What a year…

Friday was my last day as a fresher at university. I am now a third of the way through my university career and wishing desperately that time would pass a little slower so I could fully appreciate these three short years.

Since October I have made some amazing friends and gained a huge amount of confidence. I have doodled through lectures but also sat writing furiously, completely enthralled by the lecturer and every word that poured from his mouth or across the presentation slides before dancing across the rows of scribbling students. I danced madly in clubs, belting out the words to Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ or Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ or simply piled into a friend’s room to watch a movie or an episode of a TV show. Some nights were spent in the TV room watching Doctor Who before frantically discussing every detail of the program with the third years and post-grads also there, trying desperately to work out what Steven Moffat’s clues were.

Durham and the halls I lived in felt more and more like home as the year progressed, and the people I lived with more and more like one big eccentric family. It felt slightly odd to step off the train in Edinburgh and realise I wouldn’t see Durham Cathedral or walk through the twisting cobbled streets for nearly three months. I have always thought that Edinburgh is barely big enough to qualify as a city but when I left the train station with my parents and looked up at the castle then at the open expanse of the gardens below it, Edinburgh suddenly felt very big. The old town has the cobbled streets but the wide pavements, rushing traffic and long shop fronts are a stark contrast to Durham and suddenly felt alien after so long away.

I’ve been home for three days now and I’m rediscovering the elements of Edinburgh that make it the city I love. I sat in starbucks with my friends, the castle looming over us through the bay windows and laughed as we made up for weeks apart. I sat down for dinner in our conservatory and gazed out into the garden at the tiny red specks of wild strawberries and the smooth green skins of rapidly growing apples. Little things like the roses in a vase on the kitchen table, freshly cut from the bushes outside, the sun warming the stones of the flats opposite and the sight of my dad standing at the counter cooking are so familiar, a reminder that I’ve lived here far longer than I’ve lived in Durham.

I used to wonder how people could leave their home city but now I understand. Edinburgh will always be my home, but so will Durham, and, potentially, any city in which I live after graduating two years down the line. Each will have its own little details that will make it home rather than simply a place I happen to occupy.

It’s been almost a year since I began this blog and my newfound passion for cooking has grown up among the words I typed for it. In the morning I leave for an archaeological dig in Spain and I’m looking forwards both to the dig and the opportunity to experience true Spanish cooking. It’s been quite a year and hopefully in future years I will add to these pages a little more frequently.

Birthday Surprises

My second term of university flew by even more quickly than the first. So quickly that I never found the time to write a post as I had planned. It was a busy term, filled with formals and birthdays and shows. I spent a weekend in London at an archaeology conference, dressed up as a teletubby for the Spring Ball and watched my friend perform in a musical.

The highlight, however, was my birthday. At school my birthday had always passed without anyone seeming to notice and celebrations as home tend to be low key if anything. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I didn’t expect to be woken before my alarm by what sounded like tape in the corridor. I thought nothing of it, got dressed for breakfast and opened the door. I was met by the faces of three of my friends, grinning from behind the wall of happy birthday wrapping paper they had taped across my doorway.

After years of only a couple of people noticing my birthday I was repeatedly surprised by the number of people who wished me a happy birthday. Up to that point I hadn’t noticed how many people I talked to and considered friends. I felt suddenly overwhelmed by how different life is not to how it was at school. That feeling only increased that evening when I went up to my friend’s room ready to go out, expecting her to still be getting ready. Instead I found the room filled with most of my closest friends. There were presents on the bed, bowls filled with indigo themed sweets and a cake covered in candles. While the plethora of smoke alarms in our halls meant we couldn’t light any of the candles I did pretend to blow them out for the camera.

