Friday, 12 September 2014

On Trying Too Hard and Muesli Bars

This week both my children celebrated their birthdays. S turned seven on Tuesday and N turned four on Wednesday. That as such is a wonderful thing: I am happy and deeply grateful to have had them in my life another year and love seeing their happy and excited faces as they come running into our bedroom in the morning on the great day. But I will not lie to you: I find  everything else that surrounds those birthdays quite stressful. For one thing: there's party invitations to send out. On time. Last year I left this far too late and it turned out a number of the children could not come on the date we had planned. It was all a bit of a fuss. Then there's the party itself to arrange: what time, how long, what to eat, what to do (inside? outside?).  And then there's the treats to be made for taking to school.

Okay. The treats for school. I had decided to make brownies for S and cupcakes for N. Pretty straightforward, you would think. On Monday evening, after a taxing day at school, I made brownies. They were a total failure: rubbery and soggy. For the first time ever. Yikes! Since I would need three batches in total, I felt I didn't have the time to start over. So I hopped into my car, drove to Albert Heijn (thankfully open until 9p.m.) and bought - much against my principles - some bags of sugary sweets. Back home I put together sweet mixtures, worried and fretted about the botched brownies some more, then went to bed and had nightmares about disappointing my son and damaging our relationship forever (our subconscious minds can really blow things out of proportion). As it turns out, S loved the sweets, and so did his class. Night sweats over nothing.

Then the next evening, cupcakes for N. I dug up a Mary Berry recipe - easy enough, you would think - but because I use spelt flour instead of self-raising flour, I need to add an extra rising agent. Usually not a problem. Only this time I made the colossal mistake of adding a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda (instead of extra baking powder - why, I can't tell you) without adding some kind of acidic fluid (say, buttermilk) to the recipe. Result: disgusting salty aftertaste. I couldn't believe it: what was I thinking?! The only thing I could do was bin the cupcakes after which I - you guessed it - hopped into the car, went to Albert Heijn and bought - much against my principles - some bags of sugary sweets. Got home. Put together sweet mixtures. Worried and fretted about botched cupcakes. Went to bed, had nightmares. N loved sweets. So did class. Etcetera.

When I was reflecting - okay, ranting - to M about never having had to throw out any of my bakes (not because they are perfect by any means, but because they usually at least taste good, even if they do look silly), I suddenly realised this wasn't true. I did once throw something out. A whole cake, in fact, which had turned out dense and soggy. It was a celebration cake I had worked hard on the evening before M's return home after a trip to Berlin and I had wanted it to be PERFECT. I am of course beginning to suspect that this is where the problem lies. Striving for perfection makes me feel stressed and pressured, which in turn causes me to make stupid mistakes I wouldn't normally make if I was doing something for the joy of it, or at least with a relaxed state of mind, one not overly-focussed on the outcome.

This afternoon M and I are hosting The Party. Cake, games with prizes, playtime, and pancakes for tea. Thankfully I have the morning off to plan things, and bake, AT MY LEISURE. Some people perform best under pressure - I am definitely not one of them.


Now for those muesli bars I promised a couple of posts ago. I love these.  And not in the least because they are refined sugar free and full of good ingredients. S & N love a chunk in their snack boxes, which is what they got this week.

Muesli Bars
adapted from It's All Good, by Gwyneth Paltrow

150g rolled oats (I use gluten-free)
25g ground flaxseeds
0,5 teaspoon cinnamon
0,5 teaspoon ground ginger
50g dark chocolate (I use at least 70% cocoa), chopped
50g dried apricots and/or prunes, chopped
50g walnuts, chopped
60ml extra virgin olive oil
60ml maple syrup
2 tablespoons rice syrup or runny honey

  • preheat oven 180 degrees Celsius
  • line a brownie pan (approx. 20cm by 18cm) with baking paper
  • combine all ingredients thoroughly in a large bowl
  • pour the mixture into the brownie pan and pack down firmly with a spatula (important!)
  • bake for 30 minutes
  • allow to cool completely before using the baking paper to lift the bar out of the pan onto a chopping board and cutting into rectangles
  • the edges may be a little brittle; my kids argue over who gets to gobble up those delicious loose chunks

