The life artistic – Mini plum and muscovado pavlovas

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I’ve been getting lost in cookbooks again. It’s a favourite habit of mine, second only to buying cookbooks. There’s something wonderful about discovering a new cuisine or way of thinking about food that helps us to learn something more about what makes us human. After all, the theory goes that it was cooking that really enabled us to evolve into what we are today (yes, I’ve also been reading Cooked by Michael Pollan). My latest cookbook crushes have been Gather by Gill Meller and Samarkand by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford – both wonderful in different ways. Gather evokes the British countryside in a way I’ve rarely seen in food writing; the mix of poetry, archetypal landscapes and dishes created from simple, beautiful ingredients makes this book more of a work of art than a cookbook. Samarkand is at the other end of the scale; part cookbook, part travel essay, but again, wonderfully evocative of place.

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Despite all this newness, I’ve actually been finding the most inspiration lately from a cookbook that’s been sitting on my shelf for a few years: The Modern Pantry Cookbook by the wonderful Anna Hansen. I’ve visited The Modern Pantry on a couple of occasions and loved everything I’ve tried. The way Anna uses ingredients to create explosive flavour combinations regardless of their provenance is fascinating, if a little difficult to imitate (depending on your budget). Naturally, I turned to her book when deciding on a dessert to bring to a friend’s BBQ, and, with some heavy adaptations, ended up with a winner! So here is my homage to The Modern Pantry, using various parts of different recipes from the cookbook to create mini muscovado pavlovas with plums and grapes. I’m hoping Anna won’t mind, after all, as she says in The Modern Pantry Cookbook:

” … if there’s an ingredient you cannot find, why not take the opportunity to have some fun experimenting? To me that is what cooking is all about.”

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This recipe works well if you need to make a dessert in advance and is naturally gluten-free, so will keep just about everyone happy. The meringues will keep well in a tin for up to 1 week, and the fruit can happily be stored in the fridge for the same amount of time. I made and transported the component parts separately and let everyone assemble their own. The meringues aren’t strictly speaking your traditional pavlova meringues, being chewy rather than marshmallowy in the middle, but the flavour of the muscovado sugar really shines through to make this dessert extra special.

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Mini plum and muscovado pavlovas

Individual muscovado meringues served with vanilla cream and roasted red grapes and plums.

For the roasted fruit:

1 punnet of red grapes

4 very large plums (or 8 Victoria plums)

2 tbsp demerara sugar

50ml white wine

3 tbsp pomegranate molasses

Juice of half a lemon

For the meringues:

4 egg whites

300g icing sugar

Juice of half a lemon

80g muscovado sugar

To serve:

300ml double cream

1tbsp golden caster sugar

1tsp vanilla bean paste

  1. First make the roasted fruit: Remove the stones and cut the plums into eighths (or quarters if using smaller plums).
  2. Place into a roasting tin with the destalked grapes. Sprinkle over the sugar, lemon juice, white wine and pomegranate molasses, and roast, uncovered at 140°C (fan) for 20 minutes.
  3. Remove from the oven and leave to go completely cold.
  4. For the meringues: Sift the icing sugar well to make sure there are no lumps. Wipe down the bowl and whisks of the mixer with lemon juice to ensure no traces of fat remain on the surface, as this can make the meringues collapse.
  5. Whisk together the egg whites, icing sugar and lemon juice for 15 minutes on high with a free-standing electric mixer. If, like me, you only have a handheld mixer, I suggest whisking the egg whites on setting 2 for ten minutes, having a break for a couple of minutes, then whisking again for five minutes. This doesn’t seem to have a detrimental effect on the meringues and stops the motor on the whisk from burning out.
  6. Push the muscovado sugar through a sieve and fold through the meringue mixture.
  7. Dollop the mixture onto two lined baking sheets – it should make 12 good-sized meringues – and bake at 100°C (fan) for 2 hours.
  8. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
  9. To assemble: Whip together the double cream, caster sugar and vanilla bean paste, taking care not to over whip.
  10. When ready to serve, top each meringue with a good blob of cream and spoon over the roasted fruit and juices.

