On Beauty 0

October 19, 2017

 

 

From where I’m sitting, October just got serious. Waves of storm fronts are sweeping down from the Gulf of Alaska and the puddles are toddler-splash-worthy on the driveway.  But the sudden shift to dark, wet, autumn weather feels a little harder to take this time. I’m not talking about the seasonal shift from summer to fall I went on about before. Apple cake fixed that right up.

I’m talking about this new, deeper, more inward shift, one that still happens every year with the rains, but feels…less stitched with hope now. Yesterday we learned that a Canadian music and culture icon died. Women everywhere are having to be brave in ways that make my heart ache. Environmental destruction seems to be so ever-present that it keeps jumping up the list of chronic stressors. I won’t go on.

I found myself staring at a spear of kale this morning. It was about to be chopped up for a soup, but the onion I’d diced had left its noxious fumes in the air and my eyes were watering, so I left the kitchen with the kale leaf in one hand and blinked away the sting by the feeble grey light of the back door.

This leaf. Dinosaur kale. Lacinato. Brassica oleracea sabellica.  Tall with a slightly sad tilt to the top. Rippling bubbles of chorophylled tissue. I held it up to the light. What a revelation, I thought. What a strange piece of matter this is.

How beautiful.

I wasn’t sure why. There was something about its absurdity, its prehistoric-ness, it’s unexpected tastiness, that made it striking. Which made me think: what is beauty? Yes, it’s personal, yes, it’s culturally seeded in us, yes, we are biologically drawn to it. But what if it’s something I never thought about before this moment with this piece of kale?

What if our perception of beauty is a kind of hope?

 

 

I thought about the reasons I found this stalk of a plant beautiful–this thing we’ve bred into existence. This leaf that looks diseased and genetically doomed. This combination of atoms from long ago stars that I will feed to my family later. There’s hope in all of that. A wish for the future.

Could that be part of why it’s beautiful to me? Its own improbable, magical existence?

Hope is something that’s been flagging in me lately. (See above non-inclusive list of this week’s terrible news.) The biggest hope machines I have are my kids, who haven’t yet learned to doubt or be cynical or let the world get them down. That’s part of their beauty too. So, hope makes me happier. It protects me from the darkness. When I think about how hope makes me feel–the warm upward tug of it in my body, it doesn’t feel very distinguishable from the experience of beauty. Maybe not at all. A field of red poppies. A puppy. A perfect story. A stack of pancakes. Beauty and hope. Hope and beauty. Maybe it’s better to talk about them both as part of the same thing. Maybe.

And the soup was delicious, by the way.

XO

Ria

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Dear Inspiration 4

October 10, 2017

Dear Inspiration,

 

I have been waiting. I have been waiting for some time. You will come, I thought…

 

 

Previously, I put down one thing, finished one project and there you were. I thought to myself – “See? This is how it works, this is how it is.” I show up and you show up and we toil. It’s easy! That’s what the books say, that’s what the others say. Do your job. Don’t be lazy. Don’t wait. Show up. Don’t be lazy. It’s so very simple.

I guess our marriage was young then.

 

When I laid down the last project I looked for you to arrive. Waited for your handsome head, around the corner, for you to be waving at me from the other side of the café, wearing your rough clothes, wearing your work overalls, wearing your best grin – “Hello! You’re done with that? Finally. Come on then!” But you weren’t there.

There was no sign of you.

 

I called your place. I looked for you in the usual spots. I made us tea and cake. I ate my cake.

I ate your cake too.

 

And then I thought, I’ll pretend to work. That’ll do it. That’ll teach you. Sitting about, tippy-tapping on my keyboard. Look! I’m working! I’d start out full of optimism, full of bluster, thinking I could simply work without you. It looked good from the outside.

But on the page everything went to gsufiagwuigrblhjbvjsfkbv;j.

