Fat rascals

fat-rascals

Ooh, these are my new favourite thing, another in a long list of cakey treats that I’d never heard of but had to bake as soon as I found out about them. They’re a traditional Yorkshire bun, somewhere between a scone and a rock cake in texture, and they’re called Fat Rascals. Isn’t that adorable? Actually, there’s been a bit of a to-do about the name, as a famous bakery/tea shop chain in England bought the rights to the name a few years ago, apparently while no-one was looking, so now everyone else who makes and sells them is supposed to call them Yorkshire Scallywags. “What a beastly swizz!” as they used to say in children’s books in ye olden days. It’s like a chocolate company buying the rights to the word “chocolate” and making everyone else call it “addictive cocoa product”.

I first saw a picture of these chunky scone-ish things the other day, when some friends of the family who live in England went out for a snowy drive across the Yorkshire dales and stopped for tea. They took a picture of a large speckled bun with cherries on top and posted it on Facebook. I instantly lost interest in all their other photos showing stunning snowy countryside and winsome sheep. I leaned towards my computer to get as close as possible to the bun picture and said out loud, “What is that?!” As it happened, their son was in Canberra this week, so I made some in honour of his visit: Fat Rascals for a true Yorkshire scallywag.

I recommend eating them warm out of the oven with a bit of butter on top. I found several recipes on the net and tweaked them to make my own. The biggest change was that I didn’t put sultanas in as I don’t like the way tarnies get swollen and bloated when they’re cooked. When I was a child I usually picked the bloated sultanas out of Mum’s bread pudding and wiped them on the underside of the table. (Sorry, Mum!) I also made mine gluten free, as I’m coeliac, and they worked just fine using pre-mixed flour. Here’s my Fat Rascals recipe:

  • 150g gluten free self-raising flour
  • 150g gluten free plain flour
  • 1 heaped teaspoon gluten free baking powder
  • 1 heaped teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 125g butter
  • 150g currants
  • 1 egg
  • about 5 tablespoons milk
  • 1 extra egg yolk + one tablespoon of water to glaze the buns
  • glace cherries
  • blanched almonds

Heat the oven to 200C

Cube the butter and whiz it in the blender with the flours until it looks like breadcrumbs (or rub it in by hand if you prefer). Tip the mix into a large bowl. Stir in the baking powder, spices, sugar and currants. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients. Lightly beat the egg and pour it into the dry ingredients with about 4 tablespoons of milk. Mix everything together well and add more milk if the mixture seems dry. You want it to come together like soft dough. Break the dough into eight equal pieces and make each piece round and about 2cm in depth. Put them on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Mix the extra egg yolk and the water together in a cup. Brush the top of each rascal with the egg/water mix, then press two cherries into the dough to make eyes and three blanched almonds to make goofy teeth. Stand back, admire your work and laugh. Then bake them for about 20 minutes or until they’re golden.

They look even funnier when they come out of the oven, as the eyes move further apart during baking. Wait for them to cool a bit if you can, put the kettle on for a cup of tea, then spread some butter on a warm rascal and leave the washing up till later.

 

 

 

Taking stock

silver-lining

We had a terrific storm on 30 December. There was a startling orange and purple sunset, then castles of cumulonimbus clouds built higher and higher into the sky and thunder shook the house. It wasn’t New Year’s eve, but I liked the symbolism of finishing the old year with a bang and being washed clean by the rain. And see that silver lining in the picture above? It’s clearly there, under all the heaviness and drama.

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. If the past five years have taught me anything it’s that the idea that we can control our lives is an illusion. I read a great quote by someone who endured terrible hardship for a long time and lived to tell the tale. He said: “Hope for everything but expect nothing.” You might think that sounds a little negative, but it’s quite the opposite. It’s our expectations that make us feel entitled, sad, frustrated, angry. My experience is that when we don’t expect anything but are always hopeful then we are often surprised and delighted. Instead of making resolutions, I thought I’d take stock. It’s something lots of bloggers do, a snapshot of life as it is right now. Here’s my list:

Reading:   The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks. I love that he is part of his landscape, how he remembers who built each dry stone wall, how he knows the character of each sheep on his farm. He’s so attuned to the natural world he lives in. Most of us have lost that, as we rush around from here to there, always thinking of the next thing and forgetting to watch and listen to our environment.

