Fugly Cross Buns

I really miss hot cross buns. It’s hard to find a commercial bun that isn’t weirdly non-vegetarian and, even then, all that sugar, fruit, and white flour makes them a fairly poor choice for a bung pancreas. Fortunately I’m willing to spend my time and money on experimental, and often unsuccessful baking and, just this once, I’ve come up with something that, while slightly funny looking, is undeniably delicious. I started with the Edmonds hot cross bun recipe but swapped half the flour for wholemeal and the rest for almond, replaced the fruit with sugar free chocolate chips (the Healtheries ones are not bad), and adjusted the other ingredients to compensate. The resulting buns are soft, flavourful and suitably festive, if a little rough looking.

imageHot Cross Buns

  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 3 teaspoons dried yeast
  • 2 cups ground almonds
  • 2 cups wholemeal flour (a fine or zentrofan ground variety is best if you can find it) plus extra for kneading.
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons mixed spice
  • 1/2 cup Splenda
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla essence
  • 1 tablespoon orange essence
  • 3/4 cup sugar free chocolate chips
  1. Heat milk until almost boiling. Stir in butter and sugar and leave to cool until luke warm.
  2. Sprinkle yeast over milk mixture and leave in a warm place until foamy.
  3. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl and make a well in the centre
  4. Add milk mixture and essences and stir to combine. The dough will look hopelessly sticky at this stage but do not despair.
  5. Mix in chocolate chips.
  6. Dust your work surface with a thick layer of flour. Turn your dough out and dust more flour over the top.
  7. Knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary, until you have a soft dough that springs back when pressed.
  8. Place dough in a oiledbowl, cover (I like to used oiled glad wrap), and leave in a warm place until doubled in size.
  9. Punch dough down and knead lightly. Form into 16 balls and place, not quite touching, in a large, greased tin.
  10. Cover and leave to rise again until doubled in size.
  11. Pipe flour and water paste crosses on top of risen buns if you so desire.
  12. Bake at 200°C for approximately 20 minutes.
  13. Turn out onto a wire rack.

Feed Me (See Me More)

As anyone with special dietary needs can tell you, Christmas comes with an extra special load of food related stress, angst and, often, grief. After 18 months of eating in a way that is mindful of my diabetes (and most of a lifetime of vegetarianism), I have the every day stuff pretty much nailed, but parties, office morning tea shouts, and invitations to restaurants are a whole lot more complex. I loathe having to be that difficult person, and I hate having to draw attention to my chronic (and somewhat stigmatised) condition, and I particularly despise having to exclude myself from social activities, but I do need to prioritise looking after myself. What follows are some things I’ve learned about what does, and does not, help me with social food events. Some of these things are specific to me but, hopefully, many will help no matter what food things your friend is dealing with. 

Don’t ask me what I can eat unless you have a lot of time on your hands. 

My partner is allergic to eggs, just eggs, so he can answer this question in just a few words. My answer is a lot more complex – there are very few foods that are totally off-limits, often it’s a matter of timing, quantity, and combination with other foods and exercise that determines if I can eat a particular food right now. In practice this means that there are some foods I don’t eat because the way it is usually served isn’t compatible with my other requirements. It also means you may see me eating foods I’ve previously refused because I’ve found a way to make it work for that day. 

The best restaurants have their menu online.

Seriously, if I can look at a menu a few days ahead of time, I can figure out what, if anything, I can eat, and plan accordingly. This often means taking a mix and match approach with the menu – can I have the burger without the bun, swap the focaccia for a wholemeal roll, have half the potato and twice the salad? I find most places are really accomodating but, knowing ahead of time that I actually will be able to eat, means I can look forward to your company without panic getting in the way. If I honestly can’t find a way to make a menu work, and it’s a group outing, I’ll probably offer to join you for pre/post- dinner drinks instead. I don’t feel comfortable making a group change plans just for me, on the other hand, if you are regularly choosing places I can’t eat, I might have some questions. 

