or eat a lot of cheese in the UK, can you see why I surprised myself?!

My friend Hannah came to spend Christmas in Cambodia this year.  I asked whether she’d like to bring out a selection of cheeses out with her so that we could have a cheese and wine evening.  And she did!  She had an unexpected 24 hour delay in Doha, and amazingly the cheese survived!  I don’t think that I’ve ever relished the flavours of each of those cheeses, as much as I did that evening!  Thank you, Hannah.

A selection of beautiful english cheeses, trying to disguise themselves as pac men. Thank you Hannah!
A selection of beautiful english cheeses, trying to disguise themselves as pac men.  The camembert is baking in the oven. Thank you Hannah!
Hannah and Esther waiting patiently for me to take this photo and finding it very funny!
Hannah and Esther waiting patiently for me to take this photo and finding it very funny!

I said three, right.  Well, there’s this bread…

I’m pretty sure that Sainsburys does an AMAZING chocolate, cranberry and orange bread at Christmas time.  I’ve eaten it pretty much every year since discovering it.  Except last year.  Last year, was my first Christmas in Cambodia and I couldn’t find any cranberries, frozen, fresh or dried in the whole of Phnom Penh.  Not that I could search very far and wide because of my poorly left knee.

orange, cranberry, chocolate bread

I’ve been thinking about this eating this bread for a couple of months now.  So in November, I bought a bag of dried cranberries whilst I was in Australia to bake it as my festive loaf.

dark chocolate chunks dried cranberries

I couldn’t find a recipe for this bread online.  So, I modified Richard Bertinet’s cranberry and pecan bread recipe from Dough to recreate one of Sainsbury’s festive bread creations.  I loved it.  Hannah loved it.  (She’d never heard of or eaten it before – WHAT?!?!? and she lives in the UK!)  It smells intoxicating and the flavours balance and complement each other perfectly.  We were happy to eat it, just as it was.  No spread, it doesn’t need one.  If you want to, you could try eating it with cheese, like we did.   Surprisingly it works.

Three things:

  1. Make sure that you use chocolate chunks and not chocolate chips.  Chocolate chunks are bigger and taste more satisfying than chocolate chips.
  2. Make it a white loaf.  It’s meant to be a festive treat.  Don’t spoil it by adding more fiber to it.
  3. The chocolate makes it a messy bread to cut and eat.   That could be because it’s just a wee bit warmer in Cambodia than the UK at this time of year… But I dare you to resist eating it when it’s fresh out of the oven!

Finally, finally (and this isn’t late!).  Hope that you have a wonderful New Year’s Day celebration and wishing you all the best for 2015.

orange zest

orange, cranberry and chocolate dough

Ingredients for my oh so yummy, festive Orange, Cranberry and Chocolate Bread.

  • 500g strong white flour
  • 7g fast action yeast
  • 10g salt
  • 350g water – you can do 350ml but weighing it is always more accurate I think.
  • zest of 1 orange
  • 100g dark chocolate cut roughly into chunks
  • 100g dried cranberries

Method

1. Put the dark chocolate, cranberries and orange zest in a small bowl and give it a good mix.  I discovered that the orange zest actually starts plumping up the cranberries while you’re making the dough – cool!

2. In another medium sized bowl, weigh out the flour, add in the yeast and give it a quick stir to mix it into the flour.  By mixing the yeast with flour first, I don’t worry about the salt touching the yeast and thus deactivating the yeast.

3. Now add in the salt, give it a stir.  Then add in the water.   Use a dough scraper, or your hands to combine the water and flour together as much as possible before turning the mixture out onto your work surface.  It is quite a wet dough to begin with, so don’t worry.

4.  Knead until the dough is springy and smooth.  This probably takes about 10 minutes but it depends on what method you use and how wet the dough was to begin with.  I use Richard Bertinet’s slap and fold method.

5.  Now transfer the orange zest, cranberries and chocolate into the medium sized bowl you used for the dough mixture.  Then, lay the dough on top and spread it out so that it envelops the entire surface.  What you’re going to attempt to do next is wrap the dough around the chocolate and the cranberries and mix it so that you can combine them with the dough.  Doing it this way in the bowl makes it a much neater, efficient process, than if you were to do it on a work surface.

