From my first week in Cambodia until the end, they were all over me. I used to joke that people around me didn’t need to worry about putting on mosquito repellant because the mosquitoes would feast on me first.
My bites would swell up so much that in my first month I was on anti-histamines to try to convince my body not to get so excited about them. People kept telling me that it would get better after 6 weeks. The mosquitoes would stop making a bee line for me. Nope. It took many years of constantly being bitten before my body decided that a small bump was a sufficient reaction. Then when I got dengue, I decided that I’d had enough of living with mosquitoes. But that is a story for another time.
Other mosquito poems have been published on this blog, testifying to my special relationship with them. Haha.
However, the time date on the holiday photos tell me that it was 18 months into my time in Cambodia, on holiday in Kep, that I started writing this – my original mosquito poem – and Mosquito, a haiku. I tested it out on the group at breakfast. They laughed a lot. We laughed a lot and then I slapped my arm because I’d just been bitten! I’ve tried finishing this poem a few times since but it just didn’t seem to work. This week, wanting to spend an evening, not marking student work, I finally got it out, pulled together the various versions, got some feedback on it from some of the members of the original audience. Et voilà.
Dear Mosquito, Regarding the note you left last night, Notes, in fact. Which I found indelibly written in red. Presumably to underline your point, as a mark of your love.
Inflamed with lust, Laced with a wee dram of poison, As if to say, if I can’t have you then no-one will.
It’s just that, And, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, I mean no disrespect. But wouldn’t you agree that we appear to be quite unsuited to each other? I don’t react well to you. My defences go into overdrive.
Besides you’re not the first suitor of your ilk, who has been pursuing me.
Let me explain. Was it your great, great, great aunt who chanced upon me? Hmmmmmm… Untouched, uninitiated in this mating ritual. A slap here, a sting there.
Did word somehow get out that I was Prime and ready, Sweet and easy pickings?
One after another, persisting with their whining salutations and affectionate greetings. Arousing me after each visit. You’d each leave. Drunk on my blood. I thought, this is my destiny.
We played tennis together. It was electric. You won, love/40.
I’ve clapped my hands for you. Waited up in the wee hours of the morning to find you. I’ve rubbed on lotions, anointed myself with oil to repel you.
Mosquito, explain. What is it that you find so irresistible about me? My bare skin? My blood type? My sweet scent?
Well, you leave me no choice But to say that I have grown tired of your voice. Wised up to your morning kisses. The suffocating silences. The nightly visitations. Your methods of seduction don’t beguile me any more.
It was my sister’s birthday recently and I asked her if she’d like a cake or baked goodie. She answered, “shortbread, if that’s possible!!” I laughed when I read the message. It didn’t surprise me. She had declared previously that shortbread was her favourite item from everything that I had baked whilst living with them, during lockdown for 3 months. The week before, I had moved out into university accommodation when lockdown measures had eased allowing me to social bubble with them.
However, how was I going to go about making it a birthday special shortbread with limited baking equipment and none of my usual baking and decorating tools?
Make a cake structure out of shortbread biscuit? Maybe, but I wanted to make something more personal.
Stamp out happy birthday with cookie cutters? I didn’t have any alphabet cookie cutters and didn’t know any shops within walking distance that would stock them. I couldn’t ask her to drive me to a shop because, well that would ruin the surprise.
So, I let the thought percolate for a night and then I hit on the idea to create shortbread scrabble tiles, spelling out Happy Birthday Ee-Reh. My sister really likes playing scrabble so this would be special and personal to her. Importantly, I figured out how I’d be able to make them by improvising with what I had in the kitchen already. So yesterday I spent a happy Saturday morning improvising baking tools and creating these shortbread scrabble tiles, whilst working out how to do my laundry in the on-campus laundrettes.
Here’s how I made the scrabble tiles, if you’d like to make them.