Tell me what you plan to serve. 

If you are planning to cook me a meal, please let me know what you’re thinking a few days in advance. Chances are that a few simple changes will turn your familiar recipes into something we can all enjoy – maybe you could use wholemeal flour in place of plain, use a different grain instead of rice or buy a different type of cracker for the cheeseboard. I am always happy to bring a contribution to the meal (and will probably over-cater shockingly).

Let me serve myself.

It’s important that I eat foods in the right proportions, and these might not be the proportions you prefer (they’re certainly not always the ones I’d prefer) and I’d really rather not be the guest who picks distainfully through your lovingly prepared dish. It’s most helpful to me if the carbohydrate portion of the meal is separate so I can see exactly how much I’m eating. 

Labels are my friends. 

I know the table looks nicer with everything decanted out of its packaging but it’s really helpful if I can take a squizz at the nutritional info of packaged product. Things like crackers, dips, and dressings can vary wildly in the amount of sugar, fat, and sodium they contain.

Likewise, I’d love it if we could get in the habit of labelling our contributions to potlucks and shared meals. I’m sure I pass lots of lovely things by just because I’m not sure what’s in them and, because I sometimes cook with unexpected ingredients (think chickpeas in chocolate cake or cookies made of ground nuts), I don’t want to be the cause of an unexpected reaction in someone else.

Beware the health halo. 

Lots of foods are labelled in ways that make them sound super healthy but that doesn’t necessarily make them a great choice for me (or anyone). A label that says gluten free, or natural, or organic, or even refined sugar free paleo goodness, is no guarantee that the food has any benefits.

Don’t be offended if I BYO.

I know that for all everyone’s best intentions, things don’t always work out. I also know that there are times I have to eat Right Now (the side effect of eating just what I need and no more is that I can run out of oomph suddenly and dramatically) so there will always be snacks in my bag. Yes, I will be the lady shamelessly scoffing nuts on the street before going into the pub. 

I really want to hang out with you, and I really want for us to be able to share food. Most of all I want this to be as low stress for everyone as possible. The biggest things you can do to help are to give me time and choices. 

Word Order

Word Order

Sounds must go together

Like this:

Consonants and diagraphs 

With the vowels in between

Until you have a word,

And another,

And another. 

Then subjects, objects, verbs, 

All neatly in their place.

Adjectives lined up, 

Just so.

And now, 

Here is a sentence, 

Just born. 

Lying fresh on the page.

Ready to unfurl. 

Losing it.

If you’ve seen me in the last few months you’ll have noticed I’ve lost some weight. I know you’ve noticed because you’ve all remarked upon it and I have probably completely failed to be even slightly gracious about what, I am sure, was intended as a sincere compliment.

The thing is, my weightloss is the outward sign of the fact that I have a chronic condition that is, in part, managed through a strict diet and exercise regime. There is quite a lot of stress and grief associated with such a diagnosis and I don’t always relish the reminder. My changing form isn’t a bonus, a silver lining, or something to be envied. I don’t feel better, because I never felt unwell (all this effort is about staving off future damage), and I was perfectly content with the way I looked. Ironically, if my diabetes was left untreated for long enough, it would also have caused me to lose weight.

I’ve won a lot of kudos for the effort I’ve put into following my diet plan and exercising regularly but, this too, is double edged. The parts of my psyche that keep me on track are not the best parts. My twin demons of anxiety and perfectionism are having a wonderful time with this. With some effort I’m mostly keeping everything in balance but, given enough food, those bastards can take me to some very dark places.

Learning to manage my diabetes is an ongoing and, frankly, exhausting process. The best way you can help is to make it as small an issue as you can. Please share a joke, notice my work, compliment my remarkable intellect, but leave my waist measurement out of it.

I Will Love Aladdin Sane.

Over the last week or so I made a series of Facebook posts featuring eight David Bowie songs. They’re not necessarily his best known or most acclaimed tracks but they are the songs that have resonated with me the most – the ones that have gotten me through the hard times, connected with my interests or sparked a new way of seeing the world. 

