Lockdown Hair: #growingoutaPixieCut

When are the hairdressers going to be allowed to reopen? What am I going to do about my hair?

I heard this a lot during the 12 week lockdown earlier this year. It appears that managing our hair growth was something all of us bonded over during lockdown. I think that I’m not alone in wanting to have hairdressers classed as essential services that can continue to stay open if we go into tighter restrictions, or dare I say, another national lockdown.

Perfect hairstyle in a tropical climate

By the way, I don’t normally like to post photos of myself on my blog, but I’ve taken the plunge for this post because I couldn’t see a way out of it. Anyway, this is me in my final few weeks as I’m having one of my goodbye *sob sob* lunches with friends. I think I’d recently had a hair cut.

About 4 years into living in Cambodia, I was finally brave enough to get a pixie cut.

It turned out to be perfect for life in a tropical climate, albeit at that point viewed upon as an unusual hairstyle for a female. In Cambodia, there is a custom of shaving one’s head when there has been a terrible tragedy. Normally you’d see the eldest in the family do this when there had been a death in the family. Thus when some of my Khmer friends saw my pixie cut for the first time, they thought that I had received some awful news and was very upset. Not so. There’s an interesting cross-cultural difference titbit for you.

growing out a pixie cut

I was still pretty attached to my pixie cut after I left Cambodia. It was one of the ways I could hold onto a remnant of me in Cambodia. Nonetheless, come May 2020, I asked on Instagram:

‘This is annoying. Maybe it’s time to cut my fringe myself or shall I endure growing it out?’

Most replied: grow it out.

Then in June 2020, I wrote a little ode to my pixie cut, which I’ve revised a little here.

Dear Pixie Cut,

Dear Pixie Cut,
It’s been a long time since we saw a hairdresser.
Now you tuft out at the back,
You get in my face when we run,
We can’t decide what to do about the fringe,
And you tuck beautifully behind my ears.

Is it time for us to part, move on and let you grow out?

Can I hold onto you for one last cut?

Finally it's a bob

In July, I was finally able to book an appointment with the hairdresser. I wrote a haiku.

4 months in lockdown.
#Growingoutapixiecut
Turned into a bob.

Yes, I decided the time had come to say goodbye. And honestly, I was alright with it. Time, eh. There’s no substitute for it being a healer.

By the way, are hashtags in poems allowed? Are they a thing?

How to stay motivated whilst job hunting: the points system

Edit 3 days later: almost immediately after I pressed publish, I wanted to amend the title to, Staying Motivated whilst job hunting. My way of acknowledging that this is but one method, amongst many.

“How many points do I get for a pre-interview task?” I asked this question to my flatmate, colleagues and sister yesterday. “1.5”, “10”, “more than for an application”, “I don’t know, you decide” were the varying responses that I received.

I like things to be fun. I find that harder, more difficult tasks and times are more bearable when there is laughter. And job hunting in Covid-19 times is tricky and admittedly, depressing.

When I got back from Cambodia last October, I didn’t want to start looking for work straightaway. My right foot and leg were still causing me significant pain, I was emotionally and physically exhausted and grieving the loss of my life in Phnom Penh. I allowed myself time off to grieve and transition, and promised my mum that I would start job hunting after Christmas.

By that time, I had read Don’t Send a CV, that promised to give me a unique, winning strategy for getting the job I’ve always wanted. The author is American and his advice may be more suitable in a corporate setting or in the US. However, to be honest, I didn’t find the 44 chapters helpful, apart from two things. Firstly, it is always worth making an enquiry and secondly, as job hunting is a slog, he recommended a points system to keep you motivated.

I adapted it to suit me. Points mean prizes and prizes means that it’s a game. Did I mention that I like things to be fun? I also like rewards.

I’ve shared it with a few of colleagues because it helps to keep me motivated. I don’t know about yours, but my industry (English Language Teaching and Higher Education) has been hit hard by Covid-19.

I’m sharing it more widely because it’s not just us, English Language teachers, who are flooding the job market. If this is one way that helps you to keep going, then job done (no pun intended). Whatever it takes to get over the finish line, right?

1 point – finding a job opportunity (or lead as the author put it)
2 points – making an enquiry
3 points – making an application
4 points – interview
5 points – job offer or rejection*

The aim is to get 3-5 points everyday. That’s a realistic goal. I decided that you accumulate points, which you can spend on rewards. Points can rollover too, so if you apply to 7 jobs over 5 days (21 points), you could take two days off job hunting the following week. Remember it’s a marathon, so pacing yourself is important. Try it out for at least 2 weeks and see how you get on.

*Joe and Sarah reminded me that back in the day, I’d devised a simpler points system for job hunting which I’d shared with Sarah to encourage her. Rejections generated points: it helps those, like me, who may be put off putting in an application because of a dislike or fear of anticipated future rejection and failure.