6. Once the chocolate and cranberries are combined with the dough, turn it out from the bowl briefly.  Add a little bit (about a tablespoon) of vegetable oil to the bowl to prevent the dough from stick to it as the dough rises.  Cover with cling film or a wet tea towel and leave it rise.  I leave mine to rise in the fridge for a couple of hours so that the flavours have longer to mature.  You could leave it at this stage, in the fridge, for a couple of hours to 2 days.

7.  Prepare a baking tray by lining it with baking paper, or covering it with a layer of semolina so that it doesn’t stick to the tray.  Once the dough has doubled in size, turn it out onto your work surface.  Push your fingers firmly into the dough to leave dents.  This is a much gentler way of knocking the air out.  While you’re doing that try to shape it roughly into a rectangle.

8. Next, strengthen the dough.  Mentally divide the dough into three sections.  Take a third of the dough to the centre and push it down firmly in the middle with the heel of your hand.  Then take the other third of the dough to the centre and push it down firmly with the heel of your hand.  Finally fold the mixture in half and again push it down firmly with the heel of your hand.

9.  This next bit is up to you.  I cut my dough into two halves and shaped one into a circle and the other into a square-ish loaf.  You can shape it into one or as many loaves as you wish.    Cover with damp tea towel or oiled cling film.  Let them rest until they have doubled in size again.  In the meantime, preheat the oven to 250°C/480°F/Gas Mark 9.

10.  When the dough is ready, cut deep, clean incisions in it to help create shape and release gas.  I made a hash (#) sign on one loaf and cut three slices on the other.  I then sprayed the tops of them with water to create a bit of steam as they bake.  (My new electric oven doesn’t like it when you spray the inside of the oven with water.)

11. Whack them in the oven.  After 10 minutes turn the oven down to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7 and bake for 40-50 minutes.  Check that the bread is ready – it should sound hollow when you tap it’s bottom.  If not, set the timer for another 5 minutes and check again.  Let them rest for at least 5 minutes before you enjoy and devour it.

orange, cranberry, chocolate bread

 

Lemon Polenta Cake and the Last Time that I will…

cake for breakfast
Continuing the tradition of cake for breakfast

Each time, someone comes to visit me from the UK, I ask them to bring me over some lemons.  At 75 cents each here, they’re a much dearer ingredient than their equally delicious greener counterpart, the lime.  This time, I think that my sister brought me over a kilo of them; a much better suited present than the kilo of homegrown beetroot she once left in my fridge.  So now, I have a treasure trove of lots of lemony lemons living in the bottom of my fridge.

lemons, lemons
And so, I’ve begun to work through my favourite lemon recipes.  Last weekend, I came across this one, from 2013.  Don’t be put off by the name.  It’s actually a really simple cake to make and makes an elegant dessert.  When I mentioned it to Caroline, my housemate, she decided that lemon polenta cake was her preferred dessert over Kampot Pepper Brownies.  Actually, that Saturday evening, she declared that it to be her favourite of all my cakes that she’s ever eaten.

I wasn’t so sure.  I wanted rather a lot more tartness, than the original recipe was giving me.  So, I changed the syrup to a drizzle, reducing the amount of sugar and replacing the icing sugar with caster sugar.  The second time round, the lemony tartness complemented the sweetness of the cake beautifully.lemon polenta cake 1

So, let me set the scene, if you are reading this blog for the first time.  It’s June 2013. I’m preparing to leave one life behind and begin a new one in Cambodia.  I’ve just finished working my last week as a Skills Programme Coordinator at the University of Warwick and in the midst of packing up my Redfern flat.  I’m too busy to notice the misery and grief that will soon engulf me.  Thus, I have a much more pragmatic and much less miserable outlook to goodbyes than in this later post.

