Thursday, 31 January 2013

Home.

Back in October, John and I started the process of trying to buy our first home. We have looked around a lot of houses over the last few months, and I love the thoughts that accompany looking around a stranger's home, through eyes which try to see the potential for someone else's home to become our own.

We've seen houses that are well and truly loved, that have been taken care of and look like show homes; houses that are falling apart, and those that are being renovated. We tried to buy a house that had been repossessed, and as I took in the big dents in the front door, I couldn't help but wonder about the stories behind those marks; the tales of a family uprooted from their home. There are houses where the Estate Agents remark at the need for updating, and I cannot help think on the unspoken words behind those remarks - the stories of a beloved family member passing away, their earthly home no longer needed by them. And then you have other buyers. Some people just like us. Young couples  eagerly looking for their first family home. Other buyers whose only interest is in making money out of the house, with more money in their pockets than we have, willing to pay above and beyond the asking price of a house, snubbing those who want to make it into their home.

A number of years ago, I visited Uganda. One of my residing memories of my time there, is of the many conversations I had with a man called Pastor Stephen. He is a man of great Godly wisdom, and I remember wishing I had pen and paper to hand every time we spoke, because I didn't want to miss one word of what he said. I can recall a conversation with Pastor Stephen about home. One of the girls in our group was struggling greatly with the difference in culture, and was desperate for her home in the UK. It was very evident to everyone that all she wanted was to go  home. Pastor Stephen gently shared his thoughts that home is where your heart feels at home, at peace. You can make anywhere your home, regardless of what your physical house might be like - it is more important that your heart is at peace wherever you are, and that is something that can be cultivated.

While we have been looking at houses for a little while now, the process of finding home started well before we contacted any Estate Agents, before we set foot into the homes of properties on the market. It started with feeling at home in this city; at home as a married couple; at home in our church. There were feelings of needing to take flight, of our roots not being firmly planted here. With much prayer and thought, we found a new spiritual home, and as our hearts became still, settled and at home, the possibility of spreading our wings and taking flight lessened. Home is so much more than the tangible walls around us, and it is helpful to remember that as the search for a new physical home keeps on going. We can be at home wherever we are, and I cannot wait for John to return from Japan, to come home.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Cranberry Magic Bars

You know when you receive an invitation to Sunday lunch with friends you haven't seen in a long time? The kind of friends who you know will fill your tummies completely with delicious food, meat that has been raised by them, with all the trimmings, and even though you want to bring something to contribute, you know that nothing is needed? Well, we were in this precise situation last Sunday. Even though our hosts had said we absolutely didn't need to bring anything, we didn't want to turn up empty handed.

So, I whipped up some cranberry magic bars. The original recipe is in the Hummingbird Bakery book, Cake Days, which is a wonderful book. These bars are a wonderful combination of textures: a little bit of crunch from the shortbread, a tiny bit of chew from the cranberries and condensed milk, and the desiccated coconut adds something just right.
These bars are yet more proof that condensed milk really is the perfect ingredient for baking. My favourite cookie recipes use it, and now I've discovered how well it works in these bars? The possibilities are endless.

Cranberry Magic Bars
ingredients
for the base:
40g icing sugar (confectioners')
120g unsalted butter, softened
150g plan (all purpose) flour

for the topping
150g condensed milk
50g dessicated coconut
100g cranberries
30g pistachios
100g white chocolate chips or chunks

1) Pre-heat the oven to 180C and grease and line a 12" x 8" baking tin
2) Put the flour, icing sugar and butter cut into small chunks into a bowl, and either mix with paddle of freestanding mixer, or rub the butter in with your hands, until the mixture resembles a sandy texture.
3) Press the mixture into the prepared baking tin, and bake for 20 minutes, or until going slightly golden at the edges.
4) Prepare the topping by mixing everything together.
5) Once the shortbread is baked, remove from the oven and distribute the topping evenly over the shortbread base.
6) Bake for another 20 minutes until the topping is baked and slightly brown.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

We have snow!

In England, we don't get an annual guarantee of snowfall. In some ways I am thankful for that, because when it comes, we are ill prepared, but most definitely incredibly excited! Snow came our way last Friday in the early hours of the morning, heralding the announcement of a Snow Day from many schools, mine included!

Since Thursday, we have scrunched, munched, jumped and flumped through the snow. With my children at school, I have relished in following their lead, making snow angels and igloos (built with wood, I hasten to add). 
On Saturday, John and I visited Blaise Castle, a favourite spot of ours, and relished the peace and quiet, as the snow absorbed our conversations, and made way for our footsteps. I love how the snow silently invited us to play, insisting that snow balls be made and thrown, juggled and caught; carefully compacting beneath my weight as I threw myself into a handstand.  
                    

The fragile ice on the pond tempts the lightest of feet to take careful steps across its strong waters; the mind of an adult resists, knowing the foolhardiness of treading on thin ice. The sounds of the river beckon memories of Narnia, the promise of change, that the ice will thaw and Spring will come.


