Monday, 20 October 2014

Changing His Mind and Coconut Flour Goodies

It's been very busy around here. For one thing, last week's test week at school has left me with a pile of marking to do this week. This week is also Autumn break (yip, lots of marking during the holidays, a phenomenon I think most teachers are unpleasantly familiar with) and the kids are home expecting to do nice things. Thankfully, I am not one to let a pile of marking get in the way of that. 

On Saturday, whilst daughter N spent a nice day out and about with M, I took son S to The Hague to see a Scandinavian children's art house film called Beyond, Beyond (Dutch: Johan en de Verenkoning), about a little rabbit who loses his mother to an unnamed illness and has to descend into the Underworld to find her. Though it is a somewhat dark film, there is enough humour to stop it becoming scary or depressing. 

High point of my day, though, was something S said during the ride home. You may recall his sudden preoccupation with his appearance, particularly his hair. Well now, as we were bumping and swaying along in the tram, he suddenly became very pensive. When I gave him a little nudge to see if he was okay (he had, after all, just witnessed a cute little bunny lose his mother to the Grim Reaper), he replied that he was fine. More than fine, in fact. He looked at me thoughtfully and said, "You know, mama, I've changed my mind about something." I lowered my face close to his, waiting for him to go on. "You know how I said I wanted to be cool, how cool was the most important thing," he continued, "well, I don't believe that to be true anymore. From now on I just want to be myself, I just want to be me. Without gel in my hair, because I don't really like gel." To be honest, I was totally gobsmacked by this announcement. What a wise little guy. And he wasn't being flippant either; he hasn't been near the aforementioned pot of gel since.

Yesterday afternoon all four of us spent time clearing up the jungle we call a garden. There was lots of pruning to do. And weeding. And mowing. I can tell you we were quite ecstatic  when the work was done. The garden felt huge and spacious. Decluttered. A place in which one can breathe.


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In my last post I mentioned I'd been experimenting with coconut flour with some lovely results. I'd like to start by sharing the following recipe with you. It is gluten free. And, might I mention, deliciously light and fluffy.




Grain Free Blueberry Scones
adapted from supergluemom.com

150g almond flour
3 tablespoons coconut flour, sifted
60ml maple syrup
1 egg
3 tablespoons milk (any kind you like)
50g butter, melted
1 teaspoon lemon zest
0,5 teaspoon baking soda
good pinch of fine sea salt
60g blueberries, rinsed and dried 
yields about 12 scones

  • preheat the oven 175 degrees Celsius
  • line a baking tray with baking paper
  • place almond and coconut flours in a large bowl, whisk together
  • add maple syrup, milk, butter, lemon zest, baking soda, and salt
  • mix briefly with a hand mixer until a loose dough forms
  • gently fold in blueberries
  • make about 12 balls with your hands, then shape the balls into scone-like shapes
  • bake for 18-20 minutes until golden brown


Though I haven't written any replies of late, each and every one of your comments is always thoughtfully read and appreciated.  Thank you. xxx

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Child in Me and Dutch Apple Flaps

This past week I have felt the effect of too many late nights like a blow to the head with a blunt object. Now I must admit it doesn't take a lot to bring me off balance - just a couple of evenings to bed around midnight will do the trick. The result is always the same: nervousness, emotional imbalance, and something akin to melancholy. A general feeling that something is 'off' and that even the smallest chores are mountains to climb. I also don't fare well in crowds; too much input, too much stimuli, resulting in sensory overload.  I have suffered from this my whole life, but find it is increasing as I grow older. The good news, however, is that I have grown to accept this part of myself: I have a sensitive nervous system and sensitive nervous systems need to retreat and rest. 

And so, after a series of social and school-related obligations in the evening hours, it was time to step up and do something radical. For two nights in a row, I went to bed at the same time as the children. Yep, at 7.30 p.m. And boy did it do wonders.  I had expected to feel groggy the next morning, but this wasn't even remotely the case. For the first time in ages I felt well-rested. No mind buzzing or pulse racing. Just tranquil. And ready to deal quite happily with the stuff life is made of. I felt so relaxed that I even joined the kids in the afternoon for a spot of children's television, particularly enjoying Rudi het racevarken (Rudy, the Racing Pig) a series about an adorable pink piglet living with a multi-cultural German family. Grown up television couldn't possibly equal that feel-good factor.

In keeping with my new child-like lifestyle, I also tossed aside adult literature and read a beautiful book by Sonya Hartnett called The Silver Donkey. It is set during WWI and about two young French sisters who find a blind English soldier in a nearby wood. Perfect sparse prose shaped into a deeply moving story. This leads me to think there must be a plethora of gems out there aimed at children and young adults I am not yet aware of. Time to dive into the school library a little deeper, I guess.

But more has been happening around here. Son S has suddenly started caring about his appearance. For one thing, his hair needs to be styled with gel so that he will go to school looking cool. "Your hair looks very nice," I said when I'd finished sculpting it Friday morning. "But does it also look cool," he answered impatiently, "because cool is the MOST important thing."

