Newborn

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.

Newborn

Voices approach.
Chattering, excited.
Sweet and high.
Gravelly and low-pitched.
There’s quite a few
close to me.

Open eyes.
Foggy mist.
Shapes of different sizes
loom in. Peer.
Can’t quite make out
how many.

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,
I punch
and shake my fist to test it.
And – wow!
Hit nothing.

I can smell my mother’s milk.
Comforting,
amidst sharp,
sour notes surrounding me.
I twitch my nose
towards it.

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.
I’m scared,
that if I turn it to one side
I won’t be able to bring it back.

So, I turn
my eyes
to take it all in.
This cacophony of colour
and light.

(not really) Pumpkin risotto

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I have a confession to make.

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?IMG_8847

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?

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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.

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Recipe for Pumpkin Risotto, adapted from BBC Good Food

Ingredients

  • 400g pumpkin, seedless and peeled
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 5 garlic cloves (but garlic isn’t as strong here, so perhaps 2 if your garlic is strong)
  • 1 onion
  • 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

Method

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Add the wine and let it deglaze the pan, by stirring it around the bottom of the pan.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).
  8. 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.

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#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 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.

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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