Later in the term a friend told me I had no belief in myself and she was right. Walking into that room I felt incredibly loved but also utterly stunned. I could not believe that anyone would have gone to that effort for me or that they would even want to. And yet, as I opened presents that were perfect and looked up at my friends, all dressed in various shades of blue, it began to sink in that they had wanted to. I had arrived at university hoping to make a few decent friends and expecting to feel on the edge of any group. I never imagined that I might end up part of an amazing group of friends or that I would never feel uncomfortable with them and never on the edge. I have a tendency to over think and doubt things that makes me wonder why they care for me but all I know is that, somehow, they do, and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

Apple Cake

I adapted this recipe from the River Cottage Handbook: Cakes by Pam Corbin

125g self-raising gluten free flour
125g gluten free brown bread flour (i.e Dove’s Farm)
1tsp baking powder
1/2tsp bicarbonate of soda
2tsp ground nutmeg
1/2tsp ground cloves
Pinch sea salt
125g unsalted butter/dairy free substitute, cut into small cubes
125g soft brown sugar
350g apples cut to 1cm cubes (plus 1 small apple to use on top)
1 egg, beaten
50ml milk

Preheat the oven to 180˚C and grease an 8” spring form pan.

Sift the first seven ingredients into a large bowl and mix well.

Rub in butter, stir in sugar and lightly toss cubed apples in the mix until mixed well.

Add egg and milk and mix into a sticky dough then transfer to the pan and level.

For the topping cut the small apple into several thin slices and arrange on the top of the mixture.

Bake for 45-50 minutes until the top is golden brown, firm and crisp.

Cool in the pan for 20-30 minutes then remove.

We really enjoyed this cake, this is how it looked 20 minutes after we cut the first slice.

New friends, new routines

The three months since I last posted have been incredible ones. At first I was simply preparing to leave for university, wondering if I would like the people on my floor, how many friends I would make, if those friends would be genuine ones. It was exciting, enticing and absolutely terrifying all at once.

Then, suddenly, I was in the car with my dad, driving down across the border into England with the boot and back seat filled with my things. Pulling off the motorway to go into Durham I saw a large painted sign hanging off the fence of the East Durham College. The large black and red letters read ‘Should have gone to Collingwood!’. We both laughed and I felt welcomed before I had even arrived.

Being a collegiate university, Durham has many faces and communities, both in college and inter-college ones. Collingwood is relaxed, friendly and a tad eccentric with a reputation for being the loudest, most vocal college. More signs painted in black and red were hung on the lane into college, welcoming the freshers and reassuring their parents that they would be looked after. The fresher’s week that followed was a whirlwind of activities and parties, new faces and umpteen repetitions of ‘Sorry, what was your name again?’ as our memories struggled to cope with matching so many new people to their names, courses and origins.

The weeks began to disappear as we learned those new names and the personalities behind them. Some faces became those of acquaintances, the people you say ‘hi’ or ‘morning’ to in the corridor, others became the faces of floor mates and friends. We all settled into the routine of lectures, tutorials and seminars, which days we needed to wait for a friend to get back before lunch, the days another friend would be absent from dinner.

I found a group of friends and our evenings gradually formed a pattern of movie nights or nights out. We swapped clothes and ideas, one discovered I had never seen an entire episode of Friends and immediately sat me down to start from the beginning. We clapped in time to the opening tune and I have a feeling at least two Friends posters will go up in our house next year.

Suddenly it was the end of term and we were sitting down to the college Christmas dinner. We pulled crackers, put on the hats and sang along to the Christmas songs flowing from the speakers. We laughed and took pictures and enjoyed the best meal the kitchens had produced all term. I looked round the table and suddenly felt very grateful I had taken a year out between school and university. If I hadn’t I would not have found such an amazing group of people. They make me laugh and smile, they throw their arms around me and squeal in my ear that I’m ‘so cute’. Sometimes they debate a little to hard over the smallest of issues, get a little too excited or blurt out the most inappropriate (though hilarious) things but they’re my friends and I wouldn’t swap them for anything or anyone.

Now I’m back home, my friends have scattered to various corners of the country and the globe, one getting on his flight just in time and another winding up stranded in London as Heathrow closed its doors. It’s a little strange to be home and without the group I’ve spent so much time with but it’s also nice to be back in Edinburgh and back in our kitchen.

Red cabbage is something that reminds me of family and Christmas. Not every teenage girl will smile and bounce across the kitchen when she comes home to see her father chopping red cabbage and apples into a pan but I do, regularly.

