Monthly Archives: December 2014

Clementine Cake

It is the last day of 2014. I counted that I only posted 21 times this year. (This will be 22.) That’s almost two posts a month, but still a far cry from the one post a week I am always aiming for, although, I guess, not a total disaster, numbers wise. I continued to blog whilst writing up my thesis (into a now first-draft-with-massive-corrections-to-do-stage) and interning and having things fall into chaos and confusion for several months. (Thank goodness for friends with spare rooms and sofa beds.) And now the year is turning once again and I am feeling all philosophical about life and living. I am fantastically behind on my thesis deadline – the holy grail of a three-year September hand-in has now passed and I am aiming for sometime in the summer (possibly late-summer), which will make me much closer to finishing near the four-year (be all and end all) deadline.

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I have been beating myself up about this failure-to-hand-in-on-time for a while now. I have always tried to do everything well – working hard (I will admit at a whole variety of careers, although everything has food as a common denominator), achieving good grades (although never being an all-A’s type student), surviving the four-hour cooking school finals, handing in my MA dissertation slightly early; never mind being a supportive/good/not-freaking-out daughter and sister. I never handed any essays in late, they were always done with plenty of time to spare. (I will admit to blowing off most economics revision until the absolute last moment and then learning entire syllabi in the week before the exam. I do not recommend this. Someone should have told me not to take economics.) And so I am quite surprised at my inability to write a decent thesis and get it finished to agreed deadlines. But mostly, the not-finishing has made me wonder about the pressure to finish in three years, preferably with publications. (My other failing, I am not yet published, although I have various articles in process and others in ideas form and I have presented at various conferences.)

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I am new to this whole higher education schemangle but the continuous pressure to write my thesis as fast as possible has made me wonder about the process of getting to the end. There is so much pressure on us to finish quickly, analysing and writing at top speed, that I think the process of completing a thesis (possibly the biggest and most stressful thing I will ever do), is lost in the rush to finish. This is exacerbated by the lack of jobs and postdoc opportunities and the hugely competitive market place. (See this rather funny essay on why you shouldn’t do a humanities PhD.) Don’t get me wrong, I love my research and I have loved my whole PhD experience – there have been opportunities to do the most amazing things whilst I have been researching (starting a community garden, travelling extensively, meeting interesting people, becoming completely immersed in academic discussions on food) and I find the whole ‘challenging my mind towards understanding’ incredibly satisfying. And, I am working towards publishing (hopefully loads) from my research. But sometimes, when I think of all the work there is to do, my lack of publication record, and the 9 months I have left, my heart constricts and I find it difficult to breathe. And then I am angry with myself again, both for not finishing already and also for not being able to enjoy the process.

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And yet, I am going to get it done. It may take longer than I expected and it may be harder than I could ever have anticipated but, by the end of 2015 (hopefully many months before), I will have handed in a thesis. More than that, I want to enjoy the process that leads to the end. The last six months of this year were chaotic, thesis-wise. After interning in the US for 6 weeks, I intended to come back, tie all the chapters I already had into a draft, write a conclusion and let my supervisor read the first draft. All by September. Instead, my grandmother became gravely ill, a summer fling ended, and I had no where to live for a while. I ended up being at home in South Africa for nearly 5 weeks between August and October, doing virtually no thesis work. But this is life, I guess. And I think, sometimes, when we are working towards a goal like a decent thesis, and life is getting in the way of productivity and progress, we forget that this is life. My thesis has to form part of my life, it cannot consume me. My family and friends (and all their important happenings and events and catastrophes) are as important as (dare I say possibly more important than) this work, and I think we have a tendency to forget this. I cannot continue to blame myself for life happening and taking part in it.