Oh. I see.

And there were more new things to get used to this week. Daughter N dropped a bombshell on us by announcing that she had got married. To a boy in her class. I of course immediately suggested he come over and play so I could get to know my new son-in-law a little better (he's a darling, it turns out). When son S heard about this whole marriage business, he frowned and said to his sister, "But I thought you were going to marry me." N wasn't in the least bit fazed and matter-of-factly answered, "Well, sure. I can still marry you too, if you like; no need to make a fuss."

No need to make a fuss indeed.

Anyway. There were also snack boxes to fill this week and I did so using Dutch Apple Flaps, along with the usual fruit.

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Dutch Apple Flaps

3 apples,  rinsed, cored, and cubed
A handful of raisins (optional)
1 tablespoon of raw cane sugar (really no more is needed)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4-6 squares of  ready-made puff pastry

  • preheat the oven 220 degrees Celsius (or according to instructions on pastry packet)
  • lay the squares of puff pastry on an oven tray lined with baking paper
  • in a bowl, stir together the cubed apples, cinnamon, and sugar
  • now place a small amount of the filling onto the middle of the squares and fold the pastry into triangles, using your fingers to keep the filling in. Press the edges gently with a fork to seal. This is very important - if the Flap isn't sealed properly, the filling will spill out. You probably won't need all of the mixture, but that shouldn't be a problem; there's bound to be someone there willing to polish those spiced apples off in no time
  • you could brush the flaps with a beaten egg to give them a nicer colour - I didn't this time, but then I was feeling lazy
  • bake for 20 minutes until puffed up and coloured


I would like to add that I have been experimenting with coconut flour (for gluten-free baking) with some lovely results, so I will be posting about that soon. And last but not least: thank you so, so much for your lovely comments on my last post; they are deeply appreciated, as always.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Grounding

The past couple of weeks have been strange. Not strange in the sense that anything in this household is wrong or off, but more in the sense that there is something - many things in fact - wrong or off in the world at large. I have found that watching too much news causes my head to buzz with incessant thinking and my body to jitter with unrelenting adrenaline. The day before yesterday I realised it was imperative to calm down. Immediately. To that end I decided to stop watching more than one news bulletin a day, and, especially, to stop looking up news items on the internet. This has nothing to do, I think, with burying my head in the sand, but more to do with protecting myself and my immediate environment. For what use am I to my children and other people in my life if I am highly-strung and emotionally unavailable?

For a while there, I felt swept away by the collective fear of unsafety that seems to have our society in its grip; and although I believe the situation in various parts of the world to be dire, I had forgotten the part of me that feels we also need to Keep Calm And Carry On. Being present in our own lives is the only way to create a better world; being scared of the 'ifs' and 'could happens' will only serve to make things worse and more people unhappy. It helps to remind myself that what I focus on, grows.

Yesterday the children were free and the weather was warm and glorious. The perfect circumstances for a bit of serious grounding, I reckoned. We started the day by going to the tennis club for a fierce match between son S and I. Daughter N collected the balls, a task she loves and takes very seriously. We were gently encouraged in our game by the sun smiling through the trees, warming our backs and faces on the court as we enjoyed whacking the ball back and forth.



Afterwards we strolled through the fields and I gratefully welcomed back a surge of joy I realised I hadn't felt for a while. The grass, the trees, the goats, the cows, the vastness of the sky - everything seemed right, everything seemed real. After weeks stuck in the crazy world of the media and its tales of global misery, I was back. I was home.





Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Gift of Experience and Chocolate Oat Biscuits

Both my children celebrated their birthdays early September and in the weeks prior, M and I had many discussions on what to give them. We found making a choice difficult, since our children are already well endowed in the toy department. And in the books department. And in the games and puzzles department. On top of that, we have been trying to declutter and simplify our lives - instead of bringing things into the house, we prefer taking things out. Besides which, there is also our desire to be more conscious of how we spend our money and not to lose ourselves in consumerism. 

So we did something radical: we agreed not to give them any presents (!) and instead give them... an experience. For quite some time, they had been asking to go to a particular theme park: one that is at least two hours' drive from where we live and quite expensive at that. The perfect gift on a platter, we felt, with which to give them few priceless things: excitement, adventure, a whole day of fun, our undivided attention, and some lovely memories. The only downside to this plan was actually breaking the 'there will be no presents on your birthday' news. In fact, I was dreading their sad and disappointed little faces. The trembling bottom lips. The silent tears. 

But as I mentioned in my last post, life (and particularly children) can be full of surprises. And thank goodness for that. Let me explain. I broke the no-presents news to them gently, explaining our motivation, and pointing out that they have so much already (being careful not to make them feel guilty, of course), and that it's not always good to keep buying more stuff etc. To my surprise, they seemed to get it. Especially when I told them there would be a special surprise, an experience of sorts, something fun waiting for them. With that last bit of information, they went from solemn and understanding to downright happy and excited. (And, as daughter N pointed out, not getting presents from us was no big deal as they would be getting lots from friends and family at their party anyway - something I'd entirely forgotten).