Dad’s Red Cabbage

2 large onions, chopped
small knob of butter
large spoonful of caraway seeds
3 apples peeled, cored and chopped (preferably 1 bramley and 2 coxes)
half a large red cabbage
balsamic vinegar
nutmeg

Fry the onions with the caraway seeds and butter until soft in a medium sized pan then add the apples.

Shred the cabbage and add to the pan. Once hot turn the cabbage over until slightly fried.

Add a splash of balsamic vinegar then pour in hot water until half way up the cabbage and bring to boil.

Add the nutmeg (roughly a ¼ nutmeg or until the smell rises out the pan when stirred in) then turn down the heat and simmer until soft (1 – 1.5 hours).

Season with a little salt and pepper before serving.

Ruby, thank you for your comment on my last post. Opening my email to that message was like an extra little christmas present.
Merry Christmas

Reminiscing Over Cookies

A few days ago I was asked if I had always baked but it is really only in the past few months that I discovered and passion for cooking and baking. When I left school in June last year I could cook eggs and pasta and that was about it. After a wonderful and interesting gap year I will start university in just over two weeks time with some baking knowledge and the knowledge that I can take whatever odds and ends are in the fridge and make a soup or omelette or maybe a stir fry. I won’t need any of this knowledge in first year since I will be in catered halls but I will use it. I want to make cakes and no-bake bars and puddings and drinks both to share with my friends and floor mates and to keep up this blog, hopefully posting more frequently than I have recently.

In beginning to prepare for going to university and beginning an Archaeology degree I am looking back to the beginning of my gap year. I spent a month living and working with 15 Australians on an archaeological excavation in Cyprus. We enjoyed several wonderful Greek mezzes but also cooked for the group on the days we were on kitchen duty. I found myself helping out some days when I wasn’t on duty, enjoying watching simple ingredients turn into delicious meals. As the drinking age in Cyprus is 17 I got my first experience of alcohol and going out in the evenings. While the bartenders in Cyprus seem to use a shot glass as the guideline for the minimum amount of each spirit in a cocktail what I remember most is the joy of sharing absurd conversations and laughing while joining a group performance of ‘I will survive’ in a Kareoke bar, something I would not usually have the confidence for.

Each day we got up in the dark and arrived on site just as the sky was beginning to lighten. The site was never shadowy, despite the earliness of the hour. It felt almost as if tendrils of light were escaping the sun’s rays to weave themselves into the walls of the trenches and welcome us to a new day’s digging. Talk and laughter would mix with the thwack of pickaxes, the scrape of trowels and the patter of earth falling into the wheelbarrow as we worked towards breakfast and then lunch. After lunch the sounds would change to splashing water, the bristling scratch of nailbrushes and the soft thump of pottery dropping onto tarpaulin as we washed the finds that had emerged from the ground that morning and sorted, bagged and tagged the now dry finds from the day before. Some days there would be very little to wash and on others we would be faced with a long row of buckets filled to the brim after a trench had reached a ‘mega-context’. Our conversations ranged from the perfectly normal to the slightly insane. We talked of the differences between Australia and Britain, notably the difference in currency. Paper money in Australia is not strictly paper, it’s bright colours and slightly laminated feel were odd and to me almost seemed like monopoly money. I was used to notes in muted blues, reds and purples, the new ones crisp edged and glossy, the old ones crumpled and often with taped up rips. I was fascinated by the idea of waterproof money, especially one girl’s story of washing her jeans three times with a $50 dollar note in the pocket then going out and spending it since it was still as good as new. They seemed baffled that the tatty £5 note I had in my purse, creased to the point of feeling like cloth, could be deemed usable currency.

As the trenches deepened and the spoil heap grew we learned more about each other and the site, though in relation to the site we uncovered more questions than answers. We reached the end of each day’s work dusty and sweaty and spent the afternoon swimming in the crystal clear water of the harbour and enjoying ice cream and frozen yogurt. Our Sunday afternoons and Mondays were mostly spent driving around the island to various archaeological sites or simply enjoying tearing along a dirt track in a four-by-four, then pausing to wait for the smaller Ford Fiesta to catch up.