How about you, dear readers? What does life look like for those of you who live in parts of the world like Russia, Poland, Canada and America where there is snow for months of the year? I would love to hear from you!

Friday, 18 January 2013

Peanut Cookie Fudge Puddles


It seems that with the fresh start of a new year, many people around the internet world are doing wonderfully healthy things involving drinking a whole lot of spinach. I keep seeing the iron-packed leafy goodness everywhere I look on Instagram and in blogland. (Note to my future 70 year old self: Yes, blogland does exist, and Instagram is the most fun way of capturing anything and everything in life that you think is beautiful. Don't ever stop taking photos.) Even Joy the Baker, who waxes lyrical about the beauty of browned butter and sugar, is whipping up spinach, kiwi and chia seed smoothies. With all of the beautiful green images of food and drink I have been seeing, I cannot help but be a little bit inspired by the idea of filling my body with loads more nutrients every day, just by blitzing up some deliciousness in my blender.

But. I have not got there yet. Even though I felt like I was in a bit of a baking funk, I managed to get out of it before I managed to get my spinach to meet it's match in my blender. The lack of baking inspiration lasted all of a week or two, until I remembered Pinterest.
A while back I was merrily pinning away on Pinterest, and added this image to my tasty treats board. When I needed some baking inspiration, I remembered pinning this particular recipe, and am so glad I did. These cookies are tiny bites of deliciousness, disguised as miniature tarts, but far, far easier to make than tarts. They contain all of the goodness of a regular cookie, with the added extra of crunchy peanut butter, and then a fudgy filling made with my favourite cookie ingredient, condensed milk. Love that stuff. 

So, now that the baking inspiration has returned, I will continue to think about making those green smoothies,   while I mix together the perfect ingredients for baking: butter, sugar and chocolate. And maybe, just maybe, next week will be full of healthy goodness.
Peanut Fudge Puddles
ingredients
130g crunchy peanut butter
130g unsalted butter at room temperature
125g caster sugar
125g light brown sugar
285g plain flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg

For the fudgy filling
400g condensed milk
300g chocolate chips (either dark or milk, or combination of the two)

1) Cream together the butter and sugars until well mixed.
2) Beat in the egg and vanilla extract.
3) Add the peanut butter and mix well.
4) Gradually add the flour and baking powder, mixing to combine after each addition.
5) Chill the cookie dough in the fridge for an hour.
6) Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4, and grease a couple of mini muffin tins.
7) Remove chilled dough from fridge, and place small balls of mixture into the greased muffin tins. (I used a melon baller to get roughly equal amounts, which worked out the perfect quantity.)
8) Bake in preheated oven for 10 mins, or until just turning brown around the edges. Remove from oven, and use the end of a wooden spoon to make indentations in the muffin-cookies - to create holes for the fudgy filling.
9) Leave to cool. Once cool, combine the condensed milk and chocolate in a saucepan and heat gently, stirring until melted.
10) While the fudge mix is still molten, fill the cookie cups. I tried two methods - pouring from a jug - which was a little messy, and piping. If I made these again, I would go with piping as the cleanest way of filling the cookie cups.
11) Top with chopped nuts if that takes your fancy, or just eat as they are!

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Frost. It's beautiful, isn't it? I love the way that the layer of frost on a car in the morning following a cold night, looks like a sheet of tiny diamonds. This morning, I took the time to go for a walk before Church, feeling the need to get out and breathe in some crisp, Winter air. I have neglected my camera lately, with the short days that give way all too quickly to darkness, making photography far less enjoyable for me. I need the natural light. I've missed taking photos, so I picked my camera up on my way out of the house, hoping to capture a little bit of beauty. The frost was all I managed to capture.

On Friday, I started writing a blog post to participate in Five Minute Friday, but never finished it. The word prompt was Dive. The tangent that my words took me on was not where I expected the post to go. I didn't hit publish, feeling like it was an incomplete piece of writing. Instead, I have let it sit, the memory that I started writing about, coming back to me at different points throughout the weekend. By the time five minutes had passed, this was the story that I had started to remember:

'I have never jumped from a diving board before. A part of me wonders how much this has to do with a childhood experience. One of our neighbours took me swimming with his daughter. I was 6, maybe a little older or younger. He tried to convince me to jump from the top diving board. I told him I could not swim very well and I had never done it before. He kept encouraging me to 'just try', boasting about his diving accomplishments. But I knew my limits, even at this age. I knew it would not be safe, and I didn't want to drown. I stood my ground, then, once he had relented, slipped into the deep end of the pool, which was daunting, but just a little less scary than the prospect of falling uncontrollably from the height of the diving board.

His actions have always seemed irresponsible to me. Why would you encourage a child to do something that is not safe? His assurance of my safety seemed to be based on his confidence in his own ability to rescue me if anything went wrong. It is from a place of safety that we can feel free to dive into unknown waters and places, not out of fear.'