I searched the internet for an image of scrabble tiles and counted out how many letters I needed for my birthday message to my sister. I used my go to Fiona Cairns shortbread recipe. This blog post has a more detailed methodology, and worth reading if you’ve not made shortbread before. This time, in the absence of salted butter in my fridge, I substituted it with unsalted butter and added salt. I also accidentally softened half the butter in the microwave for 10 seconds too long, so it was a liquid goo. But it was okay because when I added the rest of the still cold butter chunks, it started to harden and sort of get to the right temperature and consistency. I used cornflour because it is more readily available in UK supermarkets than rice flour but either is fine. I resisted the urge to use a ruler (didn’t have one, haha) or measuring tape (which I do have) and eyeballed the shaping and cutting. It’s homebaking, you know, not the GBBO.
Equipment you’ll need
Medium sized mixing bowl
Clingfilm – baking paper will also work
metal or wooden improvised carving tool – I used the end of the beater. I kept thinking that a metal chopstick would have been great.
Metal baking tray and baking paper
250g unsalted butter, softened and cubed
100g golden caster sugar, plus some more for sprinkling post-baking
1tsp table salt – about 5g
250g of plain flour
125g of cornflour
1. Cream together the butter, salt and the sugar together first. I use a hand mixer because it’s faster and easier.
2. In another bowl, measure out the flour and cornflour. Mix it with a whisk. Unless you’ve got weevils or clumps, that is all the ‘sifting’ you need to do. Mix into the butter and sugar in three batches to stop the flour flying out of the bowl until it starts to come together. Then gently knead the dough for about 5 minutes, until it is smooth.
3. Get a piece of clingfilm or baking paper. Place half the mixture evenly in a long oblong shape on the clingfilm. Fold the clingfilm over to cover the dough and use your hands to massage it into a more recognisable rectangular oblong log. I tried to make each side 3.5cm, which is the length of my thumb. I was eye-balling it. Try to give it corners so when you cut it, it will look like a square. Twist the edges of the clingfilm and pop it into the fridge for at least 30 minutes. This will make the dough easier to cut. Do the same with the other half of the dough.
4. In the meantime, write the message on a piece of paper, count the number of scrabble letter tiles that you’ll need and check the internet for the font and numerical value of each letter tile. Also wash up the beaters.
5. Preheat the oven to 170°C/340°F/gas mark 3. Line a metal baking sheet with baking paper.
6. Take one of the logs out of the fridge and place it on a chopping board. Unwrap and cut off the rounded edges. Slice each log into 1cm thick squares. I eyeballed it. Rotate the log every 4-5 slices to ensure that they keep an even square shape.
7. Take one square and transfer it onto the lined baking tray. I used the end of the hand mixer beater to carve out the letter and the end of a tea spoon to make the numbers, holding the square with my other hand to keep it still. Carve about 5mm deep. Every so often, I would use a sharp knife to remove the shortbread ‘debris’ and if it was a letter like a B or an E, I would pad some of the ‘debris’ gently in between the carved furrows to strengthen the shape of the letter, hoping that it wouldn’t disappear as it baked. Curved round 3’s proved impossible for me.
8. Bake in the middle of the pre-heated oven for 14-16 minutes. It should be a lightly golden colour on top and little browner on the bottom. DON’T pick one up when fresh out the oven to check if the bottoms are browned because it will break!* Wait until they have cooled down and are stronger. Instead trust the oven and sprinkle a little caster sugar on top immediately when they come out of the oven. If any of the pieces have baked into each other, separate them with a sharp knife.
*I needed 19 letters, but as I picked up the ‘I’ to do exactly what I told you not to do, it broke in half. So I got my second log out and decided to carve out some more letters so that my sister’s family could spell out each of their names, if they wanted to. Sometimes, this is how the creativity juices unfold.
And that’s it. Tada!
P.S I asked my sister for a lift so that the shortbread biscuits wouldn’t break into crumbs whilst walking the hour over to her house.
P.P.S She really liked them, and so did the rest of her family.