 

The life scientific – Rediscovery

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Once again I find myself lamenting my lack of blog writing. It’s getting worse and worse. This time around it’s been a whole year since my last post! So much can happen in a year. Mine has been crammed so full that during my scant downtime I’ve barely had the energy to crawl off the sofa, let alone think cohesively enough to write.

For me, this has been a year of challenges. Somewhat surprisingly I have found myself once again living in South-West London. I never thought that I would even visit my old haunts, let alone take up permanent residency there, and yet here I am, walking the same streets and visiting the same friends. It hasn’t been the easiest of transitions and I still miss the bizarre landscapes and wonderful woods of Somerset, but at least I’m now close enough to visit on a somewhat regular basis. I wouldn’t miss the woods in springtime for anything.

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Even more surprisingly, I’ve found myself back in the world of science, only this time I’m working for one of the largest and best-known scientific publishers in the world. After working as an editor for a year, I still find myself wondering exactly how I managed to get the job. I’m pretty sure they must have been desperate …

Again, it has been a challenging transition. Just three years away from the lab has left me with some enormous gaps in my knowledge, and I’m forever impressed with just how quickly things can move on in medical research. There has been so much to learn in a short space of time, not just scientifically, but grammatically too. It’s a sad fact that those of us educated in the UK in the nineties and noughties were not taught grammar in any sort of structured way in school. Rather, we were encouraged to just go with what felt right. This had always worked well for me; that is until I started getting feedback on my work that included terms like ‘clause’ and ‘imperative’. It was at this point that I realised that, embarrassingly, the non-native English speakers in the department knew more about English grammar than most of the native speakers.

Dodgy grammar aside, this job has given me a new perspective on science and scientists and has taught me some interesting things.

Fun fact number one: conferences are more fun when you’re a PhD student. They’re much harder work when you have to live tweet from sessions, talk to strangers and spend every spare moment meeting with Professors, most of whom are old enough to be your parent, if not your grandparent.

Fact number two: even senior scientists with impressive publication records can turn in some shockingly bad pieces of writing. I guess that’s why editors exist. We’re there to bridge the gap between science and society by helping scientists to share the knowledge they have in ways that other people can understand.

Number three: it’s amazing how rapidly approaching deadlines can make the impossible possible. Suddenly, that edit that would normally take you two weeks can be done in three days.

Number four: looking young is not an asset in the world of science. This is definitely a profession in which a few grey hairs can work wonders if you want to be taken seriously.

And lastly, fun fact number five: you can never really leave the world of science behind. Once you’ve started along the path of scientific research, it doesn’t matter where you go or what you do, a desire to know things will follow you for the rest of your life. Whether you are discovering something for the first time, or rediscovering something you once knew and loved, the pursuit of knowledge will always be there.

So, despite the challenges and difficulties of the past twelve months, I’ve come to realise that, surprisingly, I’m happy to be rediscovering London, happy to be rediscovering science and happy to be rediscovering the joy of writing something for myself (rather than news items for work).

 

The life artistic – Cooking up a blast from the past

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They say that nothing conjures up memories better than smells, a fact that anyone who has ever taken the Christmas box out of the attic and found old decorations made from cinnamon sticks and dried oranges will attest to.  For me, taste should definitely be included here.  Most of our sense of taste is really smell anyway, so I think it’s OK for me to stretch the definition of smell slightly.  I also think that the process can work in reverse; with the memory of the way a food smells and tastes being able to conjure up feelings that we associate with it.  This is why every time I feel ill I crave Knorr Austrian Cream of Herb soup, unusual, I know, but when I was little Mum always used to make it for me if I was ill, and the mere memory of the flavour is now enough to provide me with some comfort when I’m off colour.

Unfortunately for me, they discontinued it about ten years ago, and my sick days have been just that little bit worse ever since.  Not anymore though, as I think I’ve finally managed to come up with a recipe that just about reproduces it.  It takes a bit of effort, but it’s well worth it for the yummy, creamy, herby goodness that you end up with.  If, like me, you were once a fan, give it a go and see what you think.  If you’ve never heard of it, give it a go anyway.  I think you’ll like it.