These January days have felt all too full of work, and not a lot else. I haven't baked anything, I haven't had any words to write in this space; I haven't been running (my lungs are not especially healthy right now). I feel like I have done little besides living through the day to day routine of work, chores, eat and sleep. As I have pottered about our home this evening, thoughts of the week ahead swirling around my head as I gathered the laundry and picked up the pieces of my work that have spread around our living spaces, I wondered, 'how is it possible to feel on top of all of this? Does anyone ever feel 'on top' of everything they are juggling? Is this really about feeling on top of everything, or learning how to thrive in the midst of it all.' The analogy of keeping one's head above water came to mind, and that's when all of the fragmented pieces slotted together.

The story about my neighbour encouraging me to dive - to go beyond what I knew I could do because I knew that it would not be safe - I opted for the only way out that I could see: jump in the deep end, and hope against hope that I would be ok. Even though I knew my limitations, I still needed rescuing. I couldn't swim, and I didn't know how to get back up to the surface of the water. I had no idea that all I needed to do was to kick my legs and push my arms up towards the surface, and I would reach the surface. I didn't know that I had all that I needed to survive, and unknowingly relied on the discernment of another to see that I was in need of rescuing before it was too late. 

Sometimes, all we need is a bit of encouragement and inspiration to help a little when motivation is lacking. But misplaced encouragement in a risky situation? That's a little dangerous. Perhaps this wondering and wandering through January is about figuring out what it is I need to thrive. Perhaps I have everything I already need, I just need to lift my gaze Heavenward and listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, knowing that I have already been rescued through Jesus, and that is something I can and will rejoice in for the rest of my life. Thankfully, encouragement from God is never misplaced or dangerous. It is only ever trustworthy and true.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

mile a day challenge / review

Way back in November, I decided to join in Elise's challenge to run a mile a day for 40 days between Thanksgiving and New Year. I started this challenge knowing that I could comfortably run a mile. My motivation was to develop a bit of discipline in exercising through the Winter, when I find it all too easy to look outside at the rain and make the choice to stay inside where it's warm and cozy, rather than face the elements and push myself a little.
{the run where it was below freezing}
{the run where a lady asked if I was ok because I sat down on the pavement to take my photo}

In some senses, I haven't completely 'succeeded' at this challenge; there were a few occasions where I did not run. The reasons spanned from not having a single minute to spare between the moment I woke up, to the time when my head hit the pillow at the end of a very long day, to being unwell and physically not able to run. While I didn't want to be quick to make excuses for not running, it was a lesson in itself to have a little grace in those times where I physically could not run. Equally, I was not so bound by the mile a day goal that I was unwilling to go beyond a mile. Some days I ran 2 or 3, comfortably going beyond what I had set out to do. I ended the challenge, having run more than 40 miles, and I am quite simply, glad. Glad that I made the choice to pull on my running leggings and get outside, knowing the temperature was below zero; Glad that I kept on making that choice again and again until it became a natural part of my day to get outside, if only for ten minutes, and just run. And I will keep on running. Perhaps not every single day, but consistently.
{the run which proved to be the perfect remedy to clear my head and get some perspective}
{the run where Hey Ho by the Lumineers added a bounce to my step}

Half the fun of this challenge was taking a photo at some point on my running route each day and sharing it on Instagram, along with many, many other people around the world who also participated in running a mile a day. I love looking back at the photos and remembering what I was thinking or feeling on different runs, or the songs that became synonymous with some of the runs. I also loved that I got to run in two different cities (Bristol and London) for this challenge - I valued the variety that running in London added to the challenge and kept me a little bit more motivated. What has been even more inspiring is that a few people have been inspired to try the challenge for themselves after seeing photos of my feet on Facebook every day. Something I am constantly learning about myself is that I work far more effectively alongside others than I do on my own, and I have found this to be just as true in this challenge, even though I have mostly been 'alongside others' in the virtual sense, sharing my daily running photos and seeing those of others using the #mileday, running in snow and sun, depending on where in the world they were running. Knowing that there were many, many other people who had pledged to keep on running a mile a day helped me to keep going on those days where running was the least appealing thing to do. And on those days? I never regretted having made the effort.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

2013.


Happy New Year, one and all! We welcomed in the start of 2013 just like last year, standing atop Telegraph Hill, watching the fireworks across London. It felt like many more people had discovered the sweet view of the city that Telegraph Hill affords, with some venturing to tree tops to gain a greater perspective. Others huddled around sky lanterns, holding them gingerly, willing them to fill with hot air before sending them skywards, to join other lanterns in their onward journeys. The crowd let out a great roar as Big Ben rang out his chimes at midnight, and set off a few extra fireworks to add to the citywide display. What a lovely start to the new year.

I am looking forward to all that 2013 has in store.