 

Let me just confirm, I haven’t just been waiting waiting (or just fake-working)…I keep myself busy. I read books. I read self-help books. I read writing books. I grow poppies in the garden. I tidy my wardrobe. I get **** done! Sometimes I even go to the gym. I’m active. But I hate going to the gym without you, without a writing project running through my head. Everyone at the gym looks like they’ve had their insides squeezed out of them, their souls that is, and the music is bad and it smells of taken-off-shoes and damp crotches. I don’t love working out and I hate being unproductive. I’m so attached now to making, to producing, to being busy and purposeful. Damn it. Damn you.

 

I thought, perhaps, that you might be in disguise. Maybe you had a haircut. Maybe I just didn’t recognize you. With that possibility / hope in mind I have been going to different places, paying close attention and making notes. I’ve become a Private Investigator, looking for you. But study them as I might, you are not in the notes and not in the photographs. I’m starting to wonder if this is a Missing Persons case or a Homicide. Either way, I’m no good at Nordic Noir, so we are both in trouble.

 

I miss you. Like I said, I thought we had a thing. I am ready now you aren’t here and it doesn’t feel great. It feels dark and hollow and a bit scary, if I am being completely honest. I thought I was okay, I thought I was fine, but now I’m wondering who I am without you. Will I be without you forever? What kind of me will I be without you? Will your absence itch and burn and continue to ache like a phantom limb? I’m just not sure I can be without you now I’ve gotten so used to you.

Now that I have grown to love you.

 

What I am saying is – please come back. I’m not stupid, I know something has changed, something has shifted. Our marriage is no longer so young. Any misunderstanding I will fix. I will listen. I can mend my ways. I won’t take you for granted. But I cannot change while you give me the silent treatment, while you play your vanishing act. Please come back. We will talk it through.

 

With love, Hannah

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A Brave Apple Cake 3

October 3, 2017

 

 

Early the other morning, Little E and The Tiger rushed into our room to report that one of the windows was broken. Broken? we asked. Yes, it’s all wet on the inside, maybe the inside-inside, they said.

 

Hmm.

 

So we dragged ourselves into the living room to find our picture window all fogged up. And it did look like it was on the inside-inside. For a moment DH and I wondered if the seal on the window had broken.  I felt a sleepy kind of pride that the kids might have got it right without any knowledge of window anatomy. So we sent Little e outside (no shoes necessary, she insisted) to check from that side, and when she couldn’t give us a satisfactory report (It still looks broken!), D went out (also barefooted) and jumped like a basketball player to reach the window with his finger.

 

Nope. Not broken. Just dewy on the outside. The outside-outside.

 

 

Just the undeniable start of autumn.

 

I have to admit I don’t love it. It’s not that it’s not gorgeous and colourful and full of a season’s worth of fruit and veggies. It’s that it’s not summer anymore. Okay, so maybe I should say, I don’t love the end of summer, and I blame autumn for it. There’s dew on the house and grass and car. It’s funny because once I get used to the idea of sweaters and cold mornings and darkness coming down swiftly after dinner, I’m alright. Autumn’s a great season, once it gets going (well, maybe until the endless rain hits…). But the start of it? Ugh, that’s tough for me. It feels a little broken on the inside-inside.

 

And what makes me feel a little less seasonally broken? Yup, baking.

 

 

I have a list of late summer/early autumn recipes I make just this time of year, and as you can probably guess by the huge number of seasonal delights on this site, those are where our hearts lie.

 

 

I’ve shamelessly tinkered with Deb Perelman’s awesome apple cake recipe because I can’t not tinker when I bake—it’s a compulsion. I used a mix of white, whole wheat and oat flour, added rolled oats, and in the one I made last week I used pecans instead of walnuts and it was GLORIOUS for all except Little e, who gives nuts a wide berth on Tuesday afternoons and Thursday mornings and any other time when you start to think she’s reverted back to liking them. I also bake the cake in a rectangular pan, not a tube pan, which the recipe calls for. It wasn’t on purpose. I just cannot find my tube pan.