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Instead I have made a few resolutions, to start off the new year. Firstly, I am going to stop giving myself a hard time for taking longer to finish my thesis. And I am going to stop comparing myself to other PhDs who have completed their work faster than me (or better or with more publications or whatever). I am going to get it done. And I am going to accept that it is going to take more work, more revision, and more time. Secondly, I am going to get very organised. I have this tendency to avoid routine and planning, simply because I think I am good at it. I think, in truth, I am not and so I have hauled out a calendar for 2015 and added in dates, birthdays, important events etc so that I can work out exactly when I can work on my thesis and when I can work on other things, like this blog, and do work that pays money (the joy of being a 4th year means I have no steady income anymore). Thirdly, I am organising my blogging month by month. A new post will appear every Wednesday and I’m deciding at the beginning of each month what to make each week (and writing it onto the calendar so I don’t forget). That way, I don’t necessarily have to think about what to do too often. And I won’t panic that I don’t know what to make. Most of the recipes are ones I’ve had bookmarked or saved for ages and ages. I want to spend more time with this space and being organised about it I think will help. Fourthly, I am going to try to read one book a month. Something inspirational, maybe books on the art of writing and living or maybe just some trashy novels. Books that are not necessarily to do with my research. I’m starting with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Lastly, I am going to remember to remain perfectly calm and take deep breaths. Even when all seems overwhelming. And I shall try and do more exercise and possibly yoga. (Doesn’t everyone have that as their resolution every year?)

I started the inspirational reading this week with a few articles online about life and living. The ones listed below have been the most helpful so far – reminding me that all is not lost from being slighter slower than the pack, and that sometimes, good work takes time. (And, in my case, many many deep breaths.) Mostly I am resolved to enjoy the process of getting to the end, however long (and however much sweat, blood and tears) it takes.

Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing and Living

Vulture: 10 of the Best ‘Dear Sugar’ Advice Columns

The Thought Catalog: This is How We Date Now

Holstee: The Holstee Manifesto

Explorations of Style: The Craft of Revision

I have also been listening to Stephen Fry read Harry Potter. Because, really, Harry makes everything better.

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And of course, because this is a food blog, there is cake. The mothership asked me to make this last week but I never ended up doing so. (We had a ‘duvet day’ on the 26th, the day I was supposed to make it. She and my sister managed to watch the entire first series of True Detective whilst I pottered about – I have lost the ability to stay still and concentrate on TV shows it seems – slept, and then went out. And we had too much food leftover from the 25th to really consider making anything other than the obligatory chicken and ham pie.)

So I’ve made it for the New Year instead. This is a fantastically seasonal cake – all gooey, moist (yes, I said it), damp, almost sour citrus with a slightly grainy texture from the ground almonds. There is a lot to be said about cake with four ingredients. And it’s gluten and dairy free too, for those of you making weird diet-related resolutions in the new year. It keeps well over several days and may even be better on day two. Best eaten just by itself, it will also work as a dessert with creme fraiche or ice cream… I like it while still a little warm from the oven.

Clementine Cake

Adapted from Nigella’s Feast

4 small clementines (you need around 380g worth)

250g ground almonds

220g golden caster sugar

6 eggs

The process of making this cake is reasonably simple. Essentially, you boil the clementines in water for around two hours until they are soft. I put a cartouche over mine (a small round-ish piece of parchment held down by a saucer) so that the clementines would be evenly immersed in water. (They float and so part of their flesh is otherwise exposed, pesky little things.) This worked well and I topped up the water after an hour and kept them so they were simmering, rather than rapidly boiling. You then leave these to cool. (In my case, for a few hours in a sieve in the sink, whilst I went grocery shopping to get the remaining ingredients. See, organisational skills need work.) Once they’re cool, slice them into smaller pieces and blitz them in a food processor until smooth. (If you have a food processor of magnificence, feel free to blitz them whole, but mine is teensy tiny and so I sliced them first and blitzed them in two batches.) Then whisk the eggs and sugar together until combined – no need to put much air into this. Add in half the ground almonds followed by half the pureed clementines. I whisked these in but I suspect a wooden spoon would do the trick just fine. Repeat with the rest of the almonds and clementines. Pour into a 23cm round cake tin, with a piece of parchment lining the base. Bake at 180C for approximately half an hour. The cake will be risen and golden but a skewer inserted should come out clean. When I checked the first time, thinking the cake looked done, the knife came out with batter still attached, so I had to put it back for a while. Allow to cool completely in the tin before turning the cake out and dusting it with icing sugar to serve.