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Katherine Mansfield and Chocolate Fork Biscuits

About a year ago I read Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin, author and journalist famous for her biographies on famous writers. Although it was a deeply compelling biography on an intriguing subject, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone with a sensitive nervous system: though Tomalin's writing and research is wonderful (as always), the book left me panting and rather depleted. Reason for this was the book's subject - New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) - who lived and worked as though the devil was at her heels, as if she knew she would die young (which she did - of TBC). It was far from a relaxed way to live - in fact, she was stressed and unhappy a lot of the time, always out to prove her worth as a woman and as a writer. All this makes her life story a heavy one to digest. What a contrast then, with her writing. The stories I'm having the pleasure of rereading for school are sensual, smooth, evocative, funny, full of beautiful imagery, and characters who take the time to savour life. Many of her scenes are like still lifes; images painted with exactly the right words and tone.

Some of her most evocative passages are ones involving food. Take butter. Now I enjoy reading about butter; it always reminds me of my grandmother who loved butter (because there was none in the war, she would say) and when she visited us in New Zealand I would enjoy watching her spread a slice of bread with butter so thick you could carve your name in it. "Butter is so cheap here," she would marvel, "you folks should appreciate it more." And of course she was right - butter was something we took for granted. Now, whenever I bake anything with butter, I am in awe of its importance to the recipe, it's richness of texture and taste. But now I'm digressing; back to butter in two of my all-time favourite stories, "The Garden Party" and "The Daughters of the Late Colonel", in which it is presented as something luxurious, reserved only for the privileged. In the first story Laura, the protagonist, is to oversee the arrangements for an elaborate garden party her mother and sisters are throwing at their beautiful home, situated on a hill:

"But Meg could not possibly go and supervise the men. She had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek. Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and kimono jacket.
     'You'll have to go, Laura; you're the artistic one.'
    Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread-and-butter. It's so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides, she loved having to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else." (p.38, Penguin Classics edition).

In the course of the story Laura is confronted with the poverty of others, and death, and this changes her forever.

In the second story, two sisters are dealing with the death of their father. In contrast to the first story, there is quite a bit of subtle humour in this one. Especially when the sisters make a fuss over all sorts of seemingly trivial things:

"Nurse Andrews was simply fearful about butter. Really they couldn't help feeling that about butter, at least, she took advantage of their kindness. And she had that maddening habit of asking for just an inch more bread to finish what she had on her plate, and then, at the last mouthful, absent-mindedly - of course it wasn't absent-mindedly - taking another helping."(p.54)

And, when their young pompous nephew Cyril comes to visit: 

     "'Now, Cyril, you mustn't be frightened of our cakes. Your Auntie Con and I bought them at Buszard's this morning. We know what a man's appetite is. So don't be ashamed of making a good tea.'
     Josephine cut recklessly into the rich dark cake (...)
     "I say, aunt Josephine, I simply can't. I've only just had lunch, you know."
     "Oh Cyril, that can't be true! It's after four," cried Josephine. Constantia sat with her knife poised over the chocolate-roll." (p.62)


The recipe that follows is about as simple as they come. It is both buttery and chocolaty - I'm sure my grandmother and Ms. Mansfield would more than approve. It at least comes highly recommended from anyone I know who has tasted it.

Chocolate Fork Biscuits
Adapted from Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book, by Mary Berry

100g butter, softened
50g palm sugar
120g spelt flour
1 tablespoon good quality cocoa 
yields about 16 biscuits 

  • preheat the oven 180 degrees Celsius
  • line a baking tray with baking paper
  • gently beat butter and sugar together with a wooden spoon
  • add flour and cocoa; bring mixture together with your hands to form a dough
  • roll the dough into smallish balls and place on the baking tray
  • flatten the balls gently with a fork
  • bake for 15 minutes

And don't forget to check out what everyone else is reading over at The Year in Books...