Because I’m still sad and because the music helps even while it reminds me why I’m sad, I propose to do a series of posts on Bowie Songs and What They Mean To Me. Aladdin Sane was the song that turned me from a girl with a crush to a true fan. I remember listening to it over and over in the dark when I was meant to be asleep. There’s the rhythm section driving it relentlessly forward, but the vocal line wavers, uncertain, full of mystery and questions. And then there’s Mike Garson’s tremendous piano, manic and off-kilter, weaving round the saxophone. It’s beautiful and exciting and not at all comfortable.

My next Very Important Bowie Piece is Warszawa. It’s slow and solemn, underpinned by what sounds like the toll of a distant bell, the melody lifts briefly but never quite takes off, there’s hope here perhaps but the vocals, which are sparse and in no human language, are anguished. This was the perfect soundtrack for teenaged brooding and is still a place I like to lose myself in. Turn up the volume, close your eyes and let your mind go.

Word on a Wing has always intrigued me. It’s a prayer, a hymn, a cry for help, and, unusually for Bowie’s work at that time, can be read as deeply personal. The song starts off hesitantly, just anadorned piano, before the rhythm section join in, pushing it along to something approaching purpose. At first blush the lyrics sound like a supplicants prayer “My prayer flies like a word on a wing/ Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?” But there’s not a lot of submission going on here as he goes on to sing “I’m alive in you…and I’m ready to shape the scheme of things.” This sounds like neither an acceptance nor rejection of faith but of a man embroiled in the messy business of figuring out where he stands.

Strangers When We Meet appears, in different versions, on two of my favourite albums (The Buddha of Suburbia and Outside). With it’s riff straight from Gimme Some Lovin’ it is, far and away, the most accessible track on the wonderfully odd Outside. This is the song I played on repeat when I was working on getting over a particularly ill-considered love affair. The line “All your regrets ride roughshod over me” was particularly resonant.

This is the song that got me through my teenage years and the song I want played at my funeral. Rock and Roll Suicide starts with musings about mortality set against suspiciously folky guitar before rising on soaring strings to bring a message of hope and comfort. Listen with tear-streaked cheeks and outstretched arms. I promise it will make you feel better.

Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone

Two Ziggy Stardust tracks in a row and it’s not even my favourite album! Reportedly written about Marc Bolan, the appeal of this one is simple – it captures the feeling of being a fan. Oh how I sighed when they asked if I knew his name.

When I was 12 and starting to show an interest in science fiction my father dragged me to the library and made them fetch two books, Brave New World, and 1984 out of the stacks for me. Both books fascinated me and have stayed with me ever since. Diamond Dogs arose, to an extent, from an attempt (foiled, I believe, by the author’s estate) to write a musical based on 1984. We Are The Dead is the track which contains the most traces of the source material. It features weird, cut-up lyrics, an odd structure that consist of two different verse shapes and no real chorus, and a whole lot of atmosphere.

It seems fitting to conclude this series with a track from Bowie’s final album, Blackstar.

I’m pretty sure I would have come to the Kubrick directed films (and their associated novels) 2001 and A Clockwork Orange by myself or with my father’s guidance, had there been no Bowie connection but knowing the profound influence these works had had on my hero meant that experiencing them for myself became a matter of urgency. One of the few rows I recall my parents having was over my Dad’s wish to take 15 year old me to a screening of the R rated A Clockwork Orange. Mum’s pleas to legality meant I had to content myself with rereading the book for a few more years. One of the chief pleasures of A Clockwork Orange, for me, is its use of the invented argot Nadsat, where the reader or viewer is forced to learn the language to follow the story. Girl Loves Me is written in a mix of Nadsat and Polari (a British slang mainly used by homosexual men) and contains a 1984 reference to boot, all of which delights me. It might be a stretch to say this song brings full circle a career that took off with the Kubrik inspired Space Oddity, but I am quite pleased to see those early influences resonating right to the end. The sensitive should note that this song is spiky, urgent, and contains several fuck words.