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And now for champagne to toast out a terrible year!
Happy New Year all!

Shortbread Christmas Trees

The mothership arrived in London today. She is here to spend Christmas with me and the Princess. I am, naturally, baking things in preparation for a week of festivities next week. There are also meetings and various people I’d like to give something too, if only an edible token of appreciation, and so I have spent most of this morning in the kitchen, and not at my desk where the essay writing is piling up fast. No matter, I will deal with that this evening, when it is too dark to take good photographs. I am feeling surprisingly festive this year. It’s my first in Nottingham since moving here three years ago (!!!) and my first in a space I can realistically have guests and people to stay. So I am embracing all the lights and trees and baking. (I also finished up my wreath this morning, drying some orange slices in the oven. It’s a lavender, rosemary and bay leaf wreath – all the materials came from the community garden! And it is now hanging on my front door, looking pretty.)

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So these shortbreads. I first learnt to make them when I worked at Gleneagles. They are the pastry chef, Neil Mugg’s, recipe and he got it from his grandmother. So this is something like a 100 year old Scottish shortbread recipe. I love it. Since working with Neil I have never used another recipe and it is adaptable if you’d like to make it gluten-free*. Today I made just plain vanilla trees, but you can add in ingredients like pistachios, lavender or chocolate chips if you like. I’m a fan of the simplicity of the vanilla version, but feel free to adapt it. The quantities are scalable up or down – we used to make it in the hotel using between one and five kilograms of flour at a time, today I used the quantities below, just 250 grams of flour. This amount made 22 Christmas trees and 19 stars (of various sizes). I also changed up the method for this recipe. We used to blitz everything together all at once but I prefer to cream the butter and sugar together first.

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Things to note: this is shortbread which means that the dough is ‘short’. It can be difficult to work with and so refrigerating it is fairly necessary. If you’d prefer not to roll the dough out and cut out shapes, you can press it into a square or round baking tin and bake it like that. You need to then cut slices when it is still warm from the oven. I often just pat the dough down to the required thickness, and then roll it smooth with a rolling pin. Try not to overwork the dough!

Shortbread
From Neil Mugg’s recipe
250g butter, softened
125g icing sugar
125g cornflour
250g plain flour
1 tsp vanilla
caster sugar for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 160C and line two trays with baking paper. (This makes a fair amount of cookies and so you’ll probably need to bake in rotation. I used four trays altogether.)

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In a bowl, sift the icing sugar onto the softened butter. Beat this, using a handheld beater (or in your standing mixer, if you have such a luxury), until bright white and fluffy.

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Add in the vanilla, beating to combine and then add in the cornflour and plain flour. Use the beater to beat until the dough starts to come together.

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Turn this out onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough lightly. Roll into a ball, flatten and clingfilm. Refrigerate for an hour.

Roll out the dough until it is about 1/2 to 3/4cm thick. Cut shapes and place these on the lined baking trays.

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Bake for approximately 20 minutes. I think traditionally, shortbreads were cooked so that they had no colour but I like mine ever so slightly golden. The shortbreads are done if you can move them along the baking sheet with your thumb. Remove them from the oven and sprinkle with caster sugar whilst they are still warm. Allow to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

Enjoy with friends. And tea.

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*For the gluten-free version, substitute the flour with 125g rice flour and 125g ground almonds. The texture is slightly different due to the almonds.

Gingerbread Reindeer and Stained Glass Stars

I am combatting the current freeze by keeping busy in the kitchen with warming spices and the oven almost permanently on. I said in the last post that I was embracing Christmas in a big way this year and so, in-between various writing assignments I have been making gingerbread reindeer and some stained glass stars that can be hung on the tree (if you remember to poke holes in them when they come out of the oven – I forgot for one tray, so they’re just pretty star cookies, rather than decorations.)

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These cookies are surprisingly addictive. I had several with tea this afternoon. They also make great gifts, if you know people who appreciate a good cookie. And they make your kitchen smell heavenly.

