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?

Fudgy Chocolate Brownies: infinitely adaptable

Experimenting with peanut butter and salted caramel brownies.
Experimenting with peanut butter and salted caramel brownies.

Recently, I was asked in an interview, “what do you contribute to a team?” The first thought that popped into my head was brownies. However, perhaps that wouldn’t be such a professional way to answer the question? So, instead I answered something about how I am a really good team player and the many different skills I’d bring to the team, rather than saying that my contribution is a baked sugar high laden with chocolate. I meant to mention my excellent brownies at the end as an aside, but I forgot.

Immediately once the interview was over and as I reflected on how it went, I wished that I had led with the brownies though because it would have revealed more of my true self. My flatmate and colleague concurred (now assigned to the status of previous flatmate and colleague: that teaching job contract having just ended and we’ve moved out). Though, we then agreed in the next breath that my crack cookies are my best work. So, another time, I’ll be that little bit braver, relax and say, “brownies and cookies.”

The first time that I made these during lockdown was at the beginning of marking many, many student essays whilst living at my sister’s. I’d broken a personal record and spent 5 hours on a paper, checking for plagiarism and looking up citations, and still hadn’t finished it when thoroughly fed up and discouraged, I decided to put it down until the next day. A WOD (workout of the day) with 100 burpees and an evening spent singing, baking these brownies put me in a better mood. I left it out on the side to cool down and develop even more flavour overnight. My sister said that her contribution to my happiness was not diving into them that night. I shared a photo of them on a work group chat and subsequently made friends with a colleague who wanted the recipe.

Pretty Raspberry Brownies
The raspberry burst brownies which fuelled the essay marking

Awkwardly, I didn’t have the recipe at hand to share. It lived in the form of an excel spreadsheet, a hangover from my baking business days. Instead, I sent her a link to my raspberry burst brownies and made a mental note that it was time to publish this recipe.

I created this recipe in Cambodia whilst supplying brownies for a cafe because I wanted to create a brownie with more height and volume that I could adapt with a variety of fillings, such as cheesecake and salted caramel. In addition, my usual go to, very easy brownie recipe which the raspberry burst brownies are adapted from suddenly stopped working for me after I upgraded my oven. They were coming out cakier. Some people prefer their brownie consistency like that but I much prefer them to be fudgier with that delightful cracked top. The timing of it might have been purely a coincidence and have nothing to do with me switching from one of these electric toaster ovens to a standing oven cooker. I’ve shared the only decent photo that I appear to have of my toaster oven for you. If you’ve always lived in the UK, then you may have no concept of what I’m talking about. In most parts of S.E Asia, ovens do not come standard in a furnished kitchen. This is the oven in which I began my baking business and I used it for the first 2 years. It only allowed me to do one tray of cookies, a cake or brownies at a time and by the end it wouldn’t heat above 150°C. When I moved and invested in a new oven, it was a game changer.

My toaster oven that lived on the floor
My toaster oven lived on the floor. I’m piping coconut churros.
my new oven
I moved apartment and my new oven fitted into this space perfectly. This was taken the day the oven was delivered and fitted. If you look carefully you can see I had to buy extra long wiring because the power socket was on the other side of the room.

Anyway, it gave me an excuse to try out a new brownie making method for me that I’d seen Ed Kimber use in this video in which you mix the eggs and sugar for about 10 minutes until they form into a ribbon stage (I’ve explained what ribbon stage is in step 4 of the method) and then add the melted chocolate and butter. Mixing the eggs and sugar for that long, creates volume and structure and I deduced, would help me create that dense fudgy consistency and crinkly top each time. It did. At the bottom of the post, I’ve also included for you, a few photos of the different flavours that I’ve played with and how I’ve adapted them.

I played around with the sugar quantity. Most brownie recipes ask for larger quantities of sugar, but I’ve always liked the challenge of seeing how little sugar I can add to baking and it still taste good. From experience, 150g is too little but anything between 200-230g is perfect. I’ll adapt it depending on the additional flavours I want to add. For example, with salted caramel, I use less because of the added sweetness from the caramel. With raspberry I use more to counteract the tartness of the raspberries.

Brownies components ready to mix together
All the components ready to mix together

I prefer to make these in a stand mixer using the whisk attachment because it is easier to leave the stand mixer running during the egg and sugar whisking part whilst getting on with other tasks, rather than holding an electric hand mixer for 10 minutes.

Top tip 1: if using an electric hand mixer, place a tea towel underneath the bowl to keep it stable and stop it moving around.

Top tip 2: once baked, leave these to cool down completely, cover and place in the fridge overnight. Not only will they taste better as the flavours mature and deepen, but they will also be cold. Cut them with a sharp knife and you’ll get those beautiful clean lines.

