This happened today
Bernardo needs putting back
Together. Erm, glue?
I had seen a small separation between the fingerboard and the neck the other week. I wondered whether the humidity was playing havoc with it. So I had an inkling that my violin would break this morning. But still, when the fingerboard separated from the neck in my hands, my heart sank. Bless him, my friend Pov said, “Glue it back together, no problem.”
Yes, hopefully. But that will done by a specialist. Bernardo needs some TLC.
I don’t understand why I’ve never put raspberries in a dark chocolate brownie before. The flavour combination is ingenious! These brownies have quickly become my signature bake since I decided to bake them 7 weeks ago, popping out my oven week in-week out.
I meant to follow BBC’s Good Food’s Best Ever Chocolate Raspberry Brownies and duly noted that they suggested mixing half of the raspberries into the mixture and reserving half of the raspberries to scatter at for the end. However, I couldn’t quite understand why I’d want to put milk chocolate into the batter and dilute the intense dark chocolatey-ness that I wanted to couple with the raspberry flavour.
So, I reverted back to my default brownie recipe. This time, I have no microwave. (However, I’ve kept the microwave bit in the instructions, in case you do). I really wanted to demonstrate how the brownies can be made using one pot. In all honesty, I never expected that this brownie would have it’s own post. But when Sarah and I bit into one, the first occasion I baked them, a raspberry just burst in my mouth. I laughed, said that they were amazing and promptly named them, Raspberry Burst Brownies.
Ingredients for Raspberry Burst Chocolate Brownies adapted from Usborne First Cookbook.
4oz/100g dark chocolate
1tsp vanilla extract
2 beaten eggs
4oz/100g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
6oz/160g caster sugar
2 tbsp cocoa powder
pinch of salt
1 or 2 tbsp of milk if the mixture is too firm.
85g-100g frozen or fresh raspberries (I find that 85g is enough)
1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4. Line a square baking dish with baking paper. I use a 20x20cm baking tin.
2. Melt the chocolate and butter together on a gentle heat, in a heavy bottomed pan. Alternatively zap them in a heatproof bowl in the microwave.
3. As the chocolate and butter is melting, or being zapped in the microwave, measure out the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder into another bowl. Sift the flour if you want to, but it’s not necessary.
4. Add the vanilla extract, salt and sugar to the chocolate melted goodness and mix well.
5. Add the beaten eggs and keep mixing to combine it all. Don’t worry – they won’t scramble.
6. Gradually add in the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder so that the whole mixture is well combined.
7. Mix in half of the raspberries now. With the remaining half, scatter them over the top to fill in any deficit spaces before you put it into the oven.
8. Bake in the oven for 20-25 mins. The secret is to take them out when the top is firm to touch but still wobbles when you shake it.
Verdict? They are amazing! Sarah actually told me off for not telling her how amazing they were, when she ate one a few weeks later. (But we’d taste tested them together that first time…) They are that combination of sweet but sour, and a perfect flavour partnership between the dark chocolate and the raspberry. But what I love best about them is that the whole raspberries burst in your mouth as you eat them. Bliss!
About a year ago, I went to visit some friends and their hours-old baby at the Kantha Bopha children’s hospital at the riverside in Phnom Penh. Stirred by the din of our party of four’s arrival, this little boy opened his beautiful black eyes to take us in. “Hello, little one.” He stared back and then closed one eye. *LOL* He got me thinking about what it must be like as a newborn. Do they feel overwhelmed by this multi-sensory realm, full of new smells, noises and colour?
We often think of babies as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, with no sense of self. And perhaps they are. But I wanted to invert that in this poem and imagine that a newborn could form their thoughts, as an adult, self-aware and with the vocabulary to match. I wrote out the first draft and then left it for a few months while life went on.
And then along came little P.
This newest addition to the family has been lovingly provided by my sister and brother-in-law, in the form of a beautiful baby boy who came 3 weeks early. In actual fact, the moment my sister told me that she was pregnant, I began to miss Owotato, as I dubbed him (a conglomeration of their surname and potato). Now, she whatsapps me photos, we google hangout and she sends me wee videos of him. But in all honesty, what I long to do is hold him and blow air on his face! In the meantime, this poem, which is dedicated to him, will have to suffice.
Sweet and high.
Gravelly and low-pitched.
There’s quite a few
close to me.
Shapes of different sizes
loom in. Peer.
Can’t quite make out
Perhaps if you came closer?
Too late. Out they zoom.
One of them is asking,
is it overwhelming
being a newborn?
YES! The air feels cold on my skin.
I miss the wet warmth.
Having said that,
I don’t seem to run out of room to stretch out,
and shake my fist to test it.
And – wow!
I can smell my mother’s milk.
sour notes surrounding me.