I joined a creatives group in the new year while I was in Aberdeen. Caralyn, the same one who encouraged me to blog again, talked me into going along with her and frogmarched me to introduce me to the group leader. This was very much necessary because the shy introvert in me was reluctant to make any new friends.
I should backtrack a wee bit to provide some context. My first month following my return from Cambodia was bewildering. I didn’t know what was going to happen next or where I was going to be, other than I was back living at my mum’s and it had been the right time to end my Cambodia life. I was exhausted from my life being flipped upside down. That October felt particularly cold and I kept looking aghast at people dressed in shorts when it was below 6 degrees celsius. As I pulled on my four layers and searched for some thermal clothing, I started to experience regular moments when I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly, and I’d be scared to fall asleep in case my body forgot how to breath while I slept. This is me, who has never suffered from anxiety.
Two things really helped. Firstly, I got help. I engaged a coach to help me go through this transition. Someone I didn’t know who had gone through major changes moving from one country to another. She gave me a structure to the transition. When things got hard in month 3, she reassured me that months 3 and 4 normally held the most tension as friends asked what you had decided to do, when you had decided nothing because those decisions still felt overwhelming, like the circumstances were too fluid to make any concrete decisions. Secondly, a friend reassured me that my panic was a common reaction to major disruptive changes. He agreed with my recognition that this season was a ‘winter’, so to take it easy, do very little “productively”, to remember to take deep breaths and do a little exercise. It helped to normalise my situation and after that first month, I could breathe a little easier.
By January, I was quite happily in the rhythms of my ‘splendid isolation’ or ‘my winter’ in the North East of Scotland. The name inspired by Britain’s 19th century foreign policy of splendid isolation and all the Brexit chatter. After the turbulence of the last few years, the peace and stillness was exactly what I needed. In all honesty this is what I had nicknamed this season of my life weeks before self-isolating and social distancing were to become a thing. The flip side of my choices was that I had reverted to being a shy turtle. Eyes peering out over my scarf and hat. Checking out who the safe people were to talk to before deciding that I’d rather be talking to trees.
I was also intimidated by the thought that this creatives group would be made up of all art school/’I studied design/drama/writing at university’ type people. However, in actual fact, yes some of the group are like that but the group is made up of a variety of people with different craft/art/food/creative writing/photography/design interests and passions. I surprised myself by enjoying their company and the discussions. The following weeks, I went back and started making new friends.
When I moved to another city for a new job three weeks ago, I didn’t expect to be able to continue to be part of them. However, because of the Covid-19 lockdown measures, we moved to meeting online. Each week we focus on something different. This week, the focus was on peace.
I found myself meditating on this song by Mosaic MSC every time I went outside for my daily walk/run. It begins, peace, bring it all to peace. Apt, right? I would pray for family, friends and people I knew who were ill or in the vulnerable group, or in difficult/stressful/anxious situations to know God’s peace. An hour before we were due to meet online, I suddenly worried that my meditative peace prayers wouldn’t count as a creative output. Thus, I quickly cobbled together this haiku on peace as my contribution instead.
Piece by piece, step by
Step. What was overwhelming
It began as a thought, ‘what if I did a play on words with peace/piece’. (There are a couple of quilters in my creatives group.) For me, it evokes memories of marathon training, running up hills, the times I began a couch to 5k programme after time out because of injury. Then there is the sleepless 48 hours when I had a dengue fever rash that covered my entire body and as I cried alone in pain and frustration I kept reminding myself that this too will pass.
I had to learn a lot about pain, rest, asking for help, sabbaticals and self-care during my Cambodia years but especially so in the last two years. One picture that has really comforted me this year has been of God’s hands holding me in this dark vacuum as I feel like I’m falling. He has got me. You might not be religious, but I’m sharing that picture in case it offers you some comfort.