7am and I’m already covered in dust

We all enjoyed the Zorba’s store, part of a bakery chain, that was just down the road, though the fact that we all gained weight while wielding pickaxes and shovels suggests we enjoyed the profiteroles, crème brûlée and chocolate mousse cakes a little too exuberantly. We enjoyed mezzes at various restaurants including The 7 St George’s, reportedly the best restaurant on the island. It certainly lives up to its reputation.

The 7 St George’s is every inch a classic Greek taverna, right down to the canopy woven from palm leaves and growing vines. We were greeted by several cats, including one tiny kitten, and the welcoming host and his sons. We were asked about allergies and if anyone was vegetarian or vegan. Most people are confused by the fact that I am allergic to just cow’s cheese and not other dairy but not this man, he simply nodded and told me exactly which parts of the mezze I could or could not eat each time a dish came out. The vegetarian and vegan were equally well provided for. The bread that came out as four entire loaves was still warm, the sweetly spiced interior enveloped in a perfect crust. Every dish that emerged from the kitchen was perfect. By the time the meal was finished we were all pleasantly full and the table was littered with over a dozen small desert bowls that had been shared round until they were scraped clean.

By the end of that month I was absolutely sure that doing Archaeology at university was the right choice. I am so glad I made the decision to take a gap year. I have grown and matured a lot in the past year but I have also discovered how wonderful and therapeutic time spent creating in the kitchen can be. I have memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life but in some ways this newfound passion is even more precious.

These cookies are from a recipe I have used several times. I made them for friend’s birthday, for another friend on the day she moved into university halls and for a barbeque at our allotment when I was extremely flattered to see a chef who grows award-winning vegetables go home with a handful in his pocket.

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies (adapted from Cookies! By Pippa Cuthbert and Lindsay Wilson)

220g butter/dairy free spread (soya spread or sunflower spread)
120g brown sugar
150g caster sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1tsp vanilla extract
300g all purpose gluten free flour
1tsp baking soda
1/2tsp salt
200g dark chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 190˚C/375˚F.
Beat butter/spread and sugars together until creamy (not until light and fluffy or you will get bubbly cookies that don’t taste as good).
Add eggs and vanilla, beating until combined.
Sift together flour, soda and salt and stir in.
Fold in the chocolate chips.
Drop rounded spoons of mix onto ungreased baking sheets about 2” apart.
Bake for 10-15 minutes until the surface is set but the centres are still soft and the edges are lightly browned. Leave to cool on the trays until they have hardened enough to be moved then transfer to a cooling rack.

Notes: – The recipe says it makes 28 cookies but I have got everything from 24 to 42 depending on the size I made them. Smaller cookies can be placed a little closer together and bigger ones, further apart.
– I line my baking trays with Teflon coated baking paper (a bit like silpat but designed for lining cake tins) because one of them isn’t very non-stick.
– These are also very good with chopped walnuts instead of chocolate chips, other nuts would work too.

Kindness in the Blogging Community

Before I ever thought of starting a blog I would look at my favourite food blogs and get a sense on a community. Food bloggers were talking to each other, sharing recipes and stories, forging friendships with people thousands of miles away. When I signed up to twitter and began following various bloggers it was even clearer.

Over the past couple of days I have followed dozens of tweets on the International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle and dreamed of the chance to attend such an event myself at some point in the future. The posts I read talked of meeting fellow bloggers and recognising them from their twitter pictures, the sessions taking place both in the hall they sat on and in the virtual halls of twitter.

Then I began seeing tweets about Erika of Ivory Hut. I read her deeply moving account of the fire that destroyed her home and everything in it. I knew nothing of Erika before this but from what I have seen she is an amazing woman. She has lost everything but says she is still blessed because her family is with her and she still takes the time to check on others.

What has impressed me even more than her incredible character is the way the blogging community has rallied to help her and her family. Friends of Ivory Hut was set up for people to donate to help her and raised $2000 in no time, the figure then rose quickly to $3600. Many of those donating have never met Erika and probably have only just discovered her blog. I do not have a credit card and so, sadly, I cannot donate. I don’t have many readers but I felt compelled to do what little I could by alerting the few readers I have to her situation.