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Life Is Not An Emergency

The summer holidays have come to an end. The kids got off to a good start at school on Monday and we're all settling back into a pleasant routine. The picture above is a nostalgic reminder of lazy days in the summer heat; of M chasing the kids, who were dressed only in underpants and squealing with delight, around the garden with a hose on full blast.  Days we are now leaving behind, but that is just fine. One of the things I love about the summer holidays is that it allows us to step back, slow down to the speed of life* together and gather new energy and enthusiasm for the new school year.  In that respect, the long summer holidays are a necessity.  School life - both as a teacher or pupil - is like a hectic train journey: lots of fun and learning and new sights to see, but also exhausting. We often can't wait to get off at the Summer Holidays stop, but enjoy getting back on that train six weeks later just the same.

That's not to say that I don't feel panic in the last week of summer at the very thought of school, because I do. In fact, it is something that plagues me every year. This anxiety is always accompanied by the same thoughts: How will I manage to juggle everything? How on earth will I cope with a full school diary plus family life? Will I still know how everything works at school? Heck, will I still know how to teach?! On top of that, there are the birthday jitters. Both kids celebrate their birthdays in September. Next week in fact. Yes, both of them. This means: buying gifts, decorating the living room, organising and hosting parties, and so on. The very thought of all this is enough to have me hyperventilating. And I guess that's precisely where the problem lies: the very thought. Because before all this has even happened - school, birthdays - I'm already exhausted and slightly overwhelmed. Whenever that realisation sets in (yes - *sigh* - every year: you'd think I'd know better by now) I always pick up a lovely little book I have lying next to my bed for moments of panic: Don't Sweat the Small Stuff (and it's all small stuff) by the late dr. Richard Carlson. It is divided into one hundred chapters of only a few pages each, perfect for reading in bed at night before heading off to dreamland. In it, dr. Carlson asks us to repeat to ourselves the phrase "Life isn't an emergency" whenever we are feeling stressed. And I can tell you: it works. In fact, it is a mantra I swear by. Whenever I'm feeling rushed or pressured, I repeat this phrase and, like magic, immediately feel calmer. In fact, my breathing goes from the top of my chest straight down to my abdomen in a matter of seconds, followed by a tremendous feeling of relief. Let me leave you with a quote from the book:

"I've never met anyone (myself included) who hasn't turned little things into great big emergencies. We take our own goals so seriously that we forget to have fun along the way, and we forget to cut ourselves some slack. We take simple preferences and turn them into conditions for our own happiness. Or, we beat ourselves up if we can't meet our self-created deadlines. The first step in becoming a more peaceful person is to have the humility to admit that, in most cases, you're creating your own emergencies. Life will usually go on even if things don't go according to plan. (p.62)"

* the title of another of dr. Carlson's books: Slowing Down to the Speed of Life


Now that school has started, I'm having to think about lunch boxes again. Well, snack boxes to be precise; M is on the sandwich station. This week I baked a banana cake; same recipe, different tin. I have been giving a slice of this, along with some fresh berries for fruit, as a mid-morning snack. Coming week I'll be making muesli bars, so will be sharing that recipe with you soon.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Getting Your Teeth into a Salad

On Thursday M and I had one of those rare days together, just the two of us. S and N spent the day at their surrogate grandparents' house enjoying a day of undivided attention whilst we went to Rotterdam for a nice relaxed lunch together. And what a lovely lunch it was: rustic bread with pesto and garlic butter; artichoke and Parma ham salad; and a lovely cappuccino to finish things off. 

But now I'm going too fast. Back to the salad.

M was tucking into his quite happily when suddenly we heard a loud crack, as if he had just bitten into a shell of sorts. We both stopped eating and stared at one another. M worked whatever it was to the front of his mouth, and, with forefinger and thumb, plucked the offending object off his tongue. We both bent forward a little, squinting. What M had put in the cup of his hand was... half a molar. We both stared at it, a little dumbfounded. M felt around his mouth with his tongue and sure enough, his tongue was met by the jagged edges of the other half of the molar. "Damn," he said, "that's another visit to the dentist." (I don't know what that is, but past a particular age - say forty - a person suddenly develops a more intimate relation with their dentist). "Well," I said attempting a joke, "thank goodness it's your molar - imagine finding someone else's molar in your salad!" M laughed half-heartedly (for Dutch readers: als een boer met kiespijn) whilst he got out his phone to call the dentist for an appointment the following week - yes, the first busy week of school when making appointments is extremely difficult (why oh why do things always have to come at once?).

