A layover date, maybe.

Back when a long layover meant that you could leave the airport, explore the city outside and go on a date, maybe.

A layover date, maybe

The waiter looks at the guy that I’m
sort of dating to solicit our breakfast order.
“Soondubu seh-geh ju-se-yo.”
He pivots to my voice.
The shock ripples through his body .
 
Later, “Your Korean is very good.”
but I know it isn’t perfect. 
“Thank you.  I am Korean.”
The disbelief on his face does not leave,
while our party goes
 
Where to next?
Coffee? A hot drink?
A coffee stall pops up on our wanderings.
“Kuh-pee-lah-tay, kah-poo-chi-no.”
I sound out the Korean aloud and then realise that it is
latte and cappuccino, written in Hangul.
 
Our group laughs.  But when I order
I am careful to pronounce it in the written Hangul way.
No queries or raised eyebrows about my
mispronunciation please.
 
I guide them to Gyeongbokgung palace
to gawk at the queues waiting to have their photos taken with hanbok wearers;
to wander the courtyards in the biting October rain;
to peer into the inner lives of the royals, now dead;
to play tourist.
 
We sit in the garden overlooking a lake.
I close my eyes and ears to the present
and imagine the past relived.
I wonder aloud at how restricted
the royal princesses’ lives would have been within these walls.
Out and in with another thought.
Were the lives of their counterpart sisters
outside of the palace any better?
 
Which would I have chosen 200 years ago?
Life inside this box or not?
 
Our stomachs growl that we have one more stop.
Gwangjang food market.
My phone contains a list
of stall numbers and names of foods foreign to me.
I trust my dad’s recommendations,
ask directions from strangers,
navigate through the noise
Everywhere, metal on metal
Chopping, scraping,
Chattering, shouting,
Biting into kimbap rolls, I silently peruse our group.
Do we stand out?
 
It is nearly time for the layover to end.
I hail a cab. “Suh-ool yeok.”
The driver asks me where we are all from.
Khmer-American, Polish-Canadian, a white guy
from the plane who my maybe boyfriend brought along, and me
Scottish Korean.  And I say, “Three of us live in Cambodia.”
 
I belong here, with this nomadic crowd. 
Exact origins unknown.
Forever a tourist, never a local.
Always a traveller going through.
hanbok wearers at Gyeongbokgung Palace
마약김밥: the kimbap rolls aka mayak kimbap

Measuring Cups or Scales? Please can we be more measured

‘I hate cups!‘ is how I began this post in a fit of frustration. I was trying to follow a recipe from the Cook’s Cook which had provided their cup measurements and the volume so had written 59ml (1/4 cup) of flour. Who weighs out 59ml of flour? What would have been more helpful would have been to write it as 1/4 cup (30g) of flour. Either they don’t understand the concept of measuring scales or they were trying to add precision to using cups.

Before I start explaining my irritation with cups, however, I’d like to be more measured (pun very much intended 😉) and state that I do see the value in using cups.  When I’m measuring out rice, I like using the cup measure that comes with the rice cooker because it’s quicker and much more convenient.  The same goes with other dried grains and pulses, such as lentils and barley.  Furthermore, as cups measure by volume, I don’t mind using them to measure out liquids.  It’s worth noting here that US cups measure 240ml whereas Australian, Canadian and South African cups measure 250ml. This is something that Caroline, one of my Australian friends highlighted to me.

In addition, say a recipe asks for a tablespoon or three of flour or sugar, it doesn’t bother me much either. Normally it seems to appear more in cooking recipes rather than baking. Thus, even though the same inaccuracies will happen, I have less of an aversion to some measurements in tablespoons and teaspoons, apart from butter! Sticks of butter didn’t make any sense to me until I baked in America and saw how butter is packaged into sticks and each stick is divided into tablespoons. By the way, one stick of butter is 4oz/113g/8tbsp.