On the morning of their birthdays they each got a card with five euros for their piggybanks and an announcement of the upcoming trip, which we'll be making in the autumn break. We've also decided to include an overnight stay, making it extra special and holiday-like.  "That means we'll be celebrating our birthdays AGAIN in the holidays!" son S figured.

Honesty would have me admit that I did give them an arts & crafts box each on their birthdays after school, to make the transition from 'some presents to none' a more subtle one.  And because the boxes looked so cute. And because I sometimes just can't help myself. But, this little indulgence aside, I have a sneaking suspicion this experience in lieu of presents might become a new tradition in this house.


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Now for this week's snack boxes. They involve a crispy on the outside/chewy on the inside biscuit full of healthier-alternative stuff. I've been making these for a long time and everyone loves them. I had planned to make a better photo of them, but by the time I got round to it, the poor fellows were long gone.




Chocolate Oat Biscuits

75g butter
150g rolled oats (I use ones that are gluten-free)
75g palm sugar
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon good quality cocoa
50g spelt flour
pinch of fine (sea) salt
4 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons (full fat) milk
yields 12-15 biscuits

  • melt butter in a saucepan on low heat, add rolled oats and roast lightly
  • stir in the sugars, then the cocoa; remove from heat
  • put mixture into a large bowl; add the rest of the ingredients and combine thoroughly with a wooden spoon
  • allow mixture to rest in the fridge for a half hour
  • preheat oven 175 degrees Celsius
  • line a baking tray with baking paper
  • scoop spoonfuls of the mixture onto the tray
  • moisten your hands with a little water and shape the biscuits, pressing them down slightly
  • bake for twenty minutes


Saturday, 20 September 2014

Life's Lovely Surprises and Almond Biscotti

For quite some time - two years, in fact - I feared that son S might be the type of child who simply does not like school. At all. He was always telling me how he didn't enjoy going, how he disliked all the cutting and pasting, and how he longed for school days to end so that he could go home to play. The prospect of a full day of school ahead would have him sighing and moaning. There would be a look of disappointment followed by a scowl: "Oh no, you are kidding, aren't you, mama; I don't really have to go to school all day today, do I?" And when, at the end of the afternoon, I would ask him what he'd done that day, his answer would invariably be one of two things: "I can't remember," or: "Nothing." Despite all this, he assured me he really liked his teachers and classmates. He just didn't like the work. 

This worried me. A lot. Particularly during summer, when the concern of his return to school would always be lurking in a corner of my mind. Particularly since he would be starting groep drie (group three) - the first 'real' primary school year, requiring children to knuckle down to some serious work learning reading, writing, and arithmetic. It is also the first time children are required to sit at their own table in formal rows, instead of in an informal semi-circle as they do in the first two years. 

But life is full of surprises, isn't it? When, on the first day back, I picked him up - with bated breath, may I add - he approached me with a grin from ear to ear. He told me the day had been FANTASTIC. That he was relieved about the class having to sit in rows ("We all have to work quietly, isn't that great!"), that he was delighted to have his own desk, with his own trays to put his own stuff into, and how they were finally going to be doing the really important stuff: learning letters, adding and subtracting, and lessons about nature too, yippee! 

I cannot tell you how flabbergasted I was. It was so contrary to anything I had expected. I had even spent time looking at another (less traditional) school system, one I felt might suit him better. How wrong I was! It just goes to show how we often waste our energy with unnecessary worry, instead of trusting that life will work out and point the way somehow. Much to my delight his enthusiasm has continued to grow over the past three weeks, and he is always bubbling to tell me of the new things he has learnt on any given day. 

And all I can say is:  I stand in grateful amazement.

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By now you know that I'm unlikely to leave you without a recipe. This time it's an easy one for biscotti. You're probably familiar with them: those lovely, crunchy Italian biscuits good for dunking into hot drinks.  S loves them. And so he got one a couple of times in his snack box this week.




Almond Biscotti
adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan

250g spelt flour
1,5 teaspoons baking powder
100g raw cane sugar
100g almond meal
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon almond extract

  • preheat the oven 160 degrees Celsius
  • line a baking tray with baking paper
  • place flour, baking powder, sugar, and almonds in a bowl; whisk to combine
  • add almond extract to the eggs; 
  • combine wet and dry with a spatula to form a sticky dough
  • divide the mixture into two halves; form two loaves on the baking tray, leaving some space between them
  • bake for 35 minutes; remove from oven and onto a rack; allow to cool completely
  • when cooled, use a serrated bread knife to cut the loaves into slices
  • in a reheated 160 degree oven, bake slices for another 15 minutes on each side to produce crispy biscuits

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.


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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)


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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...