Saturday, 28 May 2016

Fitness Motivation Ideas


If you're anything like me, you have virtuous intentions but reality is a lot more sinful.  True of many areas of my life, it frustrates me most when it comes to my health and fitness.  On paper, it should be totally easy to achieve my goals of losing a little weight and toning up, and of feeding my body well.  I decide what my body does and what goes into it, so how can it be so hard just to make good damn decisions?!

But the devil in me tells me to sabotage those good intentions and I need a little help in negotiating with him sometimes.  Okay, most of the time.  And while there are thousands of books and e-guides on how to attain whatever goal you're chasing, I find myself without the time (or, let's face it, without the patience to spend what free time I have sifting through all the ads and disappointing downloads) to find something that suits me.

So, yesterday morning, I took things into my own hands.  Two pending holidays, one involving swimwear, might have something to do with it...

The First Step: Setting Goals

What do I want to achieve?  For me right now, it's about losing fat in certain places, being more toned all over and generally liking the look of my body more.  These are all pretty vague aims, but it's important to have goals in order to see progress, continue to feel motivated and measure success.

I've taken some measurements (upper arm, waist, hips, thigh) and also used the crazy Tanita machine at the gym which gives a little printout of my weight, BMI, resistance(?!) and body fat mass.  While it would be nice to see my weight drop, because muscle weighs more than fat, it's not such a reliable measure of progress.  Neither are the measurements, which may not reduce much due to muscle gain.  So I've taken a photo of myself in a bikini and I'll compare now to, say, a month in the future.  Don't look out for me in one of those jaw-dropping before-and-afters though; I'm expecting nothing dramatic.  And, on top of all these stats, there's still that can't-put-your-finger-on-it feeling you have about yourself, so I've given myself a score out of 10 as to how much I like the look of what I see in the mirror. I could add to that scores on how well I sleep and how much energy I feel I have, but that might be a bit too much for me right now!


Goals need to be realistic so that you're not setting yourself up for failure.  I am not going to lose a stone in six weeks.  I may, however, lose an inch or two all over and be able to up those scores by one or two points.

The Plan of Attack

I know me pretty well so it wasn't hard to come up with a way of keeping myself on track.  Essentially, it's a chart and some little stickers.  Mature, right?  But they say we each have our own way of learning and that some of us need a visual means of taking in information.  When studying for exams, it wasn't enough for me to read and re-read; I had to write and re-write the information I needed to take in.  Perhaps I need a visual and physical action - all the better for this task then!

I've tried a fitness app before but found it just too time-consuming to input all the information, and there was never the right food or exercise available.  I also don't need any reasons to use my phone more!  So it's back to basics with good ol' paper.

There's a blank wall in my bedroom that's been annoying me for a while.  I lie in bed and there it is: empty and begging for a purpose.  Well, now it's The Workout Wall!  You may feel that workout guides and charts are the last thing you want to see before you go to sleep and when you wake up in the morning, but I need that sense of satisfaction - or of guilt! - to be right there, in my face.


I've put various fitness circuits up there, as well as a chart to track my activity and another to keep a record of what I've been eating and drinking.  I'll use little colour-coded stickers to show what activity I've done (different colours for each circuit, others for work at the gym and - to give myself a little leeway - an 'extras' sticker for when I've been really active that day).  If you're looking for a printable workout, you should take a look at PopSugar's site, which has a user-friendly guide for pretty much any area you might want to target.  My favourite full-body circuit is available here.

I've also put up a food chart, so I can note down what I consume each day.  On the one I printed, there's a space for calorie count but I'm not really interested in calorie intake (plus, who can be bothered calculating that, especially if you cook from scratch?)  Instead, I'm going to just mark a little green (for well done), orange (for okay) or red (for naughty - try not to do that again) dot according to how I feel about what I've eaten.  This is pretty simplistic, but I reckon my poor eating habits merit a whole wall to themselves.  And that's  definitely for another day!


My main food issue is evening snacking.  Once the boys are in bed, I feel as if I deserve to pig out on all manner of crap (booze, chocolate, salted nuts, crisps...)  My other triggers are the odd occasion when The Small Small has an afternoon nap and The Big Small isn't around, an argument with The Husband (or anyone) and, well, being bored.  I've made a list of possible solutions like having no naughties in the house (impossible due to not living alone) or keeping said naughties in one place and putting a sign on them saying something like 'KEEP OUT FATTY' (do-able), as well as simple alternatives like making sure there are better, appealing snacks around (easy) and keeping a list of alternative activities for when the trigger is just boredom (that's my next job). 


And to add to all that, I'm thinking of putting up one of these pictures of a gorgeous, half-naked, toned girl to spur me on - there are a few of them on my Pinterest board too, if you're interested!