From that experience, I also realised that many households may not own kitchen scales and therefore use cups. For most of the years that I lived in Cambodia it was difficult to buy kitchen scales to measure smaller measurements, although the big ones that market sellers used to sell their produce were abundant. Thus once again, cups were used. Forewarned, I packed kitchen scales with me when I moved out there. I knowingly admit that growing up, in the UK, using scales influences my views on the cups vs measuring scales debate. I hate measurements in cups in baking because there are such disparities in the measurements in a matter that does require consistency and a level of precision.

My heart sinks when I see recipes with a list of the ingredients in cups because inevitably I will look up various conversion tables to adapt the recipe into grams and revisit that familiar feeling of resentment and annoyance when the web throws up differing measurements.  Look let me give you an example of the inconsistencies on the web when it comes to volume and weight conversions.  In the UK Doves Farm website they say that 1 cup of brown sugar is 180g whereas in the US King Arthur baking website they state it is 213g.  At this point, I probably trust a US website to translate it from cups to grams for me because in the King Arthur table they know to specify that this is packed brown sugar and thus displays their greater experience of baking using volume rather than weights. But do you see the difference? ‘So what?’ perhaps you’re asking, ‘what is in 33g?’ Okay, so what? Well, let’s multiply this number when a recipe asks for 2 or 3 cups of brown sugar. I’ve illustrated the difference in a table below:

No. of cupsDoves FlourKing ArthurDifference
in weight
2 cups360g426g66g
3 cups540g639g99g

66g or almost 100g makes a big difference in the taste and texture of what you’re baking and it can be the difference of whether you have enough of an ingredient when nearing the bottom of a bag. At this point, to be fair, I’d also be questioning why there needs to such a high amount of sugar and whether I’ll reduce it to prevent future me from developing type 2 diabetes. So, why am I quibbling about it?

Well my second point is about wanting clarity and precision, particularly when trying out a new recipe. I know that there is a knack to using cups with flour and sugar to do with a little shake to let the flour settle and using a knife to run over the top to level it.  Even when I do that, I find it irritatingly inconsistent.  Clearly I am not a pro at it. To add an added element of difficulty, different cooks measure their cups differently and how am I to know what a cup of flour weighs for them? It’s a bit of a lottery whether I’ll guess it correctly. Here’s the proof. At Lunar New Year, I was trying to make steamed buns and I decided to follow Maangchi’s jjinbang recipe and method which asks for 3.5 cups of flour and 1.5 cups of milk. Using both the Doves Farm and King Arthur tables, which agreed with each other, I converted that into 420g. However, it turned into such a wet, sticky dough, reminiscent of a ciabatta dough, and nothing like the photos of her dough, that I decided that there was no way I’d be able to shape it into buns with cute ox faces on them and then steam them. So then I added some more flour to make it a firmer dough but either that is never a remedy or I didn’t add enough. In the end, I relinquished that dough to bake into a tasty focaccia style bread, turned to What to Cook Today’s Year of the Ox steamed bun recipe and started a new dough. She also specifies a total of 2 cups plus 11 tablespoons of flours and 2/3 cup of milk but I didn’t get irritated because she also gives the weight in grams. A smooth, pliable dough formed and I made steamed baozi buns for the first time. I’ve posted the photos of the end result of both doughs at the end of this post.

Interestingly I came across this golden nugget of information in Maangchi’s Hotteok filled with vegetables video beginning at 3mins 11secs onwards when she weighs her cup of flour and it is 5oz or 156g. I will keep this in mind when I use her recipes. By the way, King Arthur and Doves Farm Flour weigh 1 cup of flour as 120g. So I guess then going back her jjimbang recipe that her 3.5 cups of flour = 546g, and not 420g. *Big sigh* Now we’re back to my rant about big discrepancies.

Sidenote: I’m considering blogging a monthly post with my cooking/baking failures, mistakes and disasters that happened that month. Would you be up for that?

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.

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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.

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