It’s a fairly simple melt-and-mix method that I adapted from The Primrose Bakery Book. You can ice the stars and reindeer if you like. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to yet. I quite like the plain biscuits but I suppose that iced ones will add to the festive cheer. And you can obviously make any shape that takes your fancy. I’m rather enamoured with the reindeer cutter as I bought it in Finland two Christmases ago and haven’t had the opportunity to use it yet. (I’ve started to buy obscure cookie cutters from places I visit. I have a Moomin one from the same trip too. I need someone to have a Moomin themed birthday so I can use it. And a friend bought me one of a church in Austria that I also haven’t had cause to use yet. So many shaped biscuit options!)

I like this recipe because it is reminiscent of actual gingerbread and not simply some ground ginger and cinnamon added in to a basic cookie mixture. There are cloves, nutmeg and orange zest too. And it uses both golden syrup and black treacle. For reasons I can’t entirely explain, I get a small thrill every time I open these tins to bake something. I suspect it has to do with my cousin Tim always referring to golden syrup simply as “the tin with the lion on it” and I get a whiff of nostalgia for our summer Christmases on the farm whenever I think of it.

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Gingerbread Reindeer (and Stars)

Adapted from The Primrose Bakery Book

75g soft light brown sugar

50g golden syrup

2 tbsp black treacle

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp ground gloves

1/4 tsp nutmeg

zest of 1/2 a small orange

100g unsalted butter

225g plain flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

(If you’re making stained glass stars, you’ll need approximately 5-8 hard boiled sweets, smashed to smithereens.)

Place the sugar, golden syrup, black treacle, spices, zest and butter into a saucepan.

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Heat over a medium heat until the butter and sugar have melted and emulsified.

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Off the heat, add in the flour and bicarb.

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Stir until the flour is incorporated into the butter mixture.

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Turn the dough out and wrap in clingfilm. It’ll be incredibly soft and slightly warm, so work carefully. I like to make it fairly flat, so that it’s less work to roll out later.

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Refrigerate for an hour. Preheat the oven to 180C. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll out to 1/2cm thick. Using cookie cutters, cut shapes of your choosing.

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For stained glass stars, use the largest star cutter to cut the main star, then use the smallest star cutter (of the same set) to get a star inside the first one.

Gently place your cookies onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper. If you’re making stained glass stars, fill the middle of each star with the bashed up boiled sweets.

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Leave a few centimetres of space around each cookie. Bake for 5 – 10 minutes, depending on the cookie size. When the cookies are slightly browned, try and move them along the tray with your thumb. If the cookies move, they are done and can be removed from the oven. Let them cool for 2 minutes on the trays before sliding them off, still on the baking paper, to cool completely on your counter-top. If you’ve made stars, use the top of a small piping nozzle or a knife to cut holes in the top of each star whilst they are still warm and slightly soft. Once they’re completely cool, thread through some festive ribbon and attach to your tree.

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Mince Pies

I handed in my thesis draft last week. (!!!) One step closer to the end and that scary thing that is life beyond a PhD. I’m still ages away from actual hand-in. The thing about having a draft means that you realise how much more work there is to do – reviewing and rewriting, rereading and rewriting, not to mention those pesky publication articles that need doing. But it feels pretty good to finally have something to work with and to have the first big step towards the end accomplished.

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To celebrate, I’ve been back in the kitchen, baking. This afternoon I finished some mince pies for the freezer and made a batch of gingerbread reindeers and stars. I have the ingredients to try and make my own panettone this week (watch this space!). It’s fair to say that I am embracing Christmas in a big way this year. And am taking some time out from academic writing to, hopefully, do more writing here.

So, these mince pies. The pastry I use is one I was given at the SA Chefs Academy by Sam Waring. She was the pastry chef who stretched the basic cake-baking skills I had into something usable. Ever since she taught us this pastry recipe, I have used nothing else. And, to be frank, other mince pie pastry pales in comparison. Once you’ve succeeded with this, you will never go back to ordinary sweet pastry.