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Cream of Herb Soup (à la Knorr Soups of the World)

Rich, creamy soup made with herbs, mushrooms and sweetcorn

Ingredients:

10g dried wild mushrooms

150ml boiling water

3 shallots, diced finely

2 cloves garlic, diced finely

25g butter

50g flat-leaf parsley, chopped

100g frozen spinach (or wilted fresh spinach)

20g basil, chopped

3 or 4 stalks of thyme, leaves stripped from stems

3 or 4 stalks of dill, chopped

500ml vegetable stock

100ml white wine

Bay leaf

170g tinned sweetcorn

150ml double cream

1 tsp lemon juice

Salt and Pepper

Method:

  1. Place dried mushrooms in a bowl and pour over 150ml boiling water.  Set to one side and leave for 30 mins.
  2. Melt the butter in a large pan and sweat the onions and garlic over a medium heat until soft and translucent.
  3. Drain the mushrooms, saving the liquor.  Chop finely, add to the onions and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes.
  4. Add the parsley, basil, spinach, dill, thyme and bay leaf, and cook for a couple of minutes.
  5. Add the white wine and bubble for a minute or so, before adding the veg stock, mushroom liquor and sweetcorn.
  6. Give it a good stir, bring to a simmer and cook for ten minutes.
  7. Remove from the heat, fish out the bay leaf and blend with a plunge blender.  If using a goblet blender, allow to cool first.
  8. Return to a low heat and stir through the double cream.
  9. Add the lemon juice and season to taste.
  10. Heat through, but do not boil.  Serve with crusty bread and some decent cheese.

Note: The soup won’t be completely smooth, which I quite like.  If you want something with fewer bits, try using creamed sweetcorn instead of kernels.

The life theologic – New year, real you

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As a species, we seem to love any opportunity to reminisce and evaluate ourselves.  At the start of each new year we sit down and think about what we’ve done in the past 12 months and try to come up with ways of doing things better in the year to come. Impossible resolutions are fine, because who keeps them anyway?  And surely it’s the thought that counts, right?  We want to be better, even if we don’t manage to achieve it, and that’s the important part, the desire to change and improve.  To be healthier, to learn a new language or spend more time visiting our grandparents.  The spirit is willing, even if the flesh is weak.

Looking back over the last year, I’ve realised that I only wrote nine blog posts.  Nine. That’s not even one per month!  There have been so many posts that I’ve planned, or even written in my head, but that never came into being.

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I meant to write about the magical moment on the 29th of May, in Naples, when I first bit into a sfogliatella and fell in love.  About how I searched high and low for these delicious little pastries in the UK, and almost resorted to baking them myself, even though the pastry requires 2 days and a pasta machine in order to make.

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Then there were the stories of the people I met in Tunis, who were so apologetic about the tragedy at the Bardello museum and spent so long explaining what it really means to be Tunisian, and how the terrorist mentality just does not fit with the Tunisian outlook on life.

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Or the incredible tapas I found at El Tapeo de Cervantes in Malaga, that completely changed both my perception of what tapas should be, and my hatred of dining alone. When food is that good, who cares about the company, or lack thereof?

There have been so many things that I have seen or done or thought this year that I wanted to share, and yet have not.

Thinking about it, I always had the same excuse – I was too busy.  It wasn’t even that I was too busy doing things I love.  I was just too busy, too exhausted by the change of pace that comes when you swap mission for a 9 to 5.  Too busy filling my time with meaningless busyness to stop and think, let alone to write.  What has life come to, when you find yourself too caught up in the day-to-day, to take the time to do the things that make your life worthwhile?

As this new year begins, I don’t want to create a new me.  I don’t want to make resolutions I have no intention of keeping.  I don’t believe that just wanting to be better is enough.  In fact I have no desire to be “better”, especially if the idea of “better” comes from some idealised vision of what the perfect person should be, or how they should behave.

This year, I want to be more like me.  The real me that lies underneath all of the expectation and hype.  The one that God created and loves and values, despite it all.  The one that feels happiest going out wearing jeans that are full of holes, even if everyone else has dressed up.  The one that loves to take the time to write about something she cares about, even if no one else ever reads it.  The one that sings happy songs about peanut butter while she makes her breakfast.  And definitely the one that thinks that playing human hungry, hungry hippos is the most fun you can have on a skateboard.

This is a year to be brave … to be real, all the time, even when people are watching.