The last time that I will:

  • Have a tutor meeting
  • Wash my mug at work
  • Walk out the doors in University House as a Student Careers and Skills employee
  • Teach a Warwick Skills Workshop
  • Bake in my redfern kitchen

These last two weeks have been full of ‘last times’. I’ve been trying to acknowledge each one as they come round. It’s not a fully indulgent, let’s sit down and have a cry over them. I don’t really go for that kind of sentimentality. More of a passing nod to say – I saw you and I noticed.ingredients for lemon polenta cake

I realised that you know the last thing I’ve baked in each of my kitchens every time that I’ve moved. I think that I’ve chronicled each move with a recipe.  The countless hours of mundane wrapping and packing into boxes, only made bearable by thoughts of food.  Haha…  Reminisce with me. There was the lemon and ginger cheesecake when I left Cryfield. Then I was up til the wee hours making pots of bramble jelly when I moved out of Heronbank. I made a valiant attempt at using up my bananas and created whiskey, chocolate and banana cake when I moved out of the Subwarden flat in Cryfield 3, which I affectionately refer to as my rabbit warren years. Finally, I have to to move out of Redfern and I baked lemon polenta cake.

lemon zest for lemon polenta cakeprepare the dry ingredients

I’ve done better with each move. David worries less and less about whether I’ll get everything packed up in time for the removal men.

This time I packed away my baking equipment and books the Sunday I finished work; a week before the moving deadline and the day before my CELTA course is due to start.

Which leaves me sitting forlornly at my kitchen table, reminiscing about the huge amounts of baking I’ve done in this kitchen. I don’t know when I’ll be baking again in the next 4 weeks during my CELTA course and I feel bereft.

unbaked lemon polenta cake
baked lemon polenta cake
 

Lemon Polenta cake, adapted from Nigella

Ingredients

  • 200g unsalted butter
  • 200g golden caster sugar
  • 200g ground almonds
  • 100g polenta (try to find the finest)
  • 1½tsp baking powder – if you want it to be gluten free then use the gluten free variety.
  • 3 eggs
  • a pinch of salt
  • zest of 2 lemons

Lemon Drizzle:

  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 75g golden caster sugar

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C, 350 °F, Gas Mark 4. Grease and line a 23cm springform round cake tin.

2. In one bowl, measure out the ground almonds, polenta and baking powder and give them a stir.

3. In another bowl, add the butter, sugar, salt and lemon zest.  Cream them together, preferably with an electric mixer or a stand mixer, for a couple of minutes until the mixture changes colour and becomes light.

4. Add in an egg and mix.  Then add a third of the dry ingredients from step no.2  All the time, keep on mixing.  Alternate between adding an egg and dry ingredients.  Nigella notes that you can make this cake entirely gluten-free if you don’t have gluten-free baking powder by beating all the ingredients really hard at that this point.

5. Splodge the mixture into the prepared cake tin and smooth it out with a spatula or a knife.

6. Bake in the oven for 40 minutes.

7. Meanwhile, make the lemon drizzle.  Measure out the sugar in a bowl and then add the juice of two lemons.  Stir together until the sugar dissolves in the lemon juice.

8. The cake is baked when it’s coming away from the edges, firm on top but still rather pale colour on top.  Prick holes to allow the drizzle to seep through.  As you can see, a toothpick can look rather unsightly.  But who cares, when it’s this delicious.  Pour the prepared lemon drizzle over the top of the cake.  Leave to cool as long as you can bear in the cake tin before eating it.

squeeze lemons for lemon drizzle

And I have to say – it’s even more delicious the morning after, when the lemons and almonds have had a bit more time to get to know each other and the flavours have melded together.

lemon polenta cake 2

Wholemeal Sea Salt Chocolate Thins

wholemeal sea salt chocolate thins

My colleagues keep asking me when I’m next bringing in some home-baking.  I told one of my colleagues today that I’d made some INCREDIBLE biscuits.  Nope, I hadn’t brought them into work.  Cue – sulky face.  Admittedly, these chocolate thins are so good that I’m not sure that they’re going to make it out the front door.

preparing to cream together the butter, sugar and salt

I took in my coconut, lime and malibu drizzle cake into work one Friday to lift morale.  This is the kind of thing that people do, wherever I’ve worked.  However, apparently not here.  Ever since that Friday, (and I am exaggerating slightly) my colleagues seem to have turned into cake hungry toddlers: I’ve seen some sulky pouting faces when a Friday goes by without cake and I’ve not heard the end of:

“Friday is cake day *hint* *hint*” – to which I answer, “Oh, what are you bringing in?”