So here’s the recipe for the Infinitely Adaptable Fudgy Chocolate Brownies. They’ll make between 12-16 brownies or 20 mini brownie bites.

Ingredients

  • 150g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • 150g dark chocolate (at least 60%), broken up, roughly chopped
  • 3 large eggs
  • 200-230g caster sugar (depending on how sweet you’d like them and the additional flavours you want to add)
  • 100g plain flour
  • 20g cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp of salt
  • 1 tsp of vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp of instant coffee granules (optional) – I use it because it helps bring out the chocolate flavour
  • And then whatever flavours* you’d like to add, or not.

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/355°F/Gas Mark 4. Line a deep tin. For this quantity a 20cm square tin or a rectangular 27×20 or 28×18 will work.
  2. Melt the chocolate and butter together and just after it has melted, add in the salt, vanilla extract and the optional instant coffee granules and leave it on the side to cool down. There are various ways you can melt chocolate and butter.
    • The more cautious, ahem proper, approach is to use a bain marie, that is put the butter and dark chocolate in a heatproof bowl that can sit on top of a saucepan with simmering water. Make sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the hot water in the saucepan. Slowly melt the chocolate and stir regularly. This way you won’t burn the chocolate.
    • Another easier way is to use the microwave. Put chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl, place a paper kitchen towel on top of the bowl so that butter won’t pop out as it melts. Melt it in 20 second bursts, stirring each time.
    • My way, is to use a heavy bottomed saucepan. I put the chocolate and butter in it and melt it at a low heat, stirring regularly. I take it off, just as the last few chocolate/butter bits aren’t quite melted because they will melt in the residual heat of the saucepan.
  3. In the meantime, measure out the flour and cocoa powder into a small bowl. Sieve it if there are lots of lumps in the flour and cocoa. Otherwise, use a whisk to loosen and mix them together.
  4. As soon as the chocolate/butter mixture is off the heat, crack the eggs into a medium sized bowl and add the sugar. Use a stand mixer or an electric hand mixer on high speed to start whisking the eggs and sugar until they are at a ribbon stage. Ribbon stage is when the egg and sugar mixture are a pale yellow colour, doubled or even tripled in volume and when you lift the whisk over the mixture, the batter will fall slowly and leave a trail like a ribbon that will hold its shape for a few seconds. It will take about 10 minutes. I still use a timer to make sure I beat them for long enough. Don’t start beating the eggs/sugar until the chocolate/butter has melted because the chocolate/butter mixture needs this time to cool down.
  5. When the eggs and sugar have reached a ribbon stage, reduce the speed to low and add the melted chocolate and butter mixture to the eggs and sugar. Whisk until it all appears to have mixed together. If you are using an electric hand mixer, you may need to turn off the mixer, add the chocolate/butter and then switch it back on again to avoid a mess. I speak from experience, haha.
  6. Now fold in the flour and cocoa powder using a spatula, or a spoon until it is well combined.
  7. Pour into the baking tin.
  8. Bake in the oven for 18-20 minutes. They should be firm to touch at the top but still wobble when you shake it. Leave to cool completely in the tin and if you can bear it, cover them and leave them overnight in the fridge. They will be easier to cut and the flavours will have deepened.

*You can add various flavours to this, or not if you want them plain. I’ve given you a few of suggestions and photos below. Do let me know how else you adapt them.

For raspberry burst brownies 2.0, I add 90g of raspberries. I mix in half before I pour it into the baking tin and then scatter the remaining half where there are spaces.
For raspberry and white chocolate, do the above and add 100g of chopped white chocolate. Mix half the chocolate into the batter with the raspberry and then fill the spaces with the remaining 50g.
Walnut Brownies
For nutty ones, I use 100g of nuts. For this one, I’ve used walnuts. I pick out 12-16 walnut halves to place on top for evenly then roughly chop and mix in the rest to the mixture before I pour into the baking tin and then place the remaining walnut halves on the top.
Salted Caramel and Hazelnut Brownies
For hazelnut and salted caramel. I made these to use up leftover ingredients as I was packing to return to the UK. Use 100g of roughly chopped hazelnuts and 100g of salted caramel. I mixed in half the hazelnuts into the mixture, then after I poured it into the tin, I blobbed salted caramel with a teaspoon evenly and scattered the rest of the hazelnuts over the top.
Swirls of cheesecake in brownies
Swirled cheesecake brownies, but I’ve realised that the salted caramel and the cheesecake ones are a little more complicated, so I’ll post those recipes another day.

What happened next with that interview? How many points have I accumulated? In this current job hunting cycle, I racked up 103 points. Incidentally, I got offered that job, even without the promise of these brownies. So, I’m currently in the throes of transition once again and relocating down to the Midlands.

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.