Avoiding Opportunity for Excuses

My nemesis in this task is that little voice in my head giving me reasons why I shouldn't do something towards my goals.  Here are some of my best ones:  I've already had a shower today so I don't want to get sweaty and have another one; I've been really active today so I don't really need to do proper exercise; or, I worked hard yesterday and I'll do loads tomorrow.  Any of these sound familiar?

With my new setup, I can't use lack of exercise ideas or equipment as an justification.  And, having identified some of my excuses, hopefully I'll be able to challenge the self-sabotaging voice and grab back that motivation.



Rewards

With all this positive attitude in me just now, it's great to think about rewarding my forthcoming success.  Maybe it's just me, but I find seeing lots of boxes full of reward stickers incredibly satisfying.  Beyond that, I don't plan to reward myself with new clothes or - God forbid - a foodie binge, but I might treat myself to reading a magazine, painting my nails or something else I never take the time to do.  Without concrete goals, I'll have to figure out when (or if!) I'm eligible for a reward.  Let's see how things go.


If you think this is something that might work for you too, take a look at my 'Fit, not fat' Pinterest board for links to the printable calendars and workout guides.  And get in touch on facebook to let me know how you get on!  (Similarly, if you are a health/fitness/lifestyle guru and you have some tips to help me on my quest, ping me a message.)  Cheers!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

No-Churn Strawberry & Banana Ice Cream: 4 ingredients and no added sugar


It seems the more I cook, the less I write about cooking.  If you were at school with me, it won't surprise you that I know this concept an inverse proportionality.  I looooved maths.  However, neither my cooking nor my writing is quantifiable enough to allow the involvement of the inverse square rule...

Hello?  Anyone still there? 

Right then...so basically, while blog posts have been notable by their absence, my fridge, dry store and belly have been full to bursting lately.  I've been doing so much experimenting and note-making that my head spins when I lie in bed at night.  Writing about it all would probably do me the world of good.  I 'write' in my head all the time, but my moments of head-space are few and short, interrupted by chores, toddlerisms and general crappy life-min.  What can I say; it's been a long day!

On a cheerier note, the weather here has taken a turn for the better.  Here in the central east of Scotland, we really do experience four seasons in one day.  This morning, for example, the boys had sun hats on at the park one minute before diving under cover from hail stones the next.  No exaggeration.  Generally, though, things seem on the up, triggering the 'taps aff' at a crack of sun phenomenon and the sudden appearance of ice cream vendors from whence there was none.


While I will not be getting my tap aff this side of doomsday (not outside my bedroom anyway), I did join the ice cream brigade in my own, low-guilt way.  This sweet, soft, sickly-pink concoction is creamy, fruity and just the thing for those ten minutes before the hail kicks in...

Banana & Strawberry Ice Cream

makes 6 modest portions or 2 greedy ones

Image for aesthetic purposes only!
Do not freeze fruit before prepping or you risk loss of fingertips.
what you'll need
2 large bananas or 3 small ones, peeled, cut into chunks and frozen
half a cup of strawberries, hulled and frozen
2 TBSP single cream
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

a food processor with chopping blade attached
a freezer-safe container

what you'll do
  • throw all the ingredients into the food processor
  • pulse until everything comes together and the mixture has the consistency you prefer.  I like a few chunks but you can keep going if you want it super-smooth.
  • transfer the mixture into the container (make sure it's wide - as opposed to deep - enough to allow scoopage later) and freeze for at least a couple of hours
  • scoop and serve!

While you wonder at how I eked this method out into a 4-step 'recipe', I will share with you the wisdom of my ice-creaming experience.  First, do not just bung some whole bananas in the freezer, skin and all.  You will squawk in pain as you try to peel the damn things with icy fingers before hacking through them with your largest knife.  Dum dum.  Same with trimming the strawberries; much easier done before freezing.  (Although they do look good sitting in the sun on a bamboo mat, I reckon...)

 
Second, make sure to take the ice cream out of the freezer about ten minutes before you're going to eat it.  Easier said than done, I know, but it does save a bit of scooping effort or a cold lap(!)

I have used various recipes before, and if a recipe suggests that you use an ice-cream maker and you don't have one, don't even bother trying it.  I've made plenty of rock hard, crystallised, inedible (who am I kidding - we ate them, they just weren't nice!) blocks of frozen sweet stuff.  This one, however, does work without another small specialist appliance.  There's just no room on my counter!

I'm looking forward to trying this out with loads of other fruits in place of the strawberries.  Both the brambles (that's blackberries to you non-Scots) for awesome colour and the raspberries that grow in abundance round these parts later in the year, perhaps with a squeeze of lemon, would really be summer in a scoop.  From further afield, the prospect of mangos, peaches, blueberries and pineapples all get my mouth watering.  Fingers crossed for a few more sunny days.  And The Big Small has challenged me to make a green one, so look out for my clean, green ice cream, coming soon... 

Friday, 1 April 2016

Lightly-spiced sweet potato waffles (sweet or savoury)


Phew!  What a week! 