One more thing. When all the things that you rely on to keep you happy are stripped away, if you can, do one thing each day FOR YOU that you enjoy, whether it’s quilting, DIY, reading a book, burning onions, binge-watching a TV series, talking to the guinea pigs. That’s self-care. Do the things you have to do too. And remember. This too will pass.
Many, many years ago, before I moved out to Cambodia, when cooking was a still a delight, I half-jokingly set myself a target. When I could master not burning onions and garlic whilst cooking, I would apply for the TV show Masterchef.
Well, I still burn onions. A couple of weeks ago, I cooked Bon Appetit’s mushroom carbonara for my mum. It was my third time making this recipe. When I asked her what she thought of it, she, ever truthful, asked me, “Was it burnt?” I related this story to some friends last night and they were taken aback. “How can you still be burning onions?” And not only them. My Cambodian friends couldn’t understand how I could cook onions and garlic to an acrid black. To them it was elementary: it’s about heat control. Clearly I’m still a novice at it. In my 6 years in Cambodia, I may have learned how to pound Cambodian curry pastes, bake the softest Texan cinnamon rolls, work with pastry at 32°c but I still burn onions.
When I recently moved back to the UK from Cambodia, there was only one thing really that I wanted to do. That was to learn how to cook again.
I write recent but I moved back mid October and now its mid March, so it’s been 5 months. Still, it feels recent to me. Committing to living back in the UK again has been hard. It’s not because I don’t like being in the UK: I’ve written about how I welcomed its bracing winds when I’ve escaped hot season in Cambodia and how I missed my family. Rather, it’s because I thoroughly loved living my life in ‘the Penh’, as we, expats, affectionately nicknamed Phnom Penh. I miss my friends, my apartment, my teaching job, my baking business, my running group, my CrossFit gym… Notice how I preface them all with ‘my’. I owned it. They were pieces of a bigger jigsaw that was ME in Cambodia. Now in the midst of transition, walking on this unsteady bridge of one life left and the other yet to start, I miss the security of it. However, I’ve gone off on a tangent and I won’t write about why I left just yet. I’d rather share with you the reason why I’m back blogging again.
So back to burning onions and the only thing I really wanted to do when I came back was to learn to cook again. A friend of mine, Caralyn, suggested that I start writing on my blog again. I had been rewatching BBC’s Sherlock and in that first episode, John Watson is encouraged by his therapist to write a blog. She promises that it will help. I read elsewhere that it can indeed help for reflecting and thinking about what happened, and what lies ahead. So the plan is that I’ll tell you about bits of life and recipes that I didn’t have time to share with you when I lived in Cambodia. Because, as it turns out, teaching full-time, volunteering at a local Cambodian church and running a little baking business on the side clocks a lot of hours! As I do so, I’m hoping that this exercise in remembering will help me to record snapshots of life in Cambodia, but also the transition to being back in the UK. Besides, I know I enjoy this kind of writing – posts about food and poetry about everyday life, like mosquitoes!
Whenever Pancake Day comes around, I remember my friend Sarah of the chocolate macarons and the white chocolate, cardamon and rosewater cake. We cooked and hosted many a pancake evening for friends, church small group, and parties. She’d make the pancake batter. I would cook the pancakes. We were the pancake dream team. So you’d understand why, for years, I had no need for a pancake recipe. This was compounded because Sarah never used measurements. “You just mix flour, milk and eggs until it’s just the right consistency.”
Then when I moved to Cambodia five years ago, French Esther was the resident pancake/crepe queen. She followed a recipe of sorts and shared it with me once. I wrote it on the tiles of my kitchen, but when I moved the recipe was wiped away.
Just so that we’re clear. I’m talking about English pancakes here. Not the fluffy North American variety or the Scottish drop scone cousin, Scotch pancakes. On Shrove Tuesday, I’m a fan of the traditional thin, light, slightly crispy, English pancake, drizzled with lemon juice and sprinkled with brown sugar.