 

 

Apple Cake

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s recipe

 

6 apples (I used macs from our tree), peeled and chopped into small bite-sized pieces

1 tbsp cinnamon

3 tbsp brown or granulated sugar

1 cup whole wheat flour

½ cup oat flour

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

½ cup rolled oats

1 ½ tbsp. baking powder

1 tsp salt

1 cup vegetable oil

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

¼ cup orange juice or buttermilk

2 1/2 tsp vanilla

4 eggs

1 cup chopped nuts, such as walnuts or pecans

 

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a tube pan like Deb does, or a rectangular cake pan like I do. Toss the apples with the cinnamon and 3 tablespoons sugar and set this bowl aside. Combine the flours, baking powder, oats and salt together in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl or jug, whisk together oil, juice or buttermilk, remaining sugar, vanilla and eggs. Stir wet ingredients into dry, and then fold in the nuts.

 

Pour the batter into the cake pan and top with the apples, pressing them down into the batter so it rises up a little around them. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, but do take it out when the toothpick tester is just a little damp with cake–otherwise it may be too dry when it cools. Let it cool completely in the pan and then cut into squares (I keep mine in the pan and serve from there).

 

XO

Ria

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An Abundance of Spearmint 2

September 21, 2017

 

I recently put out a plea on Instagram, asking what I should do with my spearmint. I planted the spearmint a long time ago and suddenly it is everywhere. Reaching, spreading, thriving, abundant. I’m new to gardening and this is how my growing goes. Nothing, nothing, nothing, SO MUCH OF SOMETHING. It’s either drought or overwhelm. It’s as though my garden is channelling my particular brand of enthusiasm: ALL!!!! or nothing.

 

You, good people, gave me some stellar ideas for utilizing my spearmint. Ideas for drinks and sauces and baking, just to name a few. I put several to the test and came up with a winner to gift back to you…

 

 

Abundant Spearmint – The Winner:

 

Chocolate & Spearmint Slice

Adapted from Chelsea Winter’s Peppermint Slice recipe, this slice uses fresh spearmint and is topped with a silky smooth dark chocolate ganache. The use of fresh leaves will make you look a bit fancy, but it’s not a difficult recipe to make, despite the three steps.

 

Ingredients

Base
225g butter, at room temperature, cubed
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup caster sugar
1 large free-range egg
1 cup plain flour
1/3 cup dark cocoa
1⁄2 cup fine desiccated coconut

Fresh spearmint cream filling
3 1⁄2 cups icing sugar
50g butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup cream
1 tsp pure peppermint essence
1 big bunch fresh spearmint leaves, finely chopped

Chocolate ganache topping
150g good-quality dark chocolate (at least 60% cocoa)
2 Tbsp cream

1tsp peppermint essence

 

Method

Preheat the oven to 190°C. Grease a slice tin.

To make the base – cream the butter and sugars together, then beat in the egg until well incorporated. Sift in the flour and cocoa and add the coconut, if using, and mix until combined. The mixture will be sticky so press it into the tin in an even layer with a moistened spatula (or your hands)

Bake in the centre of the oven for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool in the tin.

To make the spearmint cream – beat the icing sugar with the butter and cream until very pale and fluffy (about 5-8 minutes). Add the peppermint essence and fresh spearmint, and beat to combine. Spread over the cooled base and smooth out with a warm knife.

To make the ganache topping – break up the chocolate and melt in the microwave in short 10 – 20 second bursts, stirring in between bursts. Once just melted, add the cream and stir together until completely combined. Add the peppermint essence last and stir again until all ingredients are combined and silky smooth. Cool slightly, then pour or spread over the peppermint filling.

Cover the dish with cling film and set in the fridge for at least 1 hour. When set, cut into squares with a sharp knife. It’s pretty rich so you’ll want to cut the squares small (approx 1.5 inch x 1.5 inch).