I had a Very Important Meeting on Wednesday, which has taken me weeks to prepare for, on and off.  Yesterday, it was The Small Small's second birthday, so there was a cake and family dinner involved.  Then today, The Husband (who has been on nightshift and only surfaced yesterday for said family dinner) headed off to Hamburg for a stag weekend!  Lucky bugger.  ( I might also mention that we've recently had two bathrooms renovated and I've still to finish the painting, but I don't really want to think about that just now.)

So today I really tried to take it easy.  For me, this is much easier said than done.  If I'm not doing at least two things at once, I consider the time wasted.  Not that anything I am doing is particularly vital in the grand scheme of things (whatever that might be).  I see letting my boys watch TV as a cop-out, even though it often results in everyone being less grumpy with each other and the late afternoon passing much more pleasantly for all of us.  Today, I indulged them and moseyed off to potter about in the kitchen.

Occasionally, I plan my kitchen experiments.  Usually, however, they come about through the build up of unused ingredients and this was the case today.  Earlier in the week, I'd roasted some sweet potatoes and a butternut squash.  I'd also soaked and cooked a small bucket of chickpeas, some of which went into a batch of hummus while the other lot were left sitting in the fridge.  Add to all that some leftover roast potatoes from last night's birthday meal, and there was plenty to play around with.

So, during Topsy & Tim and whatever other guff the boys were watching, I concocted the following: chickpea, spring onion and feta 'burgers', lightly spiced sweet potato waffles and homemade potato waffle-chips.

Step 1: place leftover roasties on hot, oiled waffle iron and close machine.

Step 2: open machine and discover DIY potato waffles.

The last creation requires no recipe, only the pre-roasted white potatoes and a waffle-maker brushed with oil.  You can imagine the rest.  The Big Small let me try one of his and it was pretty awesome: just a big, fat chip with a crunchy outside and a fluffy middle.  He has asked that we have them every day.  Ahem, no.  Although I will admit it to be the best reincarnation of a roast potato that this thirty-something Scottish girl has found, and we get through a lot of potatoes over here!

The chickpea 'burgers' were a bit less successful.  I tried them in the waffle-maker (have I mentioned that I treated myself to a Lidl special last week and have been firing anything and everything on that machine since?!) but they stuck like crazy.  I have had previous failure with chickpea waffles, although last time I used chickpea flour and this time the real things.  So after that, I fried little patties in a pan and they browned and crisped nicely.  I quite enjoyed them but the boys didn't like the flavour, so they're maybe something to be tinkered with another day. 

And that brings us to the third experiment: sweet potato waffles.  There were so moreish!  Subtly sweet - less sickly than a straight roasted version - but with a quality that makes them suit savoury dishes just as well as sweet ones.  The spice is gentle and adds a warmth, but does not say 'curry', if you know what I mean. 

I can see myself playing around with the flavours and I've got a feeling that they'll take a lot of different spices.  Cinnamon and ginger would be great for a sweeter version (maybe with a little grated apple in there or some orange zest), while garlic and lemon could really zing up a savoury version. 


Lightly-spiced sweet potato waffles (sweet or savoury)

(makes 8 little waffles)

what you'll need

3 small sweet potatoes, roasted and cooled (1 huge one or 2 mediums will work too)
2 medium eggs
2 TBSP wholewheat spelt flour (for such a small amount, try replacing with your flour of choice)
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp garam masala

what you'll do
  • turn on your waffle-maker to heat it up*.  It's also a good idea to put your oven on low so you can keep the waffles warm while you are waiting to serve them.
  • peel the potatoes and turn the flesh into a smallish bowl
  • add the eggs and mash with a fork until quite smooth (you could use a food processor or stick blender but it's just something else to clean)
  • add the other ingredients and mix well
  • brush or spray the hot waffle plates with a good frying oil (e.g. rapeseed, coconut) to prevent sticking (following various 'incidents', I do this even though mine has non-stick plates)
  • spoon the thick mixture onto the waffle plates.  I use a couple of big teaspoonfuls for each one as I like the uneven edge that comes from not filling up the plates.  Close the machine and let the waffles start to sizzle.
  • Cook to your preference.  I went for a little crispness on the outside of mine and they took about 5-7 minutes each.
  • Pop the waffles on a rack in the warm oven while you make the next batch. 

These waffles really can pass for a sweet or savoury dish.  I had mine with the salty, cheesy chickpea burgers and some green veg.  In the morning, I plan to pop a couple in the toaster - or even back on the waffle iron if I can wait for it to heat up - and cover them with Greek yoghurt and sliced banana.  Have a go and tell me what toppings you come up with.

*Every waffle recipe I've tried so far works well as pancakes too, so if you don't have a waffle iron then a frying pan will do.  But really, you should treat yourself to a new gadget: everything looks better when waffle-ised, doncha think...?