Then, last year, after decades of cooking pancakes, suddenly I realised that I did not know how to make the pancake batter and the traditionalist in me wasn’t going to intuitively make them as the others had. So, I looked up Delia and we had pancakes.
Except I chose to use my bamix mixer to make them. Why not? If you have a food processor, it’s much quicker to put all the ingredients into one and process it until you have a smooth batter. It takes a bit longer if you want to do it by hand, using a whisk. I’ve included the instructions, having followed both methods.
In Delia’s original recipe she adds 2 tablespoons of melted butter to the batter. I’ve looked up why one should add butter to the pancake batter. (Sarah nor Esther ever did.) Felicity Cloake tried it and says it gives a better tasting pancake but in the end decided to cook the pancakes in the melted butter rather than adding it to the batter. I have a theory that it’s to use up/add more fat, as Shrove Tuesday is the day to use up fat before the start of Lent. Rather than add butter to the batter, I prefer to use whole milk to add richness. And controversially, perhaps, I eschew cooking the pancakes in any fat. I like to use a small good non-stick frying pan, set it on a moderate heat, swirl in just enough of my batter so that it covers the frying pan and gently cook my pancakes on it until there are bubbles forming on the bottom and it comes away easily from the pan. Flip it over, anyway that you like, cook it on the other side for another minute or two and you’ll have good, thin, crispy English style pancakes. I find by cooking it like this, I rarely have that dud first pancake that has to be thrown away.
Then all you have left to do is choose your favourite toppings, et voila. Munch away.
Here are the pancakes, adapted from Delia, this will make about 14-16 pancakes.
110g plain flour
pinch of salt
2 large eggs
275ml whole milk
Put all the ingredients into a food processor or a blender. Blitz up until smooth. Alternatively to make them with a whisk, put the flour and salt in a medium sized bowl. Add in the eggs, as you whisk them in the flour, slowly add the milk until you get a smooth mixture, the consistency of cream. It’s ready to use immediately, or you can leave it to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. This also means that you could make the mixture beforehand so that it’s ready for a pancake party.
Using a small non-stick frying pan, use a moderate to high heat and pour just enough batter into the pan, swirling it around so that it covers the pan. (I’ve linked this to a video but it takes some time to load up.) Gently cook the pancake until small bubbles form on the bottom and it comes away easily from the pan. Flip it over, anyway that you like, cook it on the other side for another minute or two and serve.
If you want to get started on pancakes before your eating companions arrive, then keep them warm in the oven. I stack them on a plate and cover with foil before putting them in a warm oven, which is set at a low temperature.
I meant to publish this recipe a few months ago, but I didn’t have the photos ready. I still don’t have the perfect photo sequence for how to make these cookies. But it’s the middle of the Open and these cookies were thought up between a few crossfitters so better like this than never, right? Besides, what better timing than the middle of the CrossFit Open Games to tell you how I got started on CrossFit and baking paleo cookies.
I started CrossFit in February last year. I had been given a tough teaching schedule at my school and they weren’t letting me push back on it. As I despaired, I felt God say to me, “Han-Na, you’re stronger than you think you are.” Since I often experience God in physical activities, I decided to also translate that into trying out CrossFit to see how strong I was. This was after months of pushing back on my coaches because I was very happy in the Bootcamp classes and not interested in getting stronger.
Pretty soon, it was clear to my coaches, that I had the potential to lift heavy weights. I, on the other hand, intimidated by lifting anything vaguely heavy and the technicalities of the lifts, really did not enjoy the barbell work for the first few months. Not long ago, one of them encouraged me, as I was going for my 1 rep front squat max, that I had the ideal physique of a squatter. I’m not entirely sure what he means by that, do you? Still, I managed 72kg that day, which I was delighted with.
Then one day, one of my coaches asked me when I was going to bake some paleo cookies for her. I told her that Christina (of Joyfully Nutty) and I had just been talking about how to use cashew almond nut butter in baked goods and so why not try them in a cookie.