This pastry is a slightly messy affair. In a nutshell, you soften some butter, add in sour cream, give it a swirl, then add in flour until it forms a sticky dough. This you then turn out onto a floured surface and knead, adding in more flour until you have a smooth dough. You then rest the dough for an hour, roll it out, book-fold it twice (as if you were making puff pastry), rest it again and then roll it out and cut rounds for your tin. Simple right? It does take a bit of getting used to, but it makes wonderfully flaky pastry that is perfect with fruit mince. Obviously, you can make your own fruit mince. I have aspirations to do so at some point in my life, but not this year. This year I used store-bought fruit mince – some from M&S and some from Sainsbury’s. I’ll have to sample both before I let you know which is better.

Mince Pies.
Makes 24 bite-sized pies.
Originally from Sam Waring
125g butter, unsalted, softened
125g sour cream
175g plain flour
fruit mince to fill 24 small pies (approximately 3/4 330ml jar)
1 egg, for egg wash

Weigh out the butter into a large mixing bowl. Beat it with a hand-held beater until soft and smooth. Add in the sour cream and whisk briefly. (The mixture looks fairly atrocious but do not fear! It’ll all come back fine.)

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Add in the flour and mix with a wooden spoon until the dough starts to come together. This takes a while and it may look like there is too much flour, but keep stirring and turning and eventually all the flour will be absorbed. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. You will notice that the dough becomes sticky as you knead. Keep adding in extra flour until you have a reasonably smooth, unsticky dough. Don’t overwork the dough at this stage. It is preferable that it be mainly smooth and a little sticky.

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Wrap this in clingfilm and refrigerate for an hour. Have some tea while you wait. Then, once the hour is up, unwrap the dough, and place back onto the floured surface. (I don’t bother with cleaning up in-between all the kneading and rolling and folding.) Roll the dough out into a rectangle, so that the shorter sides are closest and furthest away from you. Book fold this – fold the top end into the middle and then fold the bottom end up to meet it. Then fold this closed. Quarter turn and refrigerate for another hour.

Preheat the oven to 180C if you are going to bake them straight away.

Now roll out the dough until it is approximately 1/2cm thick. Cut it into rounds, to line the base of a small muffin tin – I use a 68mm cutter. (I like bite-size mince pies. If you like yours bigger than this, say in normal muffin tins, use a 88mm one.) I also like star-topped mince pies and so use some of the pastry to cut stars for the top.

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Fill the pastry cases with fruit mince – about three quarters full. I have a tendency to over-fill mine so I try to err on the side of caution here. Top with stars and brush with egg wash. (For the egg wash, crack the egg into a bowl and whisk it to break up the yolk.)

The pies can be frozen, in the tin, at this point. I freeze them in the tin for 2-3 hours, then turn them out of the tin and place them in plastic bags of 12 in the freezer.

If you are baking them, bake for approximately 15 minutes, until the pastry is golden and slightly puffed. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes in the tins before turning them out. Best eaten warm.

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Christmas Granola (And the Story of the Great Granola Bake-off 2014)

It seems ages ago now but back in July I was interning at LongHouse in upstate New York. It might seem like an odd thing to do – take an internship unrelated to my PhD (it was all practical cooking and some blogging) only six months from potentially handing in, but I was in desperate need of a change of scene and some time away from Foucault. And so it was that I found myself in a barn kitchen, baking off trays and trays of Molly O’Neill’s granola.

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Normally, I make granola in small batches – 200 or 300 grams of oats at a time. Molly requested that I convert a 50 pound bag of oats into granola. She makes it twice a year, hence the vast quantities, and it is used in the LongHouse Food Scholars programme (as a breakfast staple), for visiting guests and other students, and to give away. I, of course, happily agreed to make all the granola. How hard could it be?