Thursday, 24 March 2016

My Big Fat Eating Day

This is a bit of a note-to-self.  I've had one of those days where I just can't. Stop. Eating.  Perhaps writing it all down will shame me into doing something differently the next time these urges come along...

For breakfast, I often have two slices of heavy German-style rye bread, toasted, with peanut butter and sliced banana (man, I could eat that right now).  Today, I had three.  Okay, and I had one of yesterday's experimental waffles while I was waiting for the first lot to toast.  Bad start?  Well, I figured that I felt hungrier than usual, so I should just eat more.

I took my two little boys to their gym classes and then we went upstairs for their snack.  I planned not to eat anything, but I shnarfed the boiled egg yolk that The Big Small left and a couple of The Small Small's pistachio nuts.

I'm not going to make this a food diary of my entire day (that would be too shameful) but, needless to say, the pattern continued.  As I sit here thinking about what was different about today, I suppose there were just a lot of those moments where I thought "what the hell?" - a bit like how I used to say alcohol affected me and why it made nights out so eventful.  (Incidentally, I read a great line the other day about how drinking alcohol lets you borrow happiness and energy from the next day and using caffeine lets you borrow energy from later in the day - so true, right?) 

The other major difference today was that I hadn't planned ahead.  There was no homemade soup in the fridge for lunch like there usually is.  It was just me and The Small Small for dinner, so instead of cooking a good meal, we went for a long walk, stopped off at the park on the way home, and then ate super-quick cupboard food.  There was plenty of cheese and chocolate in the house.  I know my demons; I just can't always dodge them when they come at me! 
Emergency dinner: packet (white) filled pasta with cream cheese, spicy peppers, rocket, pickled onions and gorgonzola.

It has been interesting to notice when my two little boys suddenly eat a ton more than usual.  There are common phenomena with young children - like growth spurts, when the folds of fat at their wrists and ankles seem to stretch out overnight - which make it acceptable for them to have a day or even a week's binge.  But it's not okay for adults, it is?  Or should we just go with our desires for a short time, accept them without guilt and then start again with the next decision?  If only it were that easy!  Especially when I think about how hard I work at the gym!  Sssssake. 

As for today, the best thing for my health would be going to bed.  Right now!  There's wine aboot this hoose, after all...

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

'Old' Wood from New - Now!






















I really love those old apple crates that are everywhere just now.  I know: I'm such a cliché.  Ho hum.

They are just so damn versatile.  Fill 'em, stack 'em, put things in 'em, on top of 'em, sideways, upside-down, even the right way up.  The problem is that they're so flippin' expensive.  I blame all those bars with bare Edison bulbs (I love those too) that use mini ones to hold their cutlery and big ones piled high as the gantry.  Cool = pricey.  The solution?  Tea and vinegar.  Yes, tea is the solution to many a crisis, but vinegar?  Stay with me...

My reasons for doing it this way, and not with a commercial wood dye or stain are pretty much my reasons for everything: first, the supplies are cheap and I may even have them already; and second, I believe they are less harmful to the environment and to my health. (Disclaimer: this is purely speculative!)

The other hero here is Ikea, as is often the case.  Ikea here in the UK is currently selling these pine storage boxes for £5 or £9, depending on size.  Sure, they're purdy, but they're not a patch on an old, beaten-up, discoloured version.  So here's a quick run down on how to make new wood look old - giving it heaps more character and individuality.


How to 'age' new wood - instantly!


what you'll need

steel wool (the fine threaded, messy type and not the stuff that is like silver plasticky ribbon and often called a scourer)
white distilled vinegar (other types will work, I'm sure, but this is cheap and it's easy to see the colour change)
a teabag and boiling water
a couple of jam jars
a paintbrush or two - about 1/2 inch wide

what you'll do

First, fill one of your jars about 3/4 full of vinegar.  Then take a chunk of steel wool that will fit comfortably inside and pull it apart a little.  Remember school chemistry - the more surface area, the quicker the reaction?  That's the fella.  If some of the steel wool sticks over the surface of the vinegar, that's cool.  You'll see it start to rust really quickly because it needs the air.  Leave the jar lid off if the smell of vinegar doesn't offend you too much or put it on loosely if you want.  Let the air get in there though and you'll hear it start to fizz.


You'll need to leave it for at least 24 hours until a decent amount of rusty steel wool has started to colour the vinegar brown.  I poked it all around with my paintbrush to get it going but really, it just needs time.  After 24 hours, you can use it.  Wait another day and it will be darker and give a darker result.  Water it down and it will be lighter.  (This is the case for new steel wool.  If you're using previously rusted stuff to make a further batch, the vinegar will go brown within a few hours.)

Once the vinegar jar is ready, brew a jar of strong tea.  You don't need to leave the bag in, but you can if you like.  I left mine in for a couple of hours, although I started using it immediately.  I'm impatient like that.