So, thank you Minna and the CrossFit community for pushing us into trying to make these paleo cookies.
I use the Dazed and Cashewed, cashew almond nut butter from Joyfully Nutty. You could make these with a cashew nut butter or an almond nut butter, it comes down to preference. I went off the back of Julie Wampler’s recipe from Table for Two, and experimented with reducing and changing the sugar to make it suitably paleo. I was also baffled as to whether palm sugar is paleo or not. It would appear that the paleo community embrace coconut sugar but differ on palm sugar. The little personal research that I’ve done suggests that palm sugar is produced in the same way as coconut sugar, and therefore is paleo.
Then I discovered this delightful nugget. With the addition of different spices, I could halve the sugar or omit the sugar completely and they would still result in tasty ‘sweet’ morsels, that are soft yet chewy. Curious, I tried a sugar free version, which admittedly, is more delicate and will thus crumble more easily, but because there’s a lot of dark chocolate, you hardly notice that the sugar is gone.
Top tip: by adding spices, you can reduce or omit the sugar.
I believe that you could make these vegan by replacing the egg with flaxseed or chia seed but I’ve yet to try it.
Baking these is a cinch (read the method below), which is another reason why I like them. You want to satisfy that cookie craving but don’t have to wait 24 hours to rest the cookie dough. From start to finish, you could be sitting down with a cookie (or twelve) in 30 minutes, or less.
So here is the Dark Chocolate Cashew Almond Butter Cookies, adapted from Table for Two.
Makes between 12-14 cookies
1 large egg
60g palm sugar (*optional)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp turmeric
250g cashew almond nut butter
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
100g dark chocolate*, broken into chunks. Or you could use dark chocolate chips. I use small round discs of chocolate.
*use one that is at least 65%.
Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF or gas mark 4. Line a large baking tray (or two depending on size) with baking paper.
Whisk the egg, sugar, salt, cinnamon and turmeric together in a small mixing bowl.
Add in the cashew almond nut butter and the bicarbonate of soda and mix until it is all combined.
Stir in the dark chocolate.
Place generous tablespoon dollops (sort of ping pong ball sized) of the cookies on the baking tray. I use a 1½tbsp cookie scoop for the sake of ease now.
Bake in the middle rack of the oven for 12-15 mins, or 10-12 mins in a fan oven.
They will have puffed up a bit and be lightly golden brown in colour. As they cool they will collapse slightly into themselves. At this point, I like to place a chocolate disc on top of each cookie because I like how it looks. Allow them to cool completely on the baking tray and then store them in an airtight container.
In Cambodia’s humid climate, they’ll keep outside the fridge for about 3-4 days. I normally store them in the fridge and they’ll happily chill out there for 2 weeks. Or they freeze well. But you know, they’re pretty tasty straight out of the freezer too.
The verdict? You’d never know that this was a gluten free, dairy free cookie. Soft in texture and rich in flavour. I get orders for these, with sugar, without sugar, without chocolate… hehe. So you know that they’re customisable. I like them as a pre-workout snack. I also like them because it’s such an easy recipe.
As you know, I live in Cambodia. Since the birth of my nephew, anytime I visit the UK, I’ve taken to spending a couple of weeks at my sister’s and hanging out with my nephew (and my sister and brother-in-law). This time at 18 months old, it was an absolute delight to see more of his wee personality coming out. Thoughtful, inclusive, at times ever so sweet, commanding, wanting to be helpful and involved, he made us laugh A LOT. So I wrote this poem to capture this moment in his development.
I’m 18 months and I can do that too
I can do that too,
I’m 18 months old.
I can feed myself.
I have my own bowl, plate and hands.
“HhUM”, I say, when I want something you offer me.
“Kh-heese” is my favourite.
You’ve given me a fork and spoon?
I know what they are.
Mess makers on my face and floor.
“No.” I don’t need your help for that.
Nor when I compose on the keyboard
with my knees and palms.
I’m being post structuralist.