The life theologic – There is always more to learn

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Our church was recently visited by a team from Ellel Ministries, who ran a weekend looking at healing and forgiveness.  Having been a part of YWAM for the past 2 years, I was really looking forward to having a large, international team around for the weekend. Don’t get me wrong, Somerset is lovely, but somewhat homogenous, and I miss the diversity that I was surrounded by, both in London and during my time with YWAM. Anyway, apart from being excited by all the foreigners, I went into the weekend with two main preconceptions:  one, that as they were going to be talking about healing and deliverance, it was going to get weird, and two, that I would probably have heard it all before and could just sit back and observe the proceedings.  Basically, I was setting myself up for a weekend of people watching. (How often do we do that in church, on those Sundays when we’re tired and don’t feel like we can muster up the energy to have a proper conversation with God.)

Thankfully, not only did Ellel turn out to be the least weird and wacky ministry team I think I’ve ever experienced (my church is weirder on a weekly basis), but I also really enjoyed the teaching.  Yes, I had heard most of it before, but God still used that time to speak to me in a new way.  I love how He does that, even when we think we know better, or that we already know it all, He still manages to surprise and humble us.  This time it was in the form of a very simple exercise.  We were asked to draw a heart on a piece of paper, and to start writing in it things that God was revealing to us about the good things that He has placed in our hearts, and the things that are not so good. Sounds easy enough, right?

Unfortunately, it is so much easier for most of us to fill that heart with the negative things that we feel about ourselves; the hidden sins and failures that plague our waking hours and act to drive a wedge between us and God.  There were plenty of negative things that I could have written in the heart, but from the moment we started the exercise I was bombarded with such a torrent of good things, that I soon ran out of space to put anything negative.  The more I wrote, the more they kept coming; things I would agree with and things that I couldn’t see in myself, and some things that were difficult for me to write down.  It was like God wanted to use that moment to show me how He sees my heart.  How, because of Jesus, He doesn’t see the bad things that I dwell upon.  He wanted to show me all of the things that He has placed in my heart and is working on growing and developing.  Some of them are still little seedlings, and some are fully fledged trees, but they are all there, whether I accept it or not.  It was an amazing experience.  It’s taken me a long time to learn how to deal with compliments, as they usually make me want to shrink into myself, and here I was, being complimented by God!  And yet, it didn’t make me want to cringe, it made me want to try and live up to the version of me that He sees.

I so easily relapse into dwelling on the bad, only to be reminded by God of the good, that this time I decided to take action.  I decided to record the things He said about me and turn them into something that I would want to look at.  I’m hoping that by looking at them everyday, they will help me to remember who I am, and to think about how God sees me, rather than how the rest of the world does.

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(The eagle-eyed among you will notice that mine is in the shape of Africa, not a heart. That’s for two reasons: one, because I love how Africa is pretty much heart shaped anyway, and two, because Africa is where my heart lies.)

The life artistic – When in Rome (and I mean actually in Rome)

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I often forget that this well known phrase comes with a second part, in which we are instructed to “do as the Romans do.”  I’m not sure that I managed this on my recent visit, as I didn’t meet or see a single Roman while staying in Rome.  Thousands of tourists, and plenty of people attempting to sell them things, but no true Romans.  It was as if the entire city were populated with visitors, and people that were just passing through.  The transience and short attention span of the crowds, the constant parry and riposte between tourist and hawker, and the emptiness of the back streets if you dared to wander away from the tourist trail, gave the entire city a sense of being one giant theme park.  I think that the queues to see the sights might have had something to do with it too …

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Time and again as I walked the streets, dodging raindrops, I would see people taking selfies beside beautiful buildings to prove to the world that they had seen Rome, and would wonder if they really had.  I certainly feel like I barely scratched the surface of the city during my visit.  So much of it felt window-dressed, a show put on to amuse visitors, a facade to hide the realities of what the city is really like and the problems it is facing. Historic squares were packed and bustling, but moving just one block away, the side streets were deserted.  Walking down them felt like sneaking backstage, as if this was the part of Rome that you weren’t supposed to see.  Not that they were unloved, or had the feeling of pure functionality that backstage areas often possess.  Quite the contrary. In fact I wish that all cities had side streets that were quite so beautiful.