Before you start painting the potions on, beat up your wood a bit.  I took mine outside and rubbed the neat ends of the panels on my paving stones so they looked worn down.  Then, I put some gravel on the paving stones, lay a panel on the gravel and rubbed it around a bit.  (Happily, it was a wet day, so some mud got on there too.)  I hit it with a hammer and clawed it a bit with the claw end.  My husband jumped on it.  I stabbed some with a pointy thing so it might look like woodworm.  Do whatever you will with whatever you have.

My new wood, after a good beating



Next, paint on the tea with a paintbrush.  It goes on very easily and you will see a slight darkening straight away.  Paint with the grain and try not to leave and puddles or very wet patches.  You don't need much to make a difference.  Apparently, this all works because there are natural tannins in the wood which discolour when the rusty vinegar hits them.  Adding tea increases the amount of tannins.  (I've also read that you can add some coffee grounds to your tea for a darker finish.  However, you have to rub off the grounds right away or they'll leave dark spots.  Sounded like more trouble to me so I didn't bother but give it a go if you want.)

Let the tea dry (use a hairdryer if you're an impatient git, like me) and then paint on the vinegar mixture.  You will see it darken before your little eyes.  As with the tea, avoid very wet patches as they will show when dry.  I know this because I let my boys do some 'painting', and those areas are very patchy and look, well, faked.

This photo was taken immediately after I put rusty vinegar on the tea-stained top panel.  The bottom panel has been covered with tea only.  Look at the instant colour change!


Both panels have been painted with tea and one coat of rusty vinegar, then left to develop overnight.

My first batch of wood went a grey/blue colour, which I was a bit annoyed about, but then decided that it looked natural and rustic.  Then I gave one panel another coat of (older) rusty vinegar and it went really brown, almost as if it had been painted.  It was too regular.  I wiped it down and, hey presto, the finish was brown but still distressed.  Perfect!  I'll have to do the same with the grey/blue panels now so the thing looks like one piece!

I've also wiped down wood that has been stained and dried for a few days and some brown came off.  I'm guessing that some of the rusty vinegar soaks in and the rest sits on the surface so it can be removed easily. 

Bottom panel after tea and one coat of one-day-old rusty vinegar.  Top panel after the same, plus one coat of two-day-old rusty vinegar, then wiped down.  They're sitting on a piece of new crate, before any staining.

You could try mixing the tea and rusty vinegar together and painting just once but, as the tea will eventually grow mould, I thought it better to keep them separate. 

I think sanding would also add some good effects so I might give that a go.  Incidentally, on my last panel, I tried the (now about 4 days old) rusty vinegar on its own, without putting tea on first.  It turned out just the same!  The vertical end batons here were painted with vinegar only and the four horizontal pieces in tea first.  Can you see any difference?!  Made me think I'd wasted my time by using tea at all!  However, the age and darkness of the rusty vinegar and the individual piece of wood both seem to affect the final result, so I can't be sure that all the panels would have behaved the same way throughout the process.  I guess that's the fun of it - it's a bit unpredictable, just like a real, ageing piece of wood.

But I think it's fair to say that the older the vinegar mixture, the darker and more brown it will turn the wood.  Removing the steel wool slows down the darkening of the vinegar but, as there were still little 'crumbs' of metal in my jar, it continued to get darker over time, despite the wool having been taken out.

As for cost, the steel wool set me back around £2 for a large bag.  Apparently, it has "hundreds of uses around the home".  The vinegar was about 40p, the paintbrushes were pilfered from the kids' painting stash (although I'll probably not return the rusty one!) and the teabag - well, that was free cos I made a cuppa in the process.  (You could even combine your wood ageing with baking and make my Chocolate Tea Cake at the same time!  Then it would almost be like the teabag giving you money back!  Man, I'm suuuuch a skinflint...)


If you want to know more, check out this tutorial at A Piece of Rainbow or the links from my Pinterest Homey Ideas board for lots more photos from someone who is obviously a lot better at planning than I am!  And make sure you let me see the fruits of your labours.  I'm especially looking forward to hearing how you choose to abuse your wood before staining.  Get in touch on facebook if it's too tricky commenting here (I have that issue with other blogs I follow).  Have fuuuuun!

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

(Long-Overdue) Chocolate Tea Cake


My name is Caroline and it has been at least 3 weeks since my last blog post. 

When I started this malarkey, I resolved to post twice a week.  Then I found out how much time goes into the writing, photographing, faffy formatting (yes - believe it or not, this page could be uglier!) and that goal became more of a weight on my shoulders.  Combine that with the ongoing double-bathroom-refurb saga, which gobbles up loads of my online time, a touch of home redecoration and the usual toddler craziness,...well, I hope you'll forgive the delay.