Keeps in an airtight container in the fridge for about a week.

 

 

Abundant Spearmint – The Runner Ups: Spearmint & Rosemary Jelly, Spearmint Tisane, Mojitos and Mint Chutney

 

Aside from the delicious slice I really enjoyed making a spearmint and rosemary jelly, using this recipe. I substituted the mint for spearmint and added about ten big sprigs of rosemary during the final ten minutes of boiling. It is so good with lamb or served with quick-boiled peas – yom. A spearmint tisane shouldn’t be ignored either – simply soak in boiling water, like a tea, and voila. This is such a refreshing drink, my kids love it and the colour is a vibrant lemony-green. As an alternative beverage you could always make mojitos (and invite me over. Or else). Lastly, this recipe for a traditional mint chutney (pudina) was recommended to me, which I haven’t yet had the chance to try but is firmly on my list as the spearmint continues its relentless rampage.

 

All your great ideas for using my spearmint got me thinking about reaching out much more often when something in my garden gets presidential ambitions. I can ask you what to do with it, you can tell me your tips and tricks, then I can cook, mix, test and report back. That way you can check here when it’s your garden’s turn to get abundant and I can check back when spearmint is once again going bananas and I’ve completely forgotten what to do with the pervasive little beauty. Hey, look at that, it’s almost like a club! We both win! Well, apart from the spearmint.

 

Thanks again for all your tips, do keep ’em coming,

With love, in abundance,

Hannah

 

P.S. Thank you to author, John Green, for his book “An Abundance of Katherines” which inspired the title for this post. Mr Green, if you ever need more spearmint in your life please let me know.

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Baby’s First Roux 2

September 7, 2017

 

 

This is what happens when you brazenly bake and cook and concoct and discuss food around your children: they become mini foodies. They ask to take cooking classes. They announce plans to become bakers when they grow up. They want to create masterpieces in the kitchen using only water, Cheerios, salt and herbs snipped from the garden.  (I had to taste that one.)

Lately Little e’s been asking to bake things, by which she means stir some ingredients in a bowl and see what happens in the microwave. There’s been a lot of congealing and rubberiness. She’s been delighted.

 

 

So the other day I decided, when asked the same old question–can I bake something today?–to try to slot in a cooking lesson (disguised as fun, of course).

I told her we’d make a white pudding. That sounded AMAZING to her, so off we went…to make a roux.

I know one of the things she likes about cooking–that we all like, I imagine–is the magic, the alchemy of it. We take separate substances and combine them, heat them, change their structure or size, and–abracadabra!–we have a whole new substance. A combination that’s more than the sum of its parts and is, hopefully, tasty.

 

 

I never think about this anymore. I’ve made too many hundreds of dinners, lunches, cakes and puddings to think about what’s actually going on. There’s an end result to get to (before everyone gets hangry). But cooking with kids slows you down, brings you into the moment.

We forget all that we know. All that we take for granted. Butter and flour, heated together into a paste, then slurried with milk? Yeah, that’s a roux, but look what happens! The hot butter cooks the flour, coats it with fat, so that when you add the milk, the flour expands and thickens the liquid evenly, into a smooth sauce. Or in our case, with less milk, a thick pudding. It IS magic. This is wheat and animal fats combining in a way never found in nature. Some ancient human alchemist-cook stumbled upon this strange bit of edible science and we’ve been making it ever since. It’s miraculous, and to my five-year-old, it’s that and more. It’s a symbol of all that she gets to discover, these small and bright secrets of the world.

A tadpole becomes a frog, a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, teeth sprout from the smooth, pink gums of a baby. These are some of the things she’s witnessed, and now she’s seen how flour and fat can thicken into something delicious. She knows how to make a roux.

And eat it like pudding.

 

 

What recipes do (or did) your kids like to make?

XO

Ria

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