Stay 2 feet away from me.
I can get my shoes and bring your trainers too,
So that we can all go outside.
And I know which direction our walk should take.
We’ll walk past “mee-Ow”
Climb up ‘big step’. “o-Oh” and gingerly go
down them. Walk over black and white stripes.
‘run run run run run’
On our way to the
“Ddu- Ddu-” that go “wak-wak”.
“Ball” is my favourite game.
When I wake up, “ball” is where I run to.
I have three officially.
But a tangerine or a stacking up cup works too.
If you throw “ball” to me, I will like you.
But when you throw it on your head,
I’ll scrunch up my eyes and laugh
when it hits my head too.
I love to play with “ball” so much.
Going outside to play,
Wrapped up in my thick coat and wellies makes me happy.
I’m a good kicker. Everyone tells me,
‘Good job.’ ‘Well done.’ when I send the ball to them.
I get upset when –
I don’t understand why – “ball” runs away,
like it doesn’t want to play with me.
Uh huh uh huh HUH HUH HUH.
I make my ee-mo* run and kick it back to me.
“Der” I point to the big screen.
Why watch it on your small phone
When it’s better bigger?
Cast it “Der!”
The music makes my legs
jump and arms wave.
I love it more when we dance together.
I’ve been watching you.
How you do it.
And I can do that too.
*ee-mo: 이모 in Korean. Translates as aunt in English. This is the basic form for what you call your mother’s sisters. Your father’s sisters are addressed as 고모 (go-mo). Ah, *rueful smile* – the specificity of korean titles. For a more detailed overview on the Korean family and kinship terms, check out this blog post on the talking cupboard.
I never knew that fruit cake could be offensive. That is, until Kiley, an American friend of mine, explained that in the U.S, there’s this tradition that people tend to ‘re-gift’ fruit cakes because they don’t like fruit cakes. Hence those receiving the cake are kind of being told, “Here I’ve brought you a cake. I mean, I don’t like it and someone gave it to me. I guess you probably won’t like it too but hey, now it’s your problem. And no, I didn’t like what you got up to at the office party.” Hence, there’s offence in the giving and receiving of fruit cakes in the States.
Not so in the UK. I mean, some Brits really dislike fruit cake and would spit it out. However, most like to eat fruit cake at any given time, from celebrating marriage with a rich boozy fruited wedding cake covered in marzipan and icing to the everyday cup of tea with a sticky slice of fruited malt loaf. Shall I even mention Christmas cakes, Easter simnel cakes, Dundee cake..? My mum used to make a fruited tea loaf which was delicious when toasted and buttered.
Perhaps (if I may venture a guess without causing offence) this clear cultural divide over fruit cake is because the majority of Americans have never experienced a good moist fruit cake? I can relate! I never really enjoyed eating fruit cake very much either growing up. Much like how I didn’t really enjoy mince pies. Too rich, too sweet, too dry, too much whiskey! But I tolerated them because they were synonymous with Christmas. I’d peel off the royal icing, give it to my brother and nibble away at the marzipan (which I loved even as a small child). Sometimes I picked out the fruit when there was too much of it and the dried fruit was really dry and almost bitter. Or the alcohol overwhelmed the cake. But, from time to time, a homemade fruit cake would redeem all the bad ones for me.
Then one day at Mrs Milne’s* house, she gave us a slice of her christmas cake. Oh it was glorious in it’s moistness, flavour and simplicity. Not overly sweet. No royal icing. No marzipan. No alcohol in this one either. Just. a. naked. fruit. cake. Mrs Milne told us that it was the addition of pineapple that set this cake apart, and I believe her. Whenever I’ve used pineapples in a cake, they often impart moisture, rather than pineapple flavour to a cake.