“When are going to bring in some more cake?” — “When you buy me some butter/eggs/flour.”

“I haven’t seen biscuits for a while.” — “There is a supermarket down the road…”

What is this?  A simple act of voluntary cake sharing kindness erupting a longing for home-baked sugar filled delights.  They even complained that I didn’t bring in a mushy, underbaked banana cake because they’d have appreciated it in any form.

soft dough for wholemeal chocolate thins

Anyway, I do find my colleagues’ reaction hilarious and affirmative.  And … well, as they opened the door to trying out my baking experiments, successes and disasters, I brought in some spiced chocolate banana cake that had gone wrong.  It looked like a brownie but it tasted medicinal, like cloves and nutmeg.  Not all of them were impressed with that offering.  Not that that was a deliberate move at all.  But they had requested the disasters… So, *teehee* I wonder how long their enthusiasm for my baking will last?

take a spoonful of chocolate wholemeal dough

As there are rather a lot of us english teachers at the school, not everyone gets a piece of whatever’s been baked.  One day, one of my colleagues realised that she’d missed out on all of my cakes.  Fortunately for her, she feeds me cakes and biscuits from her ‘ot loi’ (khmer for no money) shop.  So, when she asked me to bake something for the end of term and I’d run out of eggs to bake a cake, I came up with idea of baking these gorgeous chocolate wholemeal thins, that I’d seen on the back of Allinsons Plain Wholemeal Flour.

roll it lightly into a ball

Once I’d baked one batch, I realised that I very quickly needed to make another.  They’re so wholesomely, deliciously more-ish and have that glorious nutty flavour imparted from the wholemeal flour.  So, I did.   Then later that day, I had this flash of brilliance that by adding sea salt would lift them to the realms of epic and add even more nutritional value.  That’s how my brain works late at night.  So, into the mixture went a conservative quarter teaspoon of fine sea salt.  That’s all the recipe needed for the sea salt to bring out the chocolate flavour and add a touch of sophistication.press down lightly with a fork

A cautionary note if you want to try this recipe but don’t have any sea salt.  Table salt has a much stronger flavour than sea salt.  I haven’t tried it with table salt, but from previous experience, I’d add half the amount when using table salt.

Jonathan and Emily in Cambodia
Jonathan and Emily, who travelled many, many miles to adventure in SE Asia, were taste-testers for this bake.

You can bake these without the sea salt.  Just omit the salt.  They’re really good.  But just so that you know.  I trialled both recipes on my resident taste-testers last weekend, Emily and Jonathan who were visiting!   There were barely enough biscuits left to test out on a family of 6 later on, who I watch the GBBO together with.  They unanimously preferred the sea salt chocolate thins.

Wholemeal Sea Salt Chocolate Thins

Wholemeal Sea Salt Chocolate Thins, adapted from the back of the Allinsons Plain Wholemeal Flour Packet.  Thankfully can also be found on Baking Mad.

Makes between 24-26 chocolate thins

Ingredients

  • 125g unsalted butter
  • 50g golden caster sugar
  • 1/4 tsp fine sea salt and a bit more to sprinkle on top later
  • 125g plain wholemeal flour
  • 25g cocoa powder

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 170ºC/ 340ºF/Gas Mark 5

2. Cream together the butter, sugar and the sea salt until light and fluffy.  This normally takes between 3-5 minutes.

3. Add the cocoa powder and wholemeal flour and mix until it comes together in a soft dough.

4. Cover and let it rest in the fridge for at least 15 minutes.

5. Prepare a baking tray with baking paper.  Take a teaspoon of the mixture (roughly between 12-16g) and lightly roll it into a ball between the palms of your hands.  I say lightly to avoid overworked dough, resulting in tough wee biscuits.  And hey, they don’t have to be perfect balls.  You’re going to be pressing them down with a fork anyway.