I used it in my January job hunting cycle. I accumulated a total of 61 points, which I redeemed on cinema trips. I got my current job, which is just about to end. Let’s not discuss short-term contracts in academia right now.

This time, two weeks into job hunting, my current tally is 57 points. I don’t want to go to the cinema to redeem my points this time; I’d rather go on holiday. Between my friends and I, we’ve agreed that it is 50 points for a UK-based holiday and 100 points to go abroad.

So, how many points do you think I should get for a pre-interview task?

In the end, I decided that a pre-interview task is worth 4 points because it’s normally part of the interview. I’m wondering whether in these peculiar times, universities and perhaps other companies, are using it now as part of the process of shortlisting candidates, as they are being inundated with applications.

A recent early dawn photo from my room. I lose sleep when I’m stressed. Job hunting during these times is stressful.

Peace, a haiku, a run and a prayer during Covid-19 disruption

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.

My struggle with the cold.

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.

Some of the trees I would talk to

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.

Peace

Piece by piece, step by
Step. What was overwhelming
Becomes breathable

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.

I still burn onions

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!

Evidence of my burnt mushroom carbonara dinner offering

The second time I made the mushroom carbonara, I scrambled the eggs. I didn’t burn the mushrooms but I forgot to add the onions.

 

#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.

13451089_10157016241755052_906110127_n
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.

Please check your feed, the data was entered incorrectly.

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.

Hello, remember me?

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

I’m sorry.

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

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

The beginning: beef rib bones to make a stock

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

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

beef stock
The finished product: rich beef stock

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

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

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

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

Gasping

Talk about ghosts of the past. I found this poem biding it’s time in my drafts folder while I was looking for a creative piece of writing. It’s for an anthology that Catalyst are putting together this year. The anthology looks like an exciting creative project.

Can I share a secret with you?  I’m a wee bit nervous about posting this poem.  See, I’ve posted some poems in past. However, this is the first posting of any very personal poetry that I’ve written.  And I’ve gone and written one about love, of all things!

Well, this poem is unpolished. It’s raw. It’s unsophisticated.  I tidied it up a bit when I reread it.  And yet, I think I want to keep it in this form. I keep being reminded of how much I love poetry for being a medium to express emotion in such an honest way.  When I read it now, it takes me right back to the moment when I wrote it. I was trying to work through some issues *laughter* – there’s an understatement – of an unrequited love and an unresolved relationship.

Perhaps, you’ll empathise a little with the pain too.

Gasping

Time has rewritten the history of you.
You are no longer the hand that squeezed my heart
And gripped it, tight.

In fact, my face turned blue
And I felt nothing, for 5 years
I felt nothing. Comatose.

How did I describe it before?
Ah yes. Like I was frozen.
Not all of me.

Just that part of me that falls in love,
And notices the little cobwebs that grow around one’s eyes.
I wanted it to be
someone else’s eyes.

How can I explain it?
Like my heart had been put on hold. A pause button
You pressed.
No, I had let you press
When I couldn’t let go of that idea of us.

Get it?
Pretty good effort from an asphyxiated girl.

Reprieve came with your questions.
Those shock pads that you jollily jumped me with.

(See. You had claim to my frozen heart.
But my lungs were mine and had just been sucked of dreams.
Gasping. That’s when you shocked me.)

It’s summer and there’s somebody else.
He may not fancy me.
But I don’t care. My heart is free from you.

We’re crossing paths again. And,
Suddenly, you’ve become this figure in my future.
And in 30 days when we meet

I want to be “just friends”.
I need to dismantle “us”.
I wish I knew how this poem ends.
I want to know how this poem ends.

Time had written you out of my heart.
But I’ve found the ghost of you lurking and

I don’t how to –

Keep the cold out.

Making mincemeat of khmer (and two suet free mincemeat recipes)

Ha! If only.  It’s more like I’m butchering the language, particularly since I’ve been away from Cambodia for almost 3 weeks.  But, indulge me in my choice of slightly obscure title.  When I came up with it before Christmas, it seemed like the perfect lead into giving you an update on my language learning and include a Christmas mincemeat recipe, or two, at the same time.  Then my NZ holiday scuppered the timings, ever so slightly…

Mincemeat v.1

Well, 3 months into learning khmer and my efforts have been paying off to varying degrees of success.  It’s nice to get comments from people who kindly tell me that I speak khmer well, or that I know a lot. I realise that we are generally our worst critics when we are learning language, but honestly, their feedback couldn’t feel further from the truth.  I make a lot of Khmers laugh at how I trip over words, mix up words that sound similar (think bye and bike), struggle with the pronunciation of peculiar sounds that are foreign to the english and korean tongue.  To illustrate the kinds of mistakes that I’ve made, look below:

mürl (10 000) and mürn (to watch)
toe’it (small) and doe’it (similar/like)
ban cha’oo (Vietnamese pancake) and ban ???? I still don’t know what it is that I say.  But when I say it, it’s a swear word apparently. Can you imagine how nervous I am about asking for one from a seller?