Luxuriating: In my new bed. Why did I wait so long to buy one?!

Doing: Lots of yin yoga for my sore back and hips. (Again, why didn’t I buy a new bed sooner?!)

Watching: The mauve and apricot sunset over the Brindabellas each night.

Wishing: I could have a dog.

Enjoying: Researching all the dog breeds, all the pet rescue sites, and dreaming about the type of dog I’ll get when I can have one. For now, here’s a picture of Geoff, or Sir Geoffers, a most self-contained and noble greyhound who likes coming to visit:

geoff

Eating: Salmon with home-grown lettuce and herbs, deep red juicy plums and fragrant white peaches, grainy and sweet peanut halva—light foods after the Christmas excess.

Enjoying: Rain once a week, making the leaves sparkle and glitter, remembering the 10-year drought we had a while back and marvelling at the change now.

Discovering: A huge orchard swallowtail butterfly seemingly asleep on the plum tree at dusk, leading to the question “Do butterflies sleep?” It turns out that they just rest, or become quiescent. Isn’t that a lovely word?

Listening: To old vinyl records that I can now play on my new el-cheapo turntable. The speed is slightly warped, so everyone sounds a bit fast and tinny. Or maybe that’s how vinyl always sounded and I’ve forgotten. And they need a clean…a clean…a clean…a clean…!

Coveting: Many of the paintings in The Popular Pet Show at the National Portrait Gallery. It really is the loveliest exhibition. I’m going for the third time this weekend and I’ve bought the book. It’s on till March. I’ll miss it when it finishes.

Feeling: Glad to be swimming again, gliding through silky, sunlit water, listening to insects hum in the bushes around the pool.

Planning: How to furnish and decorate this gem of a house that I’ve moved into.

Pondering: How to have more time to write, create, finish the yoga course I started a year ago. My aim was (and still is) to hold relaxing classes for middle-aged busy people like me whose body parts are becoming increasingly creaky. Someone suggested I call it “Yoga for Stiffs”. That’s not a bad idea, particularly since it’s taking me so long to finish the course!

Loving: Being at home for a few weeks, talking and laughing with friends, getting to know the neighbours, listening to birdsong, having time to read and sleep and eat well.

Hoping: For a year of new experiences, small delights, and oceans of time to enjoy them. Here’s to 2017.

oceans-of-time

The importance of rest

resting-roos

So that was Christmas. The inedible Christmas cake that crumbled like an ancient monument. The family get-together marred, as always, by the flawed communication habits that we can never seem to change. We all know where the buttons are and how to push them. This year there was an uninvited guest, that bastard cancer, hanging around, affecting everything we did and said. Then there were the friends who visited, bringing with them cherries and welcome laughter and stories of Christmas in countries far away.

Literally every man and his dog came to visit. I confess I was so tired that I would rather have paid for the people to go to a hotel and just looked after the dogs instead. There was the retired greyhound who spent his racing life in the country and now lives at the coast, where he always seems lethargic. Turns out he missed the inland life. He was more animated here than I’ve ever seen him. He  suddenly loved going for walks. Then a husky arrived with his people. He patrolled every boundary and spent a lot of time going up and downstairs to check where everyone was. He was given a piece of toast one morning and thought it was so special that it had to be buried in the garden straight away. We watched him hide it, deftly covering it with earth then using his nose to shovel leaves on top of it. I was sure I’d be able to dig it up again, having watched where he put it, but he’d done such a good job that I couldn’t find it.

When did Christmas become a festival of food? There was so much preparation, so much clearing up. I felt like Cinderella stuck in the kitchen. More than once I considered becoming a vegetarian (no turkey to cook) Buddhist (no Christmas) and going on a retreat (no noise). I soon realised that the usual quiet at my house is not what people are used to. Some couldn’t bear it, and the blasted TV went on. As an introvert who needs periods of quiet and solitude to function, the hardest thing for me was the inability to leave my guests and disappear for half an hour or so, to go somewhere quiet and rest.