Ain’t That Just Like Me

It was May 1987 and I was 13 years old. I was awkwardly unsure of who I was, awkwardly positioned between girl and woman, awkwardly stuck in a small provincial city, at a school I was struggling to find my place in. Labyrinth had just arrived at our cinema (no worldwide releases in those days) and its accompanying featurette was on my tv screen. I didn’t really know who this David Bowie was and I wasn’t aware of knowing any of his music (I did, I just didn’t know it was him singing.) The scenes from the movie were captivating and I’d long admired Jim Henson, but it was the interviews with Bowie (particularly the one starting around 4.48, about Dance Magic) that reached out and grabbed me. Yes, even with the incongruous eyebrows, he was remarkably beautiful but, more than that, he was articulate, witty, self deprecating, and so, so clever. “I think I might have a go at having a crush on him,” I thought.

I saw the movie the next evening, with my mum because all my friends were busy, and we walked home under a ridiculous full moon, holding on to the magic for just a little longer. And then I began looking for more. I scoured magazines for the briefest mention and listened to the radio constantly hoping to hear his songs. I bought the Labyrinth  soundtrack almost immediately, of course, and then Never Let Me Down. That latter might not stack up against the rest of his catalogue (though, having lost my copy to an unfortunate boyfriend in 1992, it’s hard for me to verify) but, to my ears that were used to the most bland of radio friendly pop, it was a revelation. For my birthday someone gave me a cassette copy of the Chameleon compilation and, as I listened to Mike Garson’s wild piano line in Aladdin Sane, it was as if something shifted in me.

Being a Bowie fan at school in the late 80s didn’t exactly decrease my sense of being out of step with my peers. I did find a couple of fellow travellers but most people’s reactions boiled down to either “Eew, he’s really old,” or “Eww, isn’t he gay?” 

The teen years are the time when we figure out all sorts of ideas around identity and sexuality and I’m profoundly grateful that I stumbled upon Bowie at that stage of my life. Sure, many of the biographies I read  (and there were a lot of them) were remarkably salacious but the lessons I took from him, that gender can be played with, sexuality is fluid, and it all can, and should, be celebrated, stand up pretty well. I’ve always considered intellect and wit to be the sexiest characteristics a person can possess and I can’t tell if Bowie is the cause or effect of that.

As one ages, obsession wanes, I no longer have the teenager’s ability to instantly recall every fact about a subject, but love, respect and admiration go on. Each note is ingrained in my psyche and yet I can listen to the songs again and again and still find new layers of meaning. David Bowie is part of who I am and the fact that I can go on when he is no longer seems impossible.

Not Quite a Resolution.

A year ago I was hoping that 2015 would be easier than the years that preceded it. It’s quite tricky, when you get to the end of a year, to weigh and measure and to proclaim it good, or bad. This year has certainly had some tough stuff in it, my diabetes diagnosis, a death and some illness amongst our extended family and friends, but there were also some times when we were able to step out of crisis mode and just live our lives.

I spent New Year’s Eve in a manner that many more of my days should, ideally, be spent – I had lunch with one of my oldest and dearest friends, and saw the new year in with another, equally dear, friend and her family. The day was filled with talking, and laughing, and music, and so, so much hugging and kissing.

I tend to be rather hermit like in my habits. I am prone to, thankfully usually mild, social anxiety and this has combined with a couple of recent incidents (which were almost certainly merely accidental oversights) to leave me feeling rather awkward of late. It is easy for me to slip into a cycle where I feel unsure of myself and, in trying not to be too needy or overwhelming, appear aloof instead. Yesterday taught me that I am wanted, and loved, and that this sort of friendship is something I need more of.

I’m superstitiously leary of making actual resolutions but, by saying this publicly, I hope to remember that the world has lovely people in it, that my life is richer and happier for knowing those people, and that I can, and should, spend time with the people I love, and trust that they will love me back.