On a different note, I have loved reading lots of posts on the ending of summer and the start of the new school year. Monday will be our first day. M and I start the school year with meetings; daughter N will experience her first day of school ever, and son S is dreading everything, particularly because he fears that school will interfere with play-and-toys time. I so enjoy the way he loses himself in play and the way he cherishes and appreciates his toys, although I must say there is a slightly worrying side to all this. Let me illustrate. He recently approached me with a concerned look. "Mama," he said, "where are all your toys?" I wasn't quite sure how to answer this question tactfully, so I asked, "Uhmm, what do you mean exactly?" to which he answered, "Well, where are all your Barbies and My Little Ponies and FurReal Friends?" When I answered that I didn't have them anymore, his eyes clouded over. "You mean....they're gone...?" he whispered. What ensued, of course, was a long talk about growing up and changing interests. I even told him there were grown-up men who collect (and play with) Lego and toy trains, which brightened up his face a little. He was not quite convinced, however. "Well," he concluded, "it seems to me grown-ups don't play enough, and that's strange because there's nothing more wonderful than getting out your toys and playing." What could I possibly add to that?

One of S's creations: "The more, the merrier"

There is a recipe I have been meaning to share. It involves bananas. I don't know whether I have mentioned this before, but I absolutely love bananas. What I don't enjoy, is banana cakes that are soggy or heavy in any way. This one is neither. It's actually surprisingly light, and moist without feeling greasy. I made it recently and we took wedges of it to the Efteling.

Banana and Coconut Cake
adapted extensively from Love, Bake, Nourish by Amber Rose

4 eggs
2 egg whites
4 tablespoons of coconut flour*
125g butter, melted and cooled
120ml maple syrup
2 ripe bananas, mashed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
50g dried, unsweetened desicated coconut
100g spelt flour
1 tablespoon bicarbonate of soda

* Coconut flour is very healthy (and gluten-free) but also rather expensive. Use it if you happen to have it in your pantry; otherwise simply increase spelt flour with 4 tablespoons

  • preheat the oven 180 degrees Celsius 
  • grease a 20cm springform tin and line with baking paper
  • in a clean squeaky clean bowl, beat the egg whites to form stiff peaks; set aside (in de fridge if the weather is warm)
  • in another bowl, put everything except the flour, bicarb, and desicated coconut; mix well with an electric hand mixer
  • add flour, bicarb, and dessicated coconut; mix well until you have a smooth batter
  • carefully fold in the egg whites
  • pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 40 minutes, checking at 35 minutes by inserting a wooden skewer into the centre of the cake - if it comes out clean, the cake is done
  • let cool on  a wire rack and dust with icing sugar 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Dutch Macaroons

Now where are the Dutch macaroons (bitterkoekjes), I hear you wondering. They are below, on one of my lovely photos (by now Dutch and Belgian readers will be laughing). I know, I know: they are malformed. Let me explain. Rudolph, from 24 Kitchen's  Rudolph's Bakery makes it look so darn easy to use a pastry bag. Just stuff the mixture in with a spatula, give it a good twist, and then make lovely perfect dollops, the kind you find in your French Patisserie. Well now, I put the mixture in there, but forgot to instal the nozzle first. This is a bit of a problem. I tried stuffing it in there from the bottom up, but believe you me, that doesn't work (I am now wondering whether I could have simply put the nozzle on the outside of the bag). So I simply cut an opening in the pastry bag (Rudolph swears that works too) and worked without a nozzle, with bitterkoekjes that don't look like bitterkoekjes as the result. But that doesn't mean they don't taste good. When they had just cooled down, husband M said they looked like bleached dog doodies, ate one, and then another four (really). As I was hiding the rest, he sheepishly asked whether that was the only batch I had made. Yes, M: that is the only batch.