Rest is not much valued in our society. In a culture where busy is the norm, rest is seen as somehow lazy, indulgent, selfish. We have to allow ourselves to rest. The only time when we as a nation truly condone rest is now, in the small space of time from Christmas to the first week of January. This is the time to stop multitasking, time to drop the “should” from each day, time to do as we please. That’s exactly what I intend to do. I hope you can too. When I began to tidy up after the last guests had gone, I found that their daughter had left me a gift on the bookshelf: a butterfly’s wing, a small, quiet, pretty reminder of the importance of floating lightly through the next few days. I wish you a peaceful new year. Have a good rest, won’t you? I’m sure you’ve earned it.

O Christmas tree

christmas-tree

When I was 11-and-three-quarters I was for one brief moment the fairy on the Christmas tree. It happened during the school concert, when I fell off the stage, landed on the Christmas tree and took it down with me. Actually, our school hall didn’t have a stage, so the enterprising teachers decided to build a makeshift one out of slippery plastic tables stacked on top of each other. On top of the tiers of tables they put chairs and benches. It looked pretty good. This was in the 1970s, when no-one had heard of OH&S. Being tall, I was seated in the back row, right at the end, next to the rather magnificent Christmas tree.

Our music teacher was fierce. He was passionate about music and about one of the other teachers, who he would send notes to throughout the day. He always sent them via one of the students, who would read the note and tell everybody else what was in it. So we knew he liked music and Miss R, but we were pretty scared of his temper and of the spit that would fly out of his mouth when he got cross. We practised hard for the concert. I knew all the words to the songs and had my part for the recorder group down pat as well. At the final rehearsal the music teacher looked at us sternly and told us nothing was to go wrong in this concert.

On the night, the hall was full. There was excitement, anticipation, in the air. We stood up to sing and it was magnificent. We went straight into the next carol and it sounded good too. I think we did one more, then the teacher motioned us to sit down. As I went to sit, my chair slid sideways off the shiny plastic table, taking me with it. I sailed off the makeshift stage onto the Christmas tree, with its sparkling lights and prickly pine needles. Time stood still. I felt as though I was suspended on the Christmas tree for a long time, then it gave way and I fell to earth with a crash.

I wondered if I was dead, then I realised that pine needles were sticking into my back and the legs of the chair were on my neck. There was no sound, except perhaps the shocked inhale of all the parents and students in the hall. I lay there, unable to believe that I was lying on the Christmas tree with a chair on top of me. I remembered that nothing was to go wrong in this concert. Oh dear. This wasn’t part of the program. Then I heard running, from a long way off. Like the Bionic Man (a popular TV character at the time) the PE teacher was sprinting towards me, down the aisle between the rows of parents. He used his superhuman strength to get the chair off me, lift me off the Christmas tree and take me into the classroom next door.

I had never really liked the PE teacher. He wore nylon shirts—not a good choice in that profession. But now he was my hero. He had saved my life, or at least cut short my embarrassment. Back in the hall, the choir had begun to sing again. The PE teacher made me sit down. I was shaking but nothing was broken…except the Christmas tree. The door opened and a boy came in who I had a bit of a crush on. He was supposed to sing a solo next, so he was getting ready for his big entrance. “Was that you I saw with your legs in the air, lying on top of the Christmas tree?” he said.

A bit later, it was time for the recorder group to play. I went out with the group, as a way of easing back into the concert without being obvious. I was shaking so much that I mimed all the recorder pieces, every single one. I couldn’t blow a note. Then I climbed back up on to the stage. My chair, I noticed, was now tied to the one next to it. I mimed all the songs in the rest of the concert. Each time I sat down, I practically sat in my neighbour’s lap. “Move over!” she said once. No way.

My parents weren’t at the concert so I got a lift home with a friend. (Hello, Judith, if you’re reading.) “That went well,” said her mum, “except for the poor girl who fell off the stage.” She didn’t realise it was me. My friend held my hand and shook her head and we said nothing. The next day at school I thought I’d be in big trouble. All morning kids came up to me and asked me if I’d got into trouble yet. Then someone asked if I’d have to pay for the Christmas tree lights. I hadn’t even thought of that. How much did they cost?