Now, over a decade later, it’s still my go-to fruit cake recipe. I used it as my marathon training cake this time. It seemed apt to fuel up on. I left it a couple of weeks in a sealed container in the fridge while I went on holiday to Penang and 4 weeks on, it was still moist and moreish. I baked it for Christmas for Paul, one of my colleagues, because he’d been hankering after fruit cake for as long as I’d worked with him. 3 months on, he still requests I bake him one, once a fortnight, and then complains that he can’t stop himself devouring it. He likes royal icing but not marzipan, so that’s how I make it for him.
What I love about this recipe is the lack of planning required. See, I just can’t be bothered with the whole affair of soaking and feeding the fruit weeks or even days in advance. I don’t have the fridge space for it and I definitely don’t want to leave it out for the ants, cockroaches and rats now that I live in the tropics. I can pretty much make this cake from start to finish within 2-3 hours, depending on which cake tin I use. (more on that below). And now that I can source almost all of the dried fruit here in Phnom Penh, there’s nothing stopping me making this cake all year round. I still have difficulty finding mixed citrus peel and currants, but it’s so much better compared to 3 years ago. You can buy bags of mixed dried fruit in Thai Huot but they look weird with chopped red and green cherries perhaps? So I came up with my own measurements, based on looking at the proportions of the ingredients of a Sainsburys bag of mixed dried fruit.
Anyway, what’s stopping you. Go on, I dare you not to like this.
If you do add brandy, or whiskey… Then do tell me what you did. I’ve never bothered, but I might like to one day.
*Mrs Milne was my singing teacher from when I was 14-18 and one of those wonderful, life-giving, energetic, charismatic, generous Scottish women. I don’t know where she got this recipe from, so I attribute this recipe to her.
Ingredients for Naked Christmas Cake from Mrs Milne.
7oz/200g plain flour
3 tsp baking powder
8oz/225g tin crushed pineapple (drained) or 1 fresh small pineapple, skin and eyes taken off. One weighs between 250-300g here in Cambodia.
2oz/50g glacé cherries, quartered
5oz/150g butter, cubed and softened
4½oz/125g soft dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
12oz/350g mixed fruit or
170g sultanas or golden raisins, as they’re called in Cambodia
68g black raisins
50g mixed peel
Brandy if required.
Chop up the pineapple* very finely and put it into a medium sized bowl. I guess you could also blitz it in a food processor for speed, but I don’t have one so it’s a knife and the chopping board for me. *If using tinned pineapple, drain the crushed pineapple first before putting it in the bowl.
Measure out the dried fruit and add them to the pineapple. If you’re going to add brandy, then add it in now. Give it all a good stir so that they mix well. Leave it as you get on with the rest of preparation. As the dried fruit sits with the pineapple, they’ll get a chance to plump up as they soak in the liquid.
Preheat the oven to 160ºC/320ºF/Gas Mark 2½. Prepare your cake tin. Because of the long baking time, I wrapped the outside of my baking tin with newspaper, tied it up with some string. I also lined the bottom and sides of my cake tin as well.
Measure out the flour in a medium sized bowl and add the chopped glacé cherries to the flour and coat them in flour. This helps the cherries not to all sink to the bottom of the cake.
Cream together the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. I use a hand mixer on high speed for about 5 minutes. Next beat in the eggs one by one. Then lower the speed and mix in the flour with the cherries. Finally, add the fruit. You can continue with the hand mixer, or using a spatula, fold in the fruit or give it a good stir. Whichever way you choose, make sure it’s evenly mixed in.
Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and level the top with the back of metal spoon or the spatula. Then pop it in the middle shelf of the oven and bake… I do recommend checking on the cake to make sure it doesn’t burn on top. I’ve put suggested timings below according to cake tin sizes.
I have used various sized cake tins to make this and of course the baking time differs.
8 or 7 inch tin = 1hour 45mins. Check on it at 1 hour 15mins
split the mixture into two 6inch tin = 1 h – 1h 15mins. Check on it at 45 mins
split the mixture into two 2lb loaf tins = 45mins-1hour. Check on it at 40 mins.
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!