I first experimented making these with palm sugar, and although they were delicious when eaten the same day, the next day they were too soggy. I assume this is because palm sugar has a caramel-like quality that is not suited to combining with egg whites. This means I can only make them with confectioner's sugar (Dutch poedersuiker) and have therefore not really changed the original recipe.

Dutch Macaroons
from Rudolph's Bakery by Rudolph van Veen, as seen on 24 Kitchen

2 egg whites, at room temperature
150g confectioner's sugar (poedersuiker)
150g almond meal
a few drops of almond extract

  • preheat the oven 190 degrees Celsius
  • line a baking tray with baking paper
  • put almond meal and sugar into a large bowl, combine, then add the egg whites and almond extract; mix thoroughly with an electric beater to create a smooth batter (it is not necessary to beat the egg whites first)
  • prepare the pastry bag by cutting a hole at the bottom and installing the nozzle (ahum)
  • now place the pastry bag in a measuring jug so that both hands are free to scrape the batter into the pastry bag
  • create little dollops the size of small biscuits onto the tray
  • bake 13-15 minutes until slightly coloured

I would like to end this post by thanking you warmly for all your kind comments on my last post. I appreciate them very, very much.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Ode to a Friend

This week a dear friend of mine passed away. It wasn't unexpected - she had been ill for two years - but nonetheless it seemed sudden and came as a shock. We worked together for more than ten years at my previous school, and although she was considerably older than I am, we developed a firm friendship outside of school. Five years ago she retired; three years ago she became seriously ill with cancer. This struck me as odd: it seemed Hanna had never been ill a day in her life; she was a workhorse, with the energy of an army. 

She was also one of those fearless types who enjoyed life tremendously. Hanna was what many people would call eccentric: she lived with a cat in a rambling nineteenth century house in the centre of a historic town, loved going to Berlin, Paris, and Rome - as well as Antwerp most Saturdays. By train, of course: Hanna didn't own a driver's license due to an almost blind eye, something only close friends knew about. She didn't own a television either, joking that she had one once, back in 1972, but that when it broke down she never got round to buying a new one. The truth is that she loved reading - and that is how she spent her evenings, until 1a.m., after which she drank an espresso, went to bed, and slept solidly until 5.30 before getting up to commute an hour to school and enjoy a whole day of teaching. She worked hard and lived the good life.

One of the things she loved most was food. Hanna was always on the lookout for that special little restaurant, that interesting little shop selling rare delicacies (particularly chocolate ones), or that place where they serve a perfect espresso. She also delighted in anything home baked, and on more than one occasion I sent her home with a box of jam tart biscuits which she loved. The last time she was here - with short hair after another harrowing episode of chemo -  I made scones, which she said did her good. She wanted the recipe, and although I gave it to her, I believe she never got round to baking them herself.

The greater part of the last two years were dominated by pain and nausea. Despite this, she grabbed every opportunity at treatment that was offered to her, anything to savour life a little longer. When, this week, the doctor told her there was nothing more that could be done, she reluctantly accepted her fate and passed away within a matter of hours. Thankfully she was at home, with her sister and brother-in-law by her side.

Hanna was someone who understood the art of living. She was a dear friend and will be sorely missed.

Old-Fashioned Scones
adapted from the recipe I learned at school

250g spelt flour
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
2 heaped teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
50g butter, cubed
2 tablespoons raw cane sugar
75ml milk (buttermilk is even better)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg, lightly beaten
yields 8-10 scones

  • preheat oven 225 degrees Celsius
  • sift flour, bicarb, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl
  • add sugar, stir; then add butter
  • add vanilla and milk to the lightly beaten egg, mix together, then pour into the flour mixture
  • with a light hand, bring together the mixture to form a ball of dough, making sure not to over-knead (you may need to flour your fingers as the dough will be sticky)
  • on a lightly floured worktop, roll out the dough - about 2 cm thick
  • using a round cutter of some sort (I use a small cup), cut out eight to ten rounds, making a clean cut rather that twisting the dough
  • place the rounds on a baking tray lined with baking paper
  • optional: brush the tops of the scones with a beaten egg
  • bake for 10 minutes, until golden
  • serve warm with butter and jam