It’s not just the laughs that make language learning so enjoyable. I think that I’ve said before how I’m really enjoying learning this very literal language. The other day, I learnt that the khmer for the colour burgundy is poah chreuk chee’um. The literal translation is ‘the colour of pig’s blood’; not quite as majestic sounding as burgundy, the word we use to describe a regal red colour!

IMG_3713

More recently, my improved language skills has meant that more and more Khmers feel able to have a ‘proper’ conversation with me.  Unfortunately, I only understand 50% of what they are saying!  So, I have to make up the rest of what they have said because I don’t want to break the flow of the conversation.  As you can imagine, this could lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.   I think that the real problem is with me not wanting to lose face.  I’ve been doing this in korean for such a long time that it’s become some sort of default setting in me.  In korean, we call this pretending, 아는척 – ah-neun-chug.  

Some people are much braver than me and stop to clarify meaning.  I’m going to have to adopt some of their bravery to force myself out of this habit.  You’ll have to imagine my big sigh, just now, in this realisation and resolution.

tart, tart, granny apples in the absence of cooking apples

Nevertheless, even with all my bad behaviour and language, the Friday before Christmas, I sat an exam, passed and graduated from the Survival Khmer language course. Hurrah! So, I celebrated by getting on a plane and going on holiday to New Zealand for a few weeks! Yeah 🙂 because that’ll really consolidate my language learning!

The all important lime zest and lime juice!

But my time here isn’t all about language learning is it?  I bake a lot too.  Simon had asked me to make some Christmas refreshments and baking for the church’s Christmas service.  So, I made two versions of mincemeat based on the availability of ingredients I found, or lack thereof!  Andrew gave me this recipe and normally I make this recipe with sultanas, currants, citrus peel and most importantly fresh cranberries. But my efforts to locate any cranberries, fresh, dried or frozen, in Phnom Penh have yet to bear fruit. Pun unintended. 😛  Even with the deviation from the original recipe, these mincemeat recipes were a hit and I was asked for the recipe – particularly for version 2.

Throw all the ingredients into the bowl

And that was my astonishing discovery whilst recipe testing.  The vast majority of Khmers like mincemeat, even amongst children.  Of my Khmer taste testers,  I found that only 1 in 20 didn’t like how it tasted.  Is that the same in the UK too?  Have I been long under the wrong impression that 50% of UK population don’t like mincemeat?

Or is it, just that this is just one of the tastiest mincemeat recipes out there?  Lol.  I’ll let you decide in due course.

Mix it all together

I don’t use suet in these recipes.  Instead, I use grated apple to give moisture and bulk.  The advantages of this approach are that you don’t have to cook it and you can use it immediately.  Taste-wise, I think that it’s superb.  It’s fresh from the apples (it’s even better with the cranberries) and zingy from the limes.  The only spice I added was nutmeg.  The nutmeg I used was ground already and thus, I used more than I expected.  Using freshly, grated nutmeg will have a much stronger flavour so add to taste.  You could always add cinnamon, cloves or a hint of ginger.  In future versions, I would like to add some alcohol of a sort, like rum or brandy.  This time, however, I had a budget to stick to.

Jar of mincemeat

Ingredients for Mincemeat v.1
Makes about 650-700g

2 green apples, grated (preferably cooking apples, but any tart green apple will do)
150g seedless raisins
250g mixed dried fruit – the pack I found had glacé cherries, raisins and citrus peel
75g roughly chopped blanched almonds
60g dark brown sugar or muscovado sugar also works.  I used light brown sugar because that’s what I had then added 2 tbsp of dark brown sugar later for flavour.  If I made this again, I’d only use dark brown sugar.
Zest and juice of 1 or 2 limes, depending on their size
2 tbsp orange marmalade or 50g of chopped candied citrus peel
Ground nutmeg to taste – I added 1tbsp in the end but do add it 1 tsp at a time

Ingredients for Mincemeat v.2
Makes about 650-700g

2 green apples, grated (preferably cooking apples, but any tart green apple will do)
150g seedless raisins
150g mixed dried cambodian fruit – pineapple, papaya and mango
75g roughly chopped blanched almonds
50g sunflower seeds
60g dark brown sugar or muscovado sugar also works
Zest and juice of 1 or 2 limes, depending on size
2 tbsp orange marmalade
Ground nutmeg to taste – I added 1tbsp in the end but do add it 1 tsp at a time

Method
Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl.  You can use it straightaway or store in sterilised jars in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

Happy helpers learning how to make mince pies
Happy helpers learning how to make mince pies