Eventually the music teacher came to find me. Amazingly, he wasn’t cross. He asked me if I was all right and he seemed really concerned. I asked him about the Christmas tree lights. “Oh, I don’t know anything about that,” he said. At lunchtime, when I was outside, I saw the deputy head walking towards me, his hands in his pockets, bellowing at the boys to take their hands out of theirs. He was a ruddy-cheeked Welshman who shouted a lot but never lost the twinkle in his eye. This was the moment of truth. How much would I have to pay? Would my pocket money cover it? “It’s the fairy on the Christmas tree!” he said, laughing. I started laughing too, from embarrassment as much as relief. “Don’t worry,” he said, “We won’t charge you for the lights.”

Merry Christmas, everybody!

One hundred forests

arboretum2

Gentle rain, and the garden glows green. Is there anything better than being on holiday, being able to go back to bed with a book and a cup of tea while the rain falls softly on the verandah roof?

A friend from Sydney came to visit. She loves trees as much as I do, so on a drizzly day we went to the National Arboretum and joined a tour led by a volunteer with passion, knowledge and dry sense of humour (the best qualities for the job, don’t you think?!). When the idea for an arboretum was first proposed, the site was a burnt-out pine plantation, devastated by the 2003 bushfires. I lived not far away at the time of the fires and I remember my landlord standing on the roof of my little house, hosing down embers until about 10pm, when the wind changed and we knew we were safe. Amazingly, the 90-year-old Himalayan cedar and cork oak forests that grew beside the plantation survived.

The decision to plant an arboretum on the site was in part to symbolise healing after the fires. When the planners stood in the two remaining forests, our guide told us, they realised how different each one felt and decided that the arboretum should be composed of many forests of a single species—rare, threatened, symbolic, international and local—species with spectacular autumn or spring colour and species that would support wildlife. As I listened to him talk, I thought my heart would burst with happiness at the forethought, the vision, the creativity. Each forest is planted in a unique arrangement—for example, the trees in the weeping snow gum forest are planted in a snowflake pattern. From the air it must look spectacular. The original plan was for one hundred forests and so far the count stands at 94.

We stood in the rain and looked out at the panorama and I thought how glad I was that my taxes contribute to this expanse of trees that delights and inspires, a place of beauty that keeps growing not just upward and outward but greener. Trees grow slowly in Canberra. It will be decades before some of the plantings become forests, each with their own special character. “Come back in 80 years and check this one out,” said our guide, waving his arm at a particular forest. We all laughed. Then the woman next to me said, “My spirit will come back.” Mine too.

arboretum1

 

 

Sashiko

sashiko3

A quiet passion of mine is sashiko, a type of Japanese embroidery. It was originally used as a way of quilting or mending clothes, but it’s evolved as a decorative craft. It’s basically running stitch, traditionally in white thread on indigo cotton, and each stitch is supposed to be the size of a grain of rice. (Some of mine are rather long grain!) There are many patterns, from simple geometric shapes to more intricate ones like the one above. You can draw or trace your own pattern onto fabric or buy pre-printed fabric or kits. I’m not very good at straight lines, so I buy pre-printed cotton and follow the dots. Here’s one I’m working on at the moment:

sashiko1

Sashiko needles are very long because you load the fabric onto the needle then pull the thread through several stitches at once. There’s a fair bit of information about sashiko out there in internet land. Two really good books that tell you all about how to do it and include pattern templates and projects are The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook, by Susan Briscoe, and Japanese Quilting: Sashiko, by Hiromitsu Takano.

If you’re lucky enough to live in Canberra, the wonderful  KimoYES shop in Phillip has kits, needles, thread and pre-printed fabric. It’s also a colour and texture wonderland full of other Japanese fabrics. When I’m in there I feel as though I’ve walked inside a kaleidoscope. I haven’t been to Indigoniche in Brisbane or  Kimono House in Melbourne but their online range looks pretty good.

The best thing about sashiko is that it’s so meditative. It’s not hard but you have to concentrate. You keep slowly stitching away and—hey presto!—you end up with something beautiful AND you feel really relaxed. I have all sorts of plans for using my sashiko samplers in clothes, cushions, wallhangings and bags, but for now I just can’t stop stitching, in and out, in and out, and making pretty patterns.

sashiko2

 

Just get it done

stormy-beach

Is there something you need to do, something you’ve been putting off? The procrastination scale, I’d say, ranges from those who always take action, no matter how hard the task, to those who become so anxious and fearful about doing a particular thing that it almost paralyses them. At work I’m in the “just do it” category. At home I’m somewhere in the middle.