6. Use a fork to press each ball down.  If the mixture starts to stick to the back of the fork, lightly flour the back of the fork and that will prevent it.  Sprinkle a wee bit of salt over each biscuit.

7. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes.  Check at 10 minutes, in case you’re oven bakes things super fast.

8. Leave to cool on the baking tray until the biscuits are cool.  Then gently transfer onto a wire rack to cool completely.  They’ll keep in an airtight container for at least 3 days.  They’ve never lasted past the 3 day mark with me and in my experience, they get a bit crumblier as each day passes.

Did my colleague who pushed for an eggless bake get one?  Oh yes.  She got a biscuit when I handed them out on the last day of term.  Then she cheekily reached out and took another.

The alternative bake: wholemeal chocolate thins without sea salt
The alternative bake: wholemeal chocolate thins without sea salt

Mosquito, a haiku

sunset by the sailing club
sunset dinner by Kep sailing club

I went away on holiday with five friends to the sleepy seaside town of Kep (pronounced Gaip), in Cambodia recently. I forgot to take my journal with me and I felt like I couldn’t do any meaningful reflection without it, as I wouldn’t be able to write it down.

Instead, I chose to write down a few poems that I’ve been mulching on for pretty much a year.  Actually, pretty much the entire time that I’ve been in Cambodia.  They’re all about mosquitoes.  Here’s the first one.

It’s a haiku for no other reason, than that’s how it came out.  I had this image in my mind, of a squadron of mosquitoes flying in formation at night, getting ready to attack.  Mosquitoes don’t hunt in packs; it can sure feel like it when you have multiple bites within 5 minutes.  Why stealth fighters?  The peculiar thing about Cambodian mosquitoes is, is their silence.

You have to imagine the venom in my voice towards the mosquitoes as I’m saying it.

Mosquito

stealthy night fighter,

flying under the radar,

leaving pock-marked skin.

the prepared fish in their 'marquee'
the prepared fish in their ‘marquee’ before the seafood barbeque
a view of Kep from the sailing club
a view of Kep from the sailing club

Linda Bareham’s Portuguese Pork and a new abode!

Linda Bareham's Portuguese Pork

First of all, sorry that I haven’t posted in a long time.  Three very important things have happened.

  1. I moved into my very own apartment for the first time since moving to Cambodia.
  2. After my holiday in the UK, I’ve been injected with a new dose of enthusiasm to embrace life in Cambodia with all it’s ingredients and flavours.
  3. I started a new job.  I’m now an English Language Teacher at a Language School in Phnom Penh.

The third point is very important.  It goes a long way in explaining why I haven’t posted anything on the blog in recent months.  I’m really enjoying the work but adjusting to a new job is taking up a lot of my energy.  Even more so, as I’m teaching every evening during the week.

Portuguese pork ingredients

But, excitingly it’s the first and second points that motivated me to make more use of local ingredients and cook this dish.  Finally having my very own space for the first time in 10 months was so exciting.  I even baked Orange and Cardamon shortbread to herald in this new space that I could call home (which I’ll post once I’ve perfected the recipe).  Admittedly, I probably should have been putting my energy into packing boxes when I made them.

IMG_5352

what actually happens in my kitchen

My new kitchen comes equipped with a two burner gas cooker, typical of many Phnom Penh kitchens.  So, recently, I’ve delved back into Linda Bareham’s One Pot cook book and discovered recipes that I can make easily here.  I realise that I’ve written about the adjustment to sourcing various ingredients for baking or learning various processes because I can’t find the ingredients in the form that I want.  Well, it’s been a similar thing for cooking with local ingredients here, or perhaps it’s been an even greater learning curve.  I like cooking with local, seasonal produce.  Back in the UK, I would quite often ask market stall holders how I could with new ingredients.  But, to do that in a foreign language with unfamiliar ingredients is quite a challenge.  It took me 6 months to brave buying fresh meat from the market.  That may sound silly to you.  However, imagine a market place, where there are various meat stalls.  Some have live chickens, plucked chickens or various slabs of pork meat, hanging from meat hooks.   Then, add the smell because, of course, it’s all unrefridgerated and unpackaged.  Now, can you picture the flies lazily circling round before resting on one piece of meat and then moving onto another.  I’m just not used to it, coming from the UK.