I twitch my nose
I’ve begun to use my mouth to suck
and my throat to swallow. Wonderfully,
instinctively, it knows what to do.
I’m not so sure.
I am going to practise making the moves in my own time.
I want to know how.
Shadows reach in
to hold me.
Please be gentle.
It can hurt,
I try to tell them.
But they don’t seem to understand me.
Oh hello! You smell different.
What? This one likes blowing air on my face.
Stop it! I blink.
I daren’t move my head.
that if I turn it to one side
I won’t be able to bring it back.
So, I turn
to take it all in.
This cacophony of colour
When I first arrived, I couldn’t afford to buy arborio rice here. So, in that first year, I didn’t make any risotto, one of my customary meals back in the UK. Thereafter I got so desperate for the comfort of cooking and eating risotto, I managed to convince myself that it didn’t matter if I used jasmine or ginger flower rice (a Cambodian medium grain rice) instead of arborio, carnaroli or any different type of risotto rice. I’ve merrily been making and feeding this pumpkin ‘risotto’ to many of my friends, using whatever rice I had at hand. Believe me, there were no complaints. Spicy, and gloriously ochre with the sweetness of fresh coriander. Who would turn down this dish?
However, a few months ago it all changed. My friend Robert gave me some of his delicious bacon, mushroom and spinach risotto (which I need to try cooking myself!) made with arborio rice. And the realisation of the error of my ways overwhelmed me. It just ain’t a risotto without risotto rice! How had I duped myself into thinking that this chewier, creamier textured rice could be replaceable?
So, yes. You can make this not-really-risotto, pumpkin risotto (what am I supposed to call it now?) with any grain of rice that you have. But don’t call it risotto.
It’s really simple to make. I make it a lot as pumpkins are pretty much available all year round in Cambodia, but not always strictly as a risotto. I really appreciate the fact that here you can buy however much of the pumpkin that you’re planning on cooking with: you just ask the market seller to cut off however much you need. In contrast, I don’t think that I would have made this in the UK because I didn’t really buy pumpkins. I didn’t really know what to do with a whole big pumpkin and I didn’t shop in those places that sold different varieties of smaller ones.
I adapted the original recipe to add in a bit more spice, with extra cumin, chilli and coriander. Lastly, there’s the grown-up version with the added white wine.
5 garlic cloves (but garlic isn’t as strong here, so perhaps 2 if your garlic is strong)
200g risotto rice
2 tsp ground cumin
1 litre of hot vegetable/chicken stock
125-250ml (or more) dry white wine
25g cold butter
50g parmesan cheese, grated (for vegetarians, choose an alternative or omit altogether)
generous bunch of coriander, roughly chopped up
spring onion, chopped up (optional)
2 red chilli peppers
salt and pepper
optional lime wedges to serve
Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4/Cut the pumpkin into fairly even 1inch/2.5cm cubes. As you can see from the photo, I don’t worry too much about being precise. Coat it with 1tbsp of vegetable oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake in the oven for about 30 mins.
Meanwhile get started on the risotto. Crush the garlic and chop up the onion. If using spring onions, then finely chop up the whites of the spring onions, reserving the green part as a garnish for later.
Heat the rest of the oil on a gentle heat in a medium sized pan and fry the onions, garlic and spring onion until the onions are soft.
Now add the cumin and rice, being careful not to let it catch on the bottom of the pan. Stir so that every grain of rice is coated in the spice.
Add the wine and let it deglaze the pan, by stirring it around the bottom of the pan.
Next, adding the stock about a ladleful at a time is the accepted wisdom but I’m pretty imprecise about this. I think that add however much you need so that it just covers the rice and the rice won’t burn at the bottom of the pan. Stir and stir until the stock has disappeared this helps release the starch from the rice). Then add in a bit more stock. *As you’re doing this, multi-task with step 7.* Continue until the rice is cooked but still has a wee bit of bite – this is al dente. Add another generous ladleful of stock, this helps to create a sauce, and the butter. Cover with the lid to help the butter melt.
Check on the pumpkin and remove from the oven once they’ve been baked. Grate the cheese, roughly chop up the coriander, finely slice the chilli peppers and the greens of the spring onions (if using).
Once the rice has been cooked, add the pumpkin, cheese, coriander, spring onions and the chilli peppers. And stir through to mix well. If you’d like a bit of zest, sprinkle some lime juice on top. Et voila – enjoy.
The verdict? A satisfying meat-free meal, which my friends, khmer and western, enjoy eating. I especially like this paired with kimchi.
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 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.
Last 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!”
But how necessary, it was. And how my heart soared free, thereafter.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
13. Gently break the buns apart and enjoy.
Verdict? They were the best hot cross buns in Phnom Penh!
I disappeared from food blogger cyberspace again, didn’t I.
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.
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.
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