I’ve been putting something off. I knew I needed to get the thing done but I resisted it. Partly it was annoyance: “Really?! I have to do this? I have to prove myself again?!” Partly it was fear of being judged, of getting it wrong, of not being good enough. This thing had a deadline, so I knew I couldn’t put it off indefinitely. I also knew I didn’t want to do it at the last minute, in a horrible rush, producing something less than I was capable of.

I put the thing off for about a week, until I realised that it was becoming bigger than it needed to be. It started to loom, like a storm cloud, hovering menacingly at the edge of everything, and I hated that. I realised I’d begun to tell myself stories about the thing: “Oh, this will happen and then this. And so and so will say such and such.” The whole narrative was made up. How can we ever really know what someone will say or what will happen? We can’t. We know only what we will say or do.

I went for a swim, which is how I do my best thinking. Up and down the pool I went, watching the ripples of sunlight dancing on the bottom. I thought about “ahimsa”. It’s a Sanskrit word meaning “do no harm”. The principle is common to many religions and philosophies, but the important aspect of it that we almost always overlook is that it also means do no harm to yourself. As I swam, I thought about how the procrastination was causing me harm, making me unnecessarily anxious, weighing on my mind when it shouldn’t. And then I knew what I had to do:

  • Stop making up stories about what might happen.
  • Break the thing into smaller, more manageable pieces.
  • Deal with one piece a day, unless you get so fired up after completing one task that you want to keep going.
  • Allow enough time.
  • Be happy with what you have done.
  • Hope for the best outcome but have a plan B.

So that’s what I did. The first task was a phone call. I’d imagined it going badly but it didn’t. The person was chatty and helpful and I enjoyed talking to them. The second and third tasks involved writing. They took me two days. I did a lot of walking around the house. I thought about doing the ironing. But otherwise I sat down and wrote. The next task is a way off and may not even happen. I’ve done my bit for now and have to wait for someone else to make a decision. In the meantime, I’m thinking about plan B.

If plan A works out then my life changes in a good way. If not, plan B is okay until something else comes along. Either way, I’m happy because I’ve done my best. I’ve done what needed to be done. What about you? Is there something you need to do? By all means think about it and give yourself time…but not too much. Just get it done. Good luck!

sunnybeach

 

Desert island foods

avocado

When I was a child and lived in another country there was a radio program where, each week, a guest was asked to choose the music they’d take to a desert island. The first program went to air in 1942 and it’s still going. How’s that for staying power?! It must have had an effect on me as I’ve been playing a slightly different game ever since I first heard it: desert island foods. My rules are pretty flexible, but the rule that never changes is that you can take only five foods with you. Some weeks my list goes something like this: chocolate, sushi, tea, lettuce and pears. Other weeks it’s more practical.

Because it’s a desert island I imagine that it’s somewhere tropical with plenty of fish and coconuts, and perhaps taro and a green plant you can eat. So that’s dinner sorted. This week and probably every week for the rest of summer I nominate toast and avocado with a squeeze of lemon as my desert island foods. I’d love to take some feta or haloumi but I don’t think there’s a fridge on the island. (Incidentally, toast and avo became a topic of national debate this week. You can read about it here if you missed it. The comments are pretty funny.)

I also wouldn’t mind a sprinkling of seeds roasted in tamari, but then we’re over the 5-food limit. So it’s avocado, flour, yeast, oil and lemon. That’s what’s coming with me for summer on the island. I gave serious thought to leaving out the yeast but decided that flat bread doesn’t toast well. Obviously, even though there’s no electricity on the island, I will be able to rub sticks together and start a fire to make toast. Oh, and whittle a toasting fork in my spare time.

It occurred to me only this week, after playing this game for YEARS, that the island could be off the coast of Scotland or Canada or Norway instead, which is a whole different kettle of fish (or fish kettle, which could be useful). Now I’ll have to think about what food to take to such a different climate. Which five foods would you take? What would your island be like? Don’t stress too much about the decision. The plane or boat can leave any time you want. No hurry.