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Ah. Such famous last words. It turns out, 50lb of oats makes A LOT of granola. But y’ll probably knew all that already. It took the greater part of two weeks to make all the granola. I worked initially in the barn at LongHouse. This fantastic kitchen provided large mixing bowls and plastic tubs, large pots and two ovens, so that the granola could be baked in a series of six trays at a time. Unfortunately granola is not something you can simply put in the oven and then leave to do its thing. It has to be turned and stirred so that it bakes evenly. Too little time in the oven and it will not crisp, too long and you risk burning it due to the high sugar. Fortunately, I had company from Ali, who kept my spirits up (and ran around taking various photographs, including the ones below) and we had wine…

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The first mass of granola was baked and put into a large tub. This is where it all started to go wrong of course. We couldn’t find a properly fitting lid for the tub and so we wrapped it as tight as we could in clingfilm. But then students arrived and, instead of bagging it all responsibly into individual bags that were airtight, the granola was forgotten for the long weekend. The result? A request that I bake all the granola again, because moisture had gotten in and made it damp. I was slightly devastated. Hours of my life had to be relived! Part of me wanted to cry. Another part of me wanted to refuse. A third part of me wanted to lie down on the floor and not move for several days. But I took a deep breath and got on with it.

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By this time we had had to move kitchens. Initially I baked at Molly’s – in her new ovens. I was doing okay here but then, with the darkening light, I managed to over-bake several trays. Then the organising board on the fancy ovens gave up working and had to be replaced, so I moved to a third kitchen. These new ovens were temperamental and so required a more watchful eye. But slowly slowly, after several days, all the granola was baked to the right golden colour and dry. I was so paranoid about damp granola by this stage that I checked and re-checked all the trays as they came out of the oven. And sometimes put them back in for a few minutes, you know, just in case. We then spent an afternoon filling sealable bags with granola so that it would stay dry and could be used throughout the late summer.

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After that experience, making granola for hours at a time over several weeks, I was well and truly granola-ed out. I continued to eat it – Molly’s granola is exceptionally more-ish, but I didn’t want to have to make any more for a LONG time. Finally, this week, I decided it was time to venture forth into granola again. I often need something quick and simple for breakfast, before dashing to the office. I am highly dysfunctional in the mornings. If I can work from home, I do. I tend to be more effective if I can just get up, have a coffee and sit at my desk in my pyjamas for a few hours. If I have to get dressed, eat and leave, then I need my life to be as easy and straight-forward as possible.

This granola is adapted from Nigella’s book, Feast. Feast is one of my favourites – I love the writing and the organisation and the recipes. It’s my go to book – the one that came in my suitcase when I moved over from South Africa. Nigella writes that she got the granola recipe from a place in Connecticut called The Pantry. This granola is spicy and warm, and, with the addition of cranberries, rather than raisins, reminiscent of Christmas. It’s certainly my December choice.

I only made half the quantity she describes, mainly because I don’t need that much granola at a time. I left out raisins, sunflower and sesame seeds (because I thought I’d use what I already had), and reduced the amount of sugar. Nigella mixes everything together in one bowl but I heated up the apple compote with the sugars and oil because mine was frozen.

Christmas Granola
Adapted from Nigella’s Feast
225g rolled oats
50g pumpkin seeds
10g poppyseeds
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp sea salt
80g whole almonds, roughly chopped
125g apple compote
2 tbsp golden syrup
1 tbsp honey
35g brown sugar
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
generous handfuls of dried cranberries and apricots, roughly chopped (approximately 3/4 cup of each)

Heat the oven to 160C and line the oven baking tray with baking paper.

Put all the dry ingredients, except the dried fruit, into a bowl and stir to distribute.

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Place the apple compote, golden syrup, honey, brown sugar and rapeseed oil in a pan and heat until everything is emulsified.

Pour this into the dry ingredients and stir, making sure everything is evenly coated. Place the mixture onto the baking tray, distributing it evenly.

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Cook for approximately 40 minutes, until the granola is evenly golden brown. Stir every 15 minutes or so. This timing will really depend on your oven. Once it’s baked to desired goldenness, remove from the oven and leave to cool completely before stirring in the fruit. Store in an airtight container.

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PS. I have finally given my supervisor a copy of my thesis draft. This means *squee* that I am on the long road to actually handing in…