The food blogging community is filled with people who are kind, inspiring and generous. I don’t know anyone yet but as the months pass I hope to get to know some of the wonderful bloggers who inspired me and blog with such incredible joy and integrity.

Banana Bread in Festival City

Edinburgh is a wonderful city to live in throughout the year. It is beautiful, cultural and filled with interesting people. However it is at it’s best during August when the streets are alive with people from every corner of the globe, there both to experience the festivals and to perform in them.

The first traces of the festival season begin appearing in mid July. Workmen move into Charlotte Square Gardens and begin erecting the many tents and walkways that will become the book festival. One day you glance up at the castle and pause to smile when you see the first metal supports of the Military Tattoo seating. Posters go up and red banners highlight the front of the Assembly Rooms. By the time the festival cavalcade marches past the fringe is already in full swing, the last book festival tents are going up and it feels as though the world has come to town in a dazzling, constant onslaught of diversity.


banana bread in mid bake

Some things are the same every year and some are new and different. Opening the Festival Fringe program is always a guarantee of being faced with listings of thousands of shows all the way from the outstanding sell outs to the barely watchable ones that you regard as a wasted hour of your life that you will never get back. There are street performers on the Royal Mile and beside the national galleries and craft stalls in the same places selling everything from jewellery and felt bags to leather bound diaries and paintings. This year a speagle tent appeared in Princess Street Gardens as a new Assembly Rooms venue. Nearby a vast crane lifts a platform several times a day where, if you have £90 to spare and no fear of heights, you can dine at 100 feet.

By far my favourite place in August is Charlotte Square Gardens, home of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Over the years the RBS Children’s Theatre has become the RBS Corner Tent and my favourite authors’ events to go to have changed from Debi Gliori and Eoin Colfer to Ian Rankin and Tariq Ali but the things that make it the festival I love have never changed. There is the excitement of going to see someone you love to hear speak or the rapt attention of the audience during a fascinating debate on a particular issue. The wonderful atmosphere, as enhanced by the group of friends enjoying an evening glass of wine round a table on the grass as it is by laughing children eating lunch at the same table in blazing sunshine.

Every time I am there I notice things that make me smile. The sound of feet on the wooden walkways, varying between a sharp clack and a quiet thump depending on the owner’s choice of footwear. Glancing along a row to the view of a long line of clapping hands. A family of plastic ducks that took up residence in one of the obligatory puddles last year. A child crouched on the floor of the Children’s Book Tent, absorbed in the pages of her latest discovery. The swift movements of the signer’s hands, translating Lord Winston’s explanation of a nuclear fusion experiment in California or the wave of pleased agreement following a comment that Scotland seems to breed Crime Writers. Lin Anderson explaining to a packed tent that she was pleased to chair Ian Rankin’s event because she couldn’t get a ticket for love or money.

Outside people are queuing for other events, street performers are coaxing cheers from their audience and artists’ pencils are skimming across paper to create a caricature of their latest customer. A small brass band play show tunes on one corner and a piper’s kilt and distinctive sound draws tourists and their cameras on another. Walking down the street you are surrounded by people of every culture and race, speaking in every language. It gets busier and more exciting every year. It’s as insane as it is beautiful. It’s August in Festival City.

Banana Bread (Adapted from Recipe Girl)

220g all purpose gluten free flour
1tsp baking soda
1/4tsp salt
115g butter/dairy free spread
150g brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
5 mashed bananas

Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350˚F and lightly grease a 9×5 inch loaf pan.
Whisk together the flour, soda and salt in a large bowl.
In a separate bowl cream the butter and brown sugar the mix in the eggs and mashed bananas until well blended.
Stir banana mixture into flour mixture until just blended.
Pour batter into the pan and bake for 60-65 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Leave to cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then turn out to cool completely on a wire rack.

No thanks, I’d rather stir custard…

Our kitchen is small but it’s always been the centre of our home. I did my homework on the table by the wall in the years before my dad built a desk in my room, and quite often in the years after since said desk was usually covered in clutter. We eat all our meals there and I sit with my laptop every morning, listening to my porridge bubbling on the hob and the coffee dripping into the pot.