If you follow my facebook page, you'll already know that I've been doing a lot of research into all things sugar.  I decided almost a year ago now to cut out all "packet sugar", thinking that was a simple enough definition, but now I am having doubts and a fair level of confusion.

[My 'big article' on sugar and sweeteners is still to come.  I e-lost about 85% of it somehow.  The words that came out of my mouth were pure filth and I will leave them to your imaginations.]

A while back, I read Davina McCall's book Davina's 5 Weeks to Sugar-Free.  I enjoyed it but - let's get this clear - she uses plenty of sugar.  It is generally in the form of dates (I use a lot of them too) and other dried fruits, along with plenty of maple syrup and honey, but that is still sugar.  Not "packet sugar" though.

Since then, I've discovered that there's a sugar-free bakery in North London.  While I can't find any info online about the content on their bakes (their website is being tarted up...pun intended...) but how on earth can they be sugar free?  Unless they use only no-sugar sweeteners like stevia but then everything would taste like diet coke and tumbleweed would be blowing through the place before you can belt out that Masterchef "buttery biscuit base" song.  I see a lot of fruit dotted around the photos and there is probably a lot that I can't see, in the form of fruit purées, so there's a hit of fructose right there.  Not "packet sugar" though.  Don't get me wrong: the concept and the products intrigue me and I'd love to visit.  I just don't
get what you can get away with calling "sugar-free".  (That the bakery looks gorgeous and is open until 10, 11 or even 12 at night does enhance my Big Smoke envy though.)

But why does it even matter?  I'm not trying to go sugar-free; what I am trying to do is avoid highly-refined foods of any sort.  I suspect that this is what the term sugar-free means at the moment, but its increasingly widespread use does confuse me as to whether I'm opting for something packed with artificial sweeteners - which is what I associate the term with in a supermarket yoghurt, for example - or something that may contain plenty of sugar but only in its naturally-derived, lightly-processed form.

Most recently, I borrowed Susanna Booth's Sensationally Sugar Free from the library (there's that Scottish frugality again).  She, too, focusses on using fruit, dried or otherwise, vegetables, nuts and milks to create those elements that our tastebuds require to accept 'sweet' items, but she also uses stevia and some pretty interesting techniques to replicate the sweetness that would traditionally have come from packet sugar.  She makes no claim to remove the wheat or fat from her recipes but, even so, some are free from those too.  I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to.  The latest recipe that I've tried is her Chocolate Tea Cake.  That's a chocolate cake with your cup of tea in it, not merely one to eat alongside it (although you can do that too). 

It has a deep, dark and interesting warmth about it (perhaps the touch of cloves that you should keep in even if, like me, you generally hate the things) and keeps well for a few days.  I know this because I made it for my mother-in-law's birthday and, between a postponement and a certain someone omitting to actually take it to her house, we didn't even cut the thing until two days after it was made.  Oh, and no packet sugar.

Chocolate Tea Cake

- very lightly adapted from Sensationally Sugar Free by Susanna Booth

makes about 12 slices

what you'll need
a teabag (she suggests Earl Grey but I was out so used standard Punjana, incidentally and by far my favourite 'normal' teabag)
110g pitted dried dates (the sugar part)
100g unsalted butter, very soft
2 eggs
75g wholemeal spelt flour
30g cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
pinch of ground cloves
pinch of salt

50g (no-added-sugar if you like) dark chocolate, plus extra for decorating

a loaf tin (22x11x7cm) lined with a silicone liner, greaseproof paper or lightly buttered
a stick blender (or food processor but it'll not be so quick)
a small saucepan


what you'll do

  • IN ADVANCE: make a strong wee brew (in case that gets lost in translation, make a strong cup of tea) with about 150ml boiling water.  I made myself a cup in the process too and reserved 150ml for the recipe.  Any excuse for Punjana.
  • soak the dates in 125ml of the tea for as long as you can, and ideally for at least 4 hours or overnight.  I use the tall, slim jug that came with my stick blender for this.  It makes pureeing them much easier than chasing them around a bowl.  Keep the other 25ml of tea for later.
  • THE BAKE: when the dates have drunk up most of the tea and are soft and squishy, blitz the mixture with a stick blender (or food processor) until totally smooth and bit-free
  • heat your oven to 160°C and prep your loaf tin
  • scrape the date mush into a small-ish mixing bowl (or keep it in your processor), add the eggs and softened butter, and blitz them together briefly. 
  • sift in the flour, cocoa, baking powder, cloves and salt.  Fold or mix gently until just combined.
  • spoon the mixture into the loaf tin and flatten the top with a spatula or knife
  • bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.  Cool in the tin.
  • THE TOPPING: while the cake is cooling, melt the chocolate and reserved tea in a small saucepan over a gentle heat.  Once the chocolate is almost all melted, remove from the heat and stir well, until all the chocolatey lumps have gone.  Pour into a small bowl and chill in the fridge until set (about 20 minutes).
  • when the cake is cool enough to cover, beat the ganache until spreadable (you might need to warm the bowl a tot in your hands / over some warm water / in the remnants of the oven's warmth / in the microwave but only for a few seconds, to get the ganache moving) and spread over the cooled cake. You can then top it with some chocolate curls shaved from a bar with a veg peeler, or whatever else you fancy.
  • wrap and leave in the kitchen until the day after you needed it...hmm...