 

 

 

Creative community

community

I live in a rather unusual place. It started life in the 1970s as a housing cooperative. A group of people got together and applied to build a collection of medium density houses that all complement each other and share some common facilities (gardens, a community centre and a pool). They engaged a really good architect. They made the government change the rules so that they could build it. The houses sit on a block of land that’s paisley shaped (how ’70s is that?!) and they are pretty damned funky. People of all ages live here, from original owners (some of whom are in their seventies) to families with young children, and everyone in between. We call it the Village.

The Village recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. As part of the celebrations some people were asked to open their homes so that others could come and look at the different types of architecture. I’m the newest resident and have only recently moved in, but I said yes to opening my house because it was a good way to meet people. I hastily unpacked boxes and shoved everything in cupboards. Now I don’t know where anything is. If there was an Olympic medal for speed weeding I’d win it, because I went through my garden like a whirling dervish. (Not sure about those mixed metaphors. Anyway, you get the idea.)

About 25 people turned up on the day to walk through my house. Most were from the Village; some lived elsewhere in the suburb. The contradictory things people said made me laugh. “It’s small, isn’t it?” said one person. “I like how you’ve made it look bigger,” said another. “These houses are very hot upstairs,” said someone. “These houses have great cross-ventilation,” said someone else. The great thing was that everyone told me about their own house and how much they like it here. Some started off as renters then bought a house. Some bought one house then sold it and moved to another one, still in the Village.

The funny thing was, absolutely everyone stopped in front of my etching of a dog called Jenny (by a friend who does wonderful etchings) and told me about either their artistic talents or their pets. I met people who make jewellery, people who like to sew, people who paint and draw. I met dog lovers and cat lovers. It was so much nicer than the usual conversation people have when they first meet, which is, “What do you do?” What all these people do creatively is much more interesting to me. After the open house I went up to the community centre to look at the art and craft show that was part of the 40th anniversary celebrations. People had exhibited ceramics, models for theatre sets, paintings, jewellery, embroidery, prints, furniture, clothes and video art. It was a small but heart-lifting display of the wonderful things people make at home. And I thought that whenever I meet new people in my community perhaps a better question to ask is not, “What do you do?” but “What do you make?”

The tart and the Countess

tart

Does this ever happen to you? You hear of a recipe you’ve never heard of before and suddenly you want to make it. It happens to me a lot. I was browsing somewhere and read the words “Shaker lemon pie” and I had to find out what it was straight away. In-depth research (obsessive comparison of online recipes) followed.  I discovered that you use the whole lemon, peel and all. The secret is to slice it so thinly that, as one recipe said, the slice of lemon drapes over the knife like a watch in a Salvador Dali painting. I needed to bake that pie. But I was away from home and I was busy. My oven called me from home, “Come and bake that pie!” but I couldn’t. My longing grew for that pie I’d never made.
I could almost taste it. Another week passed. I still wasn’t at home and I had no access to an oven. I ducked into a supermarket to grab food for my busy week and saw a man buying many lemons. “He must be making Shaker lemon pie,” I thought. That’s how obsessed I was. Did he go home and make it? We’ll never know. You’ll be glad to hear I didn’t stalk him.

A full 15 days after I heard of Shaker lemon pie, I was able to make it. But I made it in a hurry and I wasn’t concentrating so I ended up making…ahem…lemon tart. I forgot to put the top on it. I think that affected the taste a bit, as the pie filling got a little burntish and the…er…slightly charred lemon peel was very intense. I will make it again, next time with a proper pastry lid, and I think it’ll be much more mellow. I used this recipe: Shaker lemon pie. The two most important ingredients not listed in the recipe are: take your time and focus!

And what of the Countess? Well, that’s the china: Royal Doulton Countess. I spotted it years ago on a TV series, Lark Rise to Candleford, and became a bit obsessed about that too. It was made from the late 1800s to about 1930, I think. For a long time all the Countess I owned was a cake stand because the pattern was hard to get in Australia and too expensive to buy overseas. Then one day a friend of mine who has an eye for china was browsing in an op shop in a very untrendy part of Sydney when he spied a sweet little teapot, jug, sandwich plate and various cake plates in Countess. Because he is an outstandingly generous individual he bought the lot and gave it to me in shoeboxes wrapped up with thick green ribbon.  And that’s the story of how the tart met the Countess.