We have spent many hours leaning against the counters discussing everything from politics and history to films to school and university. Some of our conversations have been serious debates and others a ludicrous compiling of sentences gasped out between shrieks of laughter. There have also been discussions of food, questions about what to make for dinner or my parents gleefully sorting through the latest produce from the allotment and telling me about how well everything is growing.

I remember sitting in my dad’s chair when I was two, watching him making a cake for my party. I have no memory of how it tasted but I know it was a long rectangle, covered with white icing and chopped strawberries surrounded by pineapple formed the letter I. Years later I laughed when my mother said how strange it felt to eat cake while the remains of a gluten and lactose free chocolate cake, ordered from a German konditormeister, sat in the centre of a circle of my friends.

More recently it has become a place of learning, joy and occasional tears. We all stood around laughing when my first fairy cakes came out barely risen and then sank to be about half an inch high. I cried when I dropped two trays, burning my arm in the process, and squashed almost all of the cupcakes I had made for my French class. I learned that it was best to research things like meringues before trying them when I ended up with small heaps of over cooked sweet…something after setting the temperature too high. A week or so later I was almost bouncing when I tasted a meringue layer cake that I had baked properly, too happy to care that it looked awful due to both meringue layers all but shattering in the process of removing them from the pans. I have also learned that I am not afraid to experiment. I love trying new combinations of flavours or new kinds of cake and eagerly awaiting the results.

At the weekend my mother realised a bag of pears and a box of currants were both in danger of going bad, so put them all in a pan and stewed them into a sharp mixture in a wonderful shade somewhere between red and purple. The next day I saw a recipe for a chocolate tart crust and while wondering what to put in for a filling my eyes fell on the pot of stewed fruit. Then I remembered a tin of coconut milk sitting in the cupboard and immediately knew what I wanted to try. I asked my dad to buy gelatine while he was out and that evening set about making a chocolate tart crust. I had to wait until after dinner to start on the coconut and rice milk custard so it was fairly dark. I was standing stirring the custard so it wouldn’t curdle, the only light coming from my laptop as I watched the BBC’s new Sherlock Holmes, when my dad came through asking if I wanted to watch a program. My reply of “No thanks, I’d rather stir custard,” made him pause and cry “That’s what you should have called your blog!” A moment later laughter filled the room and another happy memory settled over the silvery surface of the stove.

Since my blog already has a name I felt the least I could do was enshrine the phrase and the memory in a post along with a tart that is just as wonderfully bizarre as my family.

Currant and Coconut Custard Tart

Chocolate Crust: adapted from woodenspoon.ca/2010/06/chocolate-strawberry-tarts/
115g butter/soya spread
55g sugar
100g gluten free plain flour
30g Dutch-processed cocoa powder
15g corn flour
1/8tsp salt

Preheat 175˚C/375˚C and grease an 8” flan tin.

Cream the butter and sugar then add the flour, cocoa, corn flour and salt and mix until well combined.

Spoon into the tin and chill until very cold (it’s easier to spread once cold) before using your hands to spread the dough evenly over the bottom and up the sides.

Bake for 20 minutes or until dry to touch. Leave to cool in tin.

Filling:

150ml coconut milk
150ml rice milk
50g sugar
4 egg yolks
2tbsp corn flour
1 vanilla bean
500ml stewed pears, redcurrants and blackcurrants
1 packet gelatine crystals

Cut along the length of the vanilla bean and add to a pan with the coconut and rice milk. Bring to boil then remove from heat.

Whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and corn flour then whisk into the milk mixture.

Heat gently, stirring until it thickens. Be careful not to let it boil or it will curdle. Pour into a bowl and add half the gelatine crystals stirring to help them dissolve. Keep stirring until it cools a little and pour into the crust. Leave to set in the fridge.

Once the custard has set dissolve the rest of the gelatine crystals in a little hot water then mix in the stewed fruit. Pour into the pie and leave to set in the fridge.

My crust cracked so I left it in the tin until the moment I wanted to cut it. Even if it doesn’t crack I would recommend leaving it in the tin since you’ll be taking it in and out of the fridge.


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