Monday, 8 February 2016

It's flippin' pancake day! Chocolate Buckwheat Pancakes

I'm seriously thinking of opening a pancake bar.  I mean, you can throw just about anything in there and they look great piled up high with something runny dripping down the sides.
 
Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday, but don't ask me for a detailed chronicle of what that means.  I know it's important to those it's important to.  I also know that it signals the start of Lent, a period when people sacrifice indulgences for 40 days.  And it's the day when lots of those indulgences are celebrated.  Mardi Gras.  Fat Tuesday.
 
Well, in an attempt not to get too mardi, I've been searching for some creative pancake ideas to goodness-up the sweet versions.  The Big Small has requested sweetcorn pancakes for dinner tomorrow, which he'll dip in some manner of sticky sauce.  You can find a basic recipe here or a more interesting courgette, corn and cheese one over at Girl Versus Dough (I would replace flour with wholewheat spelt in either).
 
And as for the sweeties, I've had a go at a few new ideas over the last couple of days.  My big pan has hardly been off the heat.  First, I tried this recipe for Butternut Squash Maple Oat Pancakes from Skinny Fitalicious (that's got to be Amercian, right?!)  I used the flax egg / vanilla options but must admit to playing about with the volumes of squash and oat flour that I added.  Basically, there was more squash mush in half a roasted squash than required - but just a little - so I plopped it in.  And I'd ground a bit more oat flour than I needed - but just a little - so I poured it in and stirred quickly, before I really saw it.  Then I added some water as it was sooo thick.  Like, you could totally drop them in the pan and then pull them up into a cross-section of the Sydney Opera House.  (Why didn't I do that?)
 
They took aaaages to cook, and the tip to make them small so they flip more easily was a good one.  They were very soft in the pan but I left them to cool on a rack and they firmed up.  They're hearty and great for a not-so-sweet breakfast, with bonus veggie content!  They are yet to be tested on The Smalls but I'll let you know what 'hilarious' comments they receive (The Smalls are anti-squash). [Update: "I actually like them.  I can't even taste the butternut squash." - The Bigger Small, aged 3-and-a-half]

I've got plans for the other half of that roasted squash and those plans are these Pumpkin Quinoa Pancakes from Simply Quinoa.  This girl uses quinoa in everything.  Everything.  Lots of recipes call for quinoa flour, which I've never used, but these have the cooked stuff in them and I have a tub waiting in the fridge.  Fingers crossed I get a chance tonight.  Haven't even washed the pan.
 
The other recipe I have my eye on is this one for Carrot Coconut Pancakes over at Self Proclaimed Foodie.  There are loads of version around (search for Carrot Cake pancakes!) but this one ticks my boxes: oats, Greek yoghurt, applesauce, coconut milk and flour...I'm actually drooling atlittle just thinking about them!  Fingers crossed I get a chance tonight...oh, wait a minute...  [Update:  I have these on the go NOW!  They are taking an age to cook - about 5 minutes on the first side - but they are delicate and delicious.  The Smalls are eating 'em much faster than I can make 'em.]
 
And then I made these.  Chocolate brown, puffy clouds of yummm. 
 

Chocolate Buckwheat Pancakes (GF)

with thanks to Gina from So...Let's Hang Out 

image from So...Let's Hang Out
With a base of buckwheat and cocoa flours, these are just so light and fuffy.  The buckwheat flavour is strong at first but a lot less the next day and is not so overwhelming for those not accustomed to it.

I followed Gina's recipe but reduced the maple syrup to 3 tablespoons.  I try to minimise the sweetener in most things but especially in pancakes as you reserve the right to drizzle some syrup over when serving.
 
Man, I could have just drunk the mix of wet ingredients. Phwoaar.  Make sure you heed her instruction to combine the wet and dry mixes by gently.  Buckwheat flour is very fine and will get you in the eye otherwise.  The batter looks like a spoonable chocolate sponge cake mix.  Mine was a little thick so I added a splash of water.

I used rapeseed oil instead of coconut in the pan.  The bubbles appeared after a couple of minutes and, if you get the right moment, you'll see the wee guy puff up as he hits the pan on the second side, accompanied by a satisfying little hissss.  A minute or two on the other side and the pancakes were ready.  