Spinach wrapped in a banana leaf

So, I asked a lot of questions to khmers and seasoned expats before plucking up the courage to venture out on my first solo meat shopping trip.  Here, the recommended wisdom is to go fairly early in the day, before 10.30-11am.  Prod and smell the meat to know whether the meat is fresh or a day old.  I’m still learning how you do that without insulting the seller.  But then, there’s the added complication of language.  How an earth do I say chicken breast in khmer?  How do you ask for it without the bone?  How do I make sure that I don’t get ripped off by a market seller out to make a lucrative deal from an unsuspecting foreigner.  That first time when I bought fresh chicken breasts from the market, I spent an hour deboning the chicken breasts, when I got home.  That didn’t stop me from celebrating it as a major achievement.

chop pork into 1inch chunks

In fact, the first time I made this dish was the first time I’d ever bought pork from the market.  I couldn’t tell you what cut of pork I ended up bringing home, but I think that it was pork fillet.  I made it for my Simon and Becci when they had just moved house.  We all declared the dish a success.  Then I made it again with the addition of spinach because I was craving more greens in my diet.  This time, I served it to some of my khmer friends and they liked it too.  Hurrah!

pork in a cumin and lime bath

I adapted the recipe slightly.  I substituted limes for lemons and added a wee bit more heat by adding in more chilies.  I try not to cook with MSG and the khmer ‘knorr’ chicken stock powder is full of it.  So, I substituted sea salt for chicken stock, or make your own stock, if you want.  Linda specifies red onions, but I can only buy shallots here.  I’ve used shallots and white onions, depending on what I had in the fridge.  I’ve specified how much garlic to use, if it’s a normal-strong garlic bulb.  I find that the local khmer garlic is a much milder variety, so I’ve also taken to doubling the quantities of garlic specified in recipes.  And apparently it helps to ward off the mosquitoes.

IMG_5746

Linda Bareham’s Portuguese Pork to serve 4 people, as adapted by me.

Ingredients

  • 400g pork fillet
  • 1tsp ground cumin
  • Juice of 3 limes
  • 3 small red chilli peppers
  • 2 onions
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • 500ml boiling water with 1tsp sea salt or 500ml chicken stock
  • 2x 400g tin of chickpeas, drained
  • 150g fresh coriander
  • 300g spinach, washed
  • salt and pepper to season

Method

1.  Chop the pork into 1 inch chunks and place them in a bowl.   Add the cumin and the lime juice.  Mix thoroughly.  The lime juice will help soften the meat.  Set aside in the fridge while you prepare the other ingredients.

2. Finely chop the onions.  Add the oil and a wee bit of salt to a medium sized pot.  Gently fry the onions for 10 minutes so that they’re softened with a little colour.

3.  Meanwhile, finely chop the garlic.  Slice the chillies fairly small chunks.  I didn’t bother deseeding them because I wanted to add a bit of heat to the dish.  Add them to the onions and cook for 4-5 minutes.  Stirring occasionally and watching that they don’t burn. Add a bit more oil if needed.

4.  Take the pork out of it’s lime bath and add it to the pot.  Don’t throw away the lime/cumin juice!  You’ll use it again in 5 minutes.  Stir the pork so that it colours evenly.

5.  Add the boiling water (or stock if you’re using), lime/cumin juice and chickpeas to the pot.  Turn up the heat and bring it to a boil.  Then turn down the heat and let it simmer.

6.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Linda assures you that there’s a lot of seasoning required.  In the end, I found it easier to crush and finely chop some whole black peppercorns and add them in, rather than grind, twist, shake with a pepper mill.  I agree with Linda.   You’ll need a lot of pepper.

7.  As I can’t buy a bag of spinach leaves easily, I chopped and discarded the bottom bit off my spinach stalks, gave them a thorough wash and added the spinach leaves and stalks to the pot.  Finally, add roughly chopped coriander leaves and stalks.  Et, voila.  Serve with a wholesome crusty loaf or baguette.

Portuguese Pork with spinach