Friday, 22 August 2014

PINK! Part Two and Orange Brownies

Earlier this week, The Big Day arrived. I recently revealed that we were renovating, amongst other things, daughter N's room, and I am happy to say the job is done. Wow, what a relief. I believe I also mentioned that previous months had been spent listening to her complaining about sleeping in a room that wasn't pink - well, on the The Big Day she sighed that it was a good thing the job was done because she had "simply never been able to sleep in a room that isn't pink," and with that she really meant EVER. I was about to point out the fact that she had slept quite well in a room that wasn't pink for the greater part of her life thus far, but thought better of it. Instead I said: "Well now, mama is looking forward to lovely quiet nights whilst you are away in pink dreamland," to which she nodded in happy agreement. After her first night she informed me she had slept wonderfully well, dreaming of a baby elephant that had happily set up home in her new pink abode. "Elephants love pink rooms too," I was informed with a solemn nod.

Now on to the Big Reveal. You may remember my description of the original state: orange and purple walls, a yellow ceiling with purple stars glued on, and, something I forgot to mention (but which was a lot of work sanding off): purple window frames with a green sill.

Okay, now on to what it has become.

Crazy pink walls with lovely sticker applications

Lovely corner in which to sleep and dream of elephants

New lamp shade in matching colours and pristine white ceiling

Chest of drawers with oxygenating plant...

next to which her beloved bookcase has been placed
A peek into her room from the door

Do you find all that pink dizzying? Well I do, but believe me, in 'real life' it certainly has its charm and is somewhat lighter than represented on my ridiculously mediocre photos. (I imagine that, if all you folks were to come by, you would cry with relief: "Oooh, this looks much better in real life than on those ghastly photos!"). But all jokes aside: N loves her new room and that's the most important thing.


Of course finishing N's room and all our other DIY - or most of it (photos coming at a later point) - is worthy of celebration. And what better way to celebrate than with a batch of brownies. Seeing the recipe in Delancey reminded me of Nigella's words in How to be a Domestic Goddess: "I don't understand why people don't make brownies all the time - they're easy and so wonderful." (p.193) Well, Nigella, as much as I love you, I'm sorry to say this is a strange thing not to understand; especially when someone is likely to put on ten kilos just by looking at your recipe: 375g of butter? 375 g of chocolate? 500g of caster sugar?!! Wow. The beauty of the modest recipe that follows is that it is, well, modest in both portion size and ingredients. And the taste... oh boy. Pure heaven.

Orange Brownies
Adapted extensively from Delancey, by Molly Wizenberg 

115g butter
55g pure chocolate (at least 70%)
150g palm sugar
3 eggs
2 heaped tablespoons spelt flour
0,5 teaspoon vanilla extract
grated rind of 1 organic orange
pinch of fine (sea) salt
brownie pan, approx. 20cm by 18cm
yields about 16 modest squares

  • preheat the oven 160 degrees Celsius
  • line brownie pan with baking paper using oil to make it stick
  • in a saucepan, melt butter and chocolate slowly on low heat; stir occasionally and when completely melted, remove from heat
  • stir sugar into the melted butter and chocolate to make a gritty batter
  • add vanilla, orange rind, and eggs - incorporate well
  • stir in the flour and salt to make a nice, smooth batter
  • pour into the baking pan, gently tipping the pan to make sure the batter is evenly divided
  • bang the pan down on the countertop a couple of times to bring to the surface and release air bubbles (this is  a wonderful tip from Molly)
  •  bake for 35 minutes, but check at 30 minutes by inserting a thin skewer of some kind; if it comes out clean, take out of the oven
  • leave to cool completely on a rack before cutting into squares
  • warning: these will not last long in any household!

I cannot round off this post without a message from son S: his front tooth has fallen out, and he's all the happier for it. He just wants you all to know that. And on that note: have a wonderful weekend, everyone.