These chocolate and buckwheat pancakes are thick and fluffy and look really naughty.  The buckwheat flour gives them a distinctive flavour that I love.  These will be our breakfast on Tuesday morning, perhaps served with some sliced banana and a few toasted hazelnuts.  Happy Pancake Day!  But try not to get too mardi... 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Friday, 5 February 2016

Ready, Steady...Bake! Quick breakfast muffins


Lots of my friends tell me that they can't bake.  Not just that they don't, but that they actually can't.  I try not to let my eyebrows twitch upwards.  "Of course you can," I think.

You know, I think The Great British Bake Off has a lot to answer for.  I fondly remember the first series, when the contestants were asked to bake a Victoria sandwich and a batch of scones.  They pushed the boundaries with their flavour combos, and their ability to do the simpe things well meant success.  I got that.  I made those things.  It was accessible.  Now, these folk have to whip up bread sculptures, 20-odd layer German tree cakes and biscuit replicas of national monuments!  I'm all for aspiration, but none of that does much for the confidence of those who feel they are skill-deficient in the baking arena.  

If you think about it, most of the awkward tecniques in traditional baking are all to do with the eggs (whisking to soft peaks, folding in dry ingredients, beating into a warm mixture without scrambling) and the gluten (kneading and proving bread dough, not overmixing muffins, etc.)  So in my quest for wacky, wonderful bakes, lots of these issues are avoided.  Hoorah!  And, whilst I do enjoy the ocassional kitchen faff, I much prefer a bish-bash-bosh approach to baking.  Ideally, one that takes less than 20 minutes from cupboards to oven, including the washing up.
 

So, for those of you who reckon you can't bake, I challenge you to try just one recipe this week - and why not make it a healthier one?  My courgette and banana muffins were the happy solution to a two-fold problem: lots of squishy bananas and a couple of bendy courgettes (that's zucchini if you're across 'the pond').  I also had some applesauce (I've decided to go with the one-word version, as if it's a technical term and therefore negates proper usage) that hadn't made it to the freezer yet.  

I generally try to avoid baking with bananas unless I'm making something that's out-and-out banana-ey.  I find that they take over and are all you can taste.  In these muffins though, you can't really taste the banana or the courgette.  What's the point then, you may ask!  Well, they're quite neutral in flavour, so they can pass for sweet or savoury (although I've put in options to make them sweeter), and they are packed full of goodness.  There's no butter or oil and they can easily be adapted to suit gluten-free or vegan diets.  They're also quite filling, portable, versatile, umm, and they have not yet been proven incapable of solving World Peace.  Ahem. 

So I bished, I bashed and I boshed.  You should totally do the same...

Courgette & Banana Muffins (GF & vegan options)

makes 18 regular or 12 biiig muffins

what you'll need
3 large bananas, mashed
1 cup finely grated courgette (I used 2 small, bendy ones)
1 egg (for a vegan option, replace with a chia or flax 'egg')
¾ cup applesauce
optional: 1 TBSP vanilla extract and/or 3 TBSP maple syrup if you want sweeter muffins
---

½ cup wholewheat spelt flour*
½ cup rye flour*
½ cup coconut flour*
1½ tsp baking powder
1½ tsp baking soda
1 cup oatmeal (aka oat flour, aka ground oats)
½ tsp salt
3 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground turmeric
---
optional: you can also add a couple of handfuls of raisins or other dried fruits, some desiccated coconut, some chopped nuts or a mixture of all three.  In fact, just throw anything you fancy in there and see how they turn out!

a muffin tray (or two), lined with paper cases, an oven preheated to 180°C and a cooling rack

*If you've just got plain wheat flour, use that (although I recommend that you trade up to wholewheat as your cupboard staple).  If you've just got plain wholewheat flour, use that (although I recommend that you trade up to wholewheat spelt as your cupboard staple - see what happened there?).  You can use 1½ cups wholewheat spelt flour. 

If you need a gluten-free version, use your favourite GF flour blend, although remember that you will lose a lot of the wholesome character (and nutrients) if you use a white rice and corn-based pre-mix.  I may update this with my own blend suggestions when I get a damn chance.

what you'll do
  • combine the wet ingredients (bananas, courgettes, applesauce, egg & vanilla/syrup) in a large mixing bowl (no need for an electric mixer here)
  • in a separate bowl, sift the dry ingredients together.  Tip in any bran and oatmeal goodness left in the sieve.
  • stir together (adding any optional extras at this point) until combined and spoon into the muffin cases
  • bake for about 20 minutes, until a skewer/toothpick comes out clean
  • cool on a wire rack then store in the fridge


These wholesome, hearty muffins would be great with some yoghurt for breakfast or on their own as a filling snack on the go.  As I say, they're subtle in flavour and, if you go for the standard version, they aren't particularly sweet - think replacement for bread or bagel as opposed to coffee shop cake.  I've had two for breakfast spread with peanut butter and another two with a fried egg (no, on a separate day, you cheeky beggar).  How will you eat yours?  Leave a comment or let me know on facebook.  Enjoy!