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No, they just felt closed off, as if tourists were welcome to come and see the sights, and were certainly welcome to spend their money, but were not welcome to see anything more intimate than that.  Visiting had to be purely transactional – you were there to marvel at Rome, not to become acquainted with its people or its customs.  Visitors were a commodity to be exploited, not potential friends, yet to be made.

And yet, this begs the question of why we have allowed this closing-off to happen to what is arguably, one of the most beautiful and historically important cities on the planet?  Why have we turned it into a place of spectacle, where visitors work their way through a tick-list of monuments, but miss out on the heart of the city; its people?  And who’s fault is it anyway?  Are the people of Rome to be blamed for treating visitors as commodities, or are successive generations of tourists to blame for using and abusing the city, taking away with them cameras full of memories, and leaving behind piles of rubbish?

Personally, I feel that most of the blame lies on the sunburnt shoulders of the tourist, and is a problem that has been developing over centuries.  Tourists are consumers at heart, and so much of the time we chose to consume the sights, the food, the monuments, and overwhelmingly nowadays, the alcohol, of a nation that we visit.  How few of us visit a country with the intention of getting to know the people and their customs, even though they are the lifeblood of every nation?  I am to blame for this as much as anyone.  As an unashamed ancient history geek, I often overlook everything in the pursuit of getting to see an ancient monument.

But I have found that on every occasion in which I take the time to seek out the places less visited, to speak to the locals, to try the food that I can’t pronounce, and to learn about the country or city from those that live there, that I have gained the most.  It is only through attempting to understand a country through the eyes of a local that you can truly form an opinion of it, or truly appreciate it’s beauty or accomplishments.  The cycle of exploitation that exists between tourist and local is not an easy one to escape from, but it is worth trying to rise above.  Only by reaching out to people with an open and inquisitive mind can we learn to love them, and it is only by loving its people that we can truly claim to love a city.

I shall have to return for a longer stay and fight through the crowds of tourists, looking for locals not yet jaded by the transient hordes, because I really really want to be able to say that I love Rome.  Unfortunately, at the moment, I honestly cannot say that I do.

The life scientific – Role models

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Upon hearing the sad news of the death of legendary mathematician, John Nash, and his wife, Alicia, I was struck with an immediate desire to dig out ‘A Beautiful Mind’ from our stack of DVDs.  It seemed like a fitting tribute and celebration of the life of one of the greatest mathematical intellects of our time.  Settling down to start watching, I realised what an amazing thing it is to have a record of his life and works set down as a film, and an award-winning one at that.  It made me wonder if, without it, I would even know who he was?

One of the big struggles that I face in this world of instant celebrity and social media, is the fact that those we seem to celebrate the most are those that seem to have done the least that is worthy of praise.  Why is it that we admire the rich and famous, and what is it that they have actually done to become so in the first place?  Don’t get me wrong, sports stars and actors often have talent in spades, and some make excellent role models, but unfortunately, the majority of those thrust into the public eye are sadly lacking.  Where are the scientists and doctors, lawyers and philosophers, humanitarians and peace-keepers?  Why are there so few people of integrity and character in the limelight?

I know that fame is not for everyone, and that I would hate to be hounded by media if it were me, but I feel like we should at least make an effort to find role models that are worth following.

ten-Boom_CorriePeople like Corrie Ten Boom, who helped to hide hundreds of Jews during the Nazi occupation of Holland, and who later was able to meet and publicly forgive one of the guards that held her in a concentration camp.

Or Professor Molly Stevens of Imperial College, who managed to mix together the fields of biochemistry and engineering to pioneer ways of growing human bone to use for transplants.

amal-alamuddinOr Amal Clooney, who’s actor husband gets all of the attention, but who is a lawyer and activist, working in a field she is clearly gifted in, to bring about change in cases of human rights abuses and genocide.

It makes me wonder what the world would look like if those that did the most for mankind were the ones that we looked up to.  What would this world be like if kindness was rated higher than wealth, and serving the poor was given more prestige than a PhD?  I think it would be a world that I would like to live in.  I would certainly have more hope for it than I do for the current  generation.  We have allowed it to be raised on a diet of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, and